Written by: Ken Garrett
As a kid, I loved those old black and white film noir, detective thrillers where Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum would, inevitably, end up in a bar somewhere - usually with hat and trench coat still on - drowning their sorrows.
If it wasn’t a straight shot of whisky (rye or bourbon), then it was a boilermaker. I had no idea what a boilermaker was, but if these blokes were drinking them, then they must be cool. At the time, I thought the epitome of being an adult was to sit in a dimly lit bar by yourself, knocking back boilermakers. To be fair, I was only seven or eight.
Many years later, when I could legally sit in one of these bars had I wished to, I discovered that a boilermaker was an American beer/whisky cocktail - basically a mix of the two. It seemed a rather odd mix, neither one thing or the other and possibly a waste of both.
Naturally, as alcohol is involved, there are various permutations and combinations, and aficionados will swear blind that theirs is the only way a boilermaker should be consumed. Some mix the two. Some prefer to follow their beer with a shot of whisky. Others use the beer as a chaser, though if that is your preferred method, anything less than knocking off the entire whisky in a single go is considered poor form. A further version on mixing the two is the ‘depth charge’, where the entire shot glass is dropped into the beer. Others sip from a beer, slowly replacing the consumed portion with their whisky.
Boilermakers originated in Butte, Montana in the 1890s, where they were first known as a Sean O’Farrell (other names included ‘citywide specials’ and ‘two-steps’). They were served to miners on completion of their shifts.
England had its own version but that was usually a mix of a couple of different types of beers/ales. The Scots have a ‘half and half’, which involves enjoying the beer next to a whisky, moving back and forth between the two. The Irish have the delightfully named Irish Car Bomb, in which Irish Cream and whiskey are mixed in a shot glass, which is dropped into a stout. And you can bet that someone somewhere is immediately saying, “no, there is a better way,” for everything here. Such is the way with cocktails the world over.
There are numerous other spirit/beer pairings around the globe – vodka, gin, Korean soju, brandy and others all feature.
The first recorded appearance of the Boilermaker in Australia was shortly after the Second World War in King’s Cross, where the newspapers of the day noted its consumption at a party given by a local ‘theatre artist’, Mrs Littlejohn. It must have made quite the impression as the legend insists that Mrs Littlejohn woke up the next day, under a rug. Now that might not seem so extreme, but the rug was on the deck of an American trawler headed for New Zealand.
So is all this merely a way to get alcohol into the system as quickly as possible or is there more to it? In fairness to the combination, there are some similarities between beer and whisky – they are, in general, both the result of grains, yeasts and water. Indeed, there is an argument that you could call whisky ‘distilled beer’.
Brewers have taken advantage of the potential pairing by using casks from various distilleries in which to age their beers and ales. Harviestoun Ola Dubh 18 spends time in casks from Orkney’s Highland Park Distillery. Tennent’s have used Speyside Single Malt Whisky infused oak for flavour. The BrewDog Paradox Jura is aged in casks previously used for Isle of Jura whisky. There are numerous examples. And even wine has got into the act with the Jacob’s Creek ‘Double Barrel’ spending time in standard wine barrels, followed by a stint in old whisky barrels. The advertising uses narration from Chris Hemsworth – perhaps they drink it on Asgard.
Needless to say, if a human is combining two items to eat, drink or even to just consider, someone else will be experimenting to see if they can raise that match to a higher level. No longer is beer and whisky an end-of-day wind-down drink with mates. Nowadays, the Boilermaker is a form of art. Now, it is a culinary and gustatory experience and there are, of course, as any quick glimpse at the Internet will reveal, more possible combinations, Horatio… Those miners in Butte would be so proud. Or confused.
Some possibilities. A blended Canadian rye with either a rich stout or a ginger-flavoured beer. An Irish whiskey with a touch of nuttiness, like Jameson’s, with a nutty brown ale, but if you prefer an easier style of Irish whiskey, a lighter wheat beer might be the go. Your favourite Islay malt with a smoky German rauchbier – rauchbier uses grains smoked over beechwood so that should make it an ideal match for those alluring peaty malt whiskies from Islay (yes, I fully understand those who might feel that simply enjoying your favourite Islay unadorned is not the worst thing that will ever happen).
A pale ale with a corn-dominated Kentucky bourbon (worth noting that a number of those who specialise in matching beer and whisky suggest avoiding IPAs as they rarely work). The fruity style of Speyside whiskies might appeal to a more fruity beer or perhaps a strongly malt-flavoured one. Blended whiskies? So many varying styles mean endless options.
Personally, think along the same lines as you would when matching food and wine. Consider the weight of each, as it always helps to ensure that they are not out of alignment – light with light, heavy with heavy. Comparable flavours is the easiest and most common way to go and likely to be the most successful. Smoky with smoky, chocolate with chocolate (so a rich stout with a caramel-flavoured bourbon might be worth a shot) and fruity with fruity. And so it goes.
Then, take a risk and try for contrasting matches. This is more difficult but can be rewarding – think Roquefort and Yquem. Some swear by a fresh, light beer with a heavy, smoky Islay whisky. If you wish, you can experiment for the rest of your life. If you think that you might ever go too far, one can now find pickle brine beers which allow one to replicate the Pickleback – a shot of whisky immediately followed by a sip of pickle brine.
Next time you encounter a barman (or mixologist, if they think they are really good), why not put them to the test? Pick a whisky or a beer and see what they can come up with (and if you are not sure about the results, ask yourself what would Bogie think).
The traditional Boilermaker now finds itself far from the realms of the blue-collar bar and some of our trendiest establishments pride themselves on their versions of Boilermakers. Boilermaker House in Melbourne for example, is the Mecca – devoted to this very pairing.
Of course, once you find some good combinations then the next task is to match them with food. Or if you are George Thorogood - a bourbon.