A shot and a beer. A half ‘n half. A boilermaker. Though it goes by many names, the pairing of whiskey and beer is a cherished tradition that dates back to the 1800s.
“In the 80’s a boilermaker was a shot you dropped in your beer and drank down in one,” says John Young, a bartender and FEW Spirits brand ambassador in the UK. “Now they are more deconstructed and the whiskey is served in a nice glass on the side of a pint or bottle of craft beer.”
Whether you up-end the shot and chase it with a beer, alternately sip each, or dump the contents of said shot glass into your pint, a well-done boilermaker proves that beer and whiskey are kind of meant to be.
“Beer goes well with whiskey because, essentially, whiskey is distilled beer – it comes from the same ingredients, and you have that very similar backbone,” says Molly Gunn, owner of the Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta. Molly, who herself prefers the alternating sip method, says a shot and a beer shouldn’t have the same frat-bar party rep as, say, a Jagerbomb. “If you care about the flavors, a boilermaker can be a very enjoyable thing.” (And just for the record: we all know that whole “beer before liquor” thing is a myth, right?)
Barman Erick Castro says he approaches boilermakers the same way he does cocktails: “When I'm creating a boilermaker, I think you should be putting just as much thought into it, because essentially you are creating a new flavor profile, a combination that didn't exist before.”
Beer and whiskey are soulmates, but it can’t always be love at first sight.”
He would know: one of the bars in his portfolio is New York’s own Boilermaker. Erick says the right beer-booze combo can be almost more dynamic than a cocktail – ”it's like a venn diagram of flavor that keeps shifting in real time,” he says. As in, each sip is totally different, depending how much whiskey is still hanging out in your mouth when you take that next guzzle of beer (or vice versa).
But it’s not as simple as slamming a glass of Crown down next to your Milwaukee’s Best. “In order to have a good pairing, you have to start with a good whiskey and a good beer,” Erick says. He cautions that this definitely doesn’t guarantee a good boilermaker – but it’s a pretty important start.
Sometimes, similar flavor profiles work well together, and sometimes, they’re incredibly boring. Sometimes, contrast is key; other times, that can be garishly clashing. In other words, finding the middle ground is key.
“What I'm looking for is to pair flavors that have commonalities but aren't too similar,” he says. “They need to have some variation to make it interesting.”
Beer and whiskey are soulmates, but it can’t always be love at first sight. Here are a few pairings that, like the best marriages, draw out each other’s very best qualities.
Saison + Oban 14-Year Scotch
Molly loves both tart Saisons and smoky Scotches – and when you put the two together, you get one of her favorite (albeit unusual) boilermaker combinations.
“I love a crisp, sour saison that's kind of lemony and funky, but then I'll get a really funky Scotch that's got a lot of smoke going on, for contrast,” she says, adding that the pairing makes Scotch more drinkable in the summer and saison more winter-appropriate.
She recommends pairing something like Jealousy & Murder, a Burial and Blackberry Farms collaboration saison, with a smooth Scotch like Oban 14.
Saison + Paddy Irish Whiskey
Erick says the gentle, sweet maltiness of Paddy Irish Whiskey is a perfect fit for a sour saison like The Bruery’s Saison Rue.
Belgian quad + Hillrock Solera Bourbon
Molly says Belgian tripels and quads are an underrated match for whiskey.
“They have that nice sweetness that can be very complimentary, especially if you're doing a higher-proof bourbon or whiskey,” she says. “Because they're sweet, they cover that alcohol harshness.”
She recommends pairing something like Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel with a bourbon like Hillrock Solera. “It’s very balanced, it's done in a solera system so not one aspect of the whiskey sees any particular length of time, so it doesn't taste super barrel-y... I think that would complement a quadrupel well, as opposed to something super oaky.”
Brown ale + Redbreast 12-Year
Some might see just a brown ale and whiskey in this duo; Erick sees dessert.
“I really love brown ales, and with a lot of brown ales, you get caramel, you get brown sugar, you get those almost oatmeal-y flavors,” he says. “With Redbreast 12-year, you're getting dried fruits, ginger, I get raisins from it.”
The result, according to Erick: oatmeal cookies, with a boozy kick.
Coffee Stout + Jameson Black Barrel
If there were such a thing as a breakfast boilermaker, this would be it. San Diego-based Alesmith makes their opaque black Speedway Stout with coffee, resulting in what Erick calls a “profoundly deep” coffee flavor. When combined with a whiskey like the Jameson Black Barrel, he says, the results are reminiscent of a deconstructed Irish coffee.
“The Black Barrel brings some vanilla and a little bit of baking spice, and then you combine that with the coffee in the Speedway Stout,” he explains. “That's my favorite combo on this list.”
IPA + FEW Bourbon
After experimenting with a range of IPA’s, lagers and pilsners in combination with FEW, John says they found that the maltiness of the IPA worked the best with bourbon.
“The whiskey has enough spice to stand up to the malt in the beer,” he says, “and has cherries and chocolate that goes very well with the IPA.” A nod to the brand’s Midwestern roots, he opts for Goose Island IPA in a combination he calls the Chicago Boilermaker.
Cider + Powers Gold Label
I know, I know: cider isn’t technically a beer. But I’d be remiss to leave out this dessert-worthy suggestion from Erick.
“With Powers, you get intense spice, cinnamon, a little bit of green fruit, all these baking spices... when you combine that with apple, it's essentially just like apple pie.”