A boilermaker is about as simple as a cocktail gets. Traditionally, a boilermaker is defined as a shot of liquor, usually whiskey, served alongside or sometimes in a beer. It remains a very popular drink, thanks in part to the infinite pairing possibilities between whiskey and beer styles.
Some suggest the drink gets its name from its popularity among literal boilermakers, the 19th-century tradesmen who fabricated iron boilers for steamships and steam locomotives. As the legend goes, to cap off a day of work, they would ask for a beer and a shot of whiskey at their neighborhood bars.
The practice persisted for generations and is still a post-work happy hour favorite today, even if some modern drinkers are apt to ask for a beer and a shot, rather than call the cocktail by its name.
How to Serve a Boilermaker
Many bars will serve a can, bottle or draft beer alongside a shot glass of whiskey. Some people will shoot their liquor before chasing it with the beer. Others will slowly sip the two beverages side by side.
What most modern bartenders generally don’t suggest, however, is dropping a shot of whiskey into a beer and chugging it.
“I’m a grown-up and I serve grown-ups,” says Michael Neff, bar director at Bar Loretta in San Antonio, Texas. “I wouldn’t serve it that way even if someone asked.”
Your goal, instead, should be to enjoy and savor the pairing, he says.
“It’s easy. It’s delicious. And you have thousands of possibilities that you can combine. There’s always been a great resonance between whiskey and beer, and the boilermaker highlights that,” says Neff.
If you really want to mix the two, ask for an empty glass to create your own combination. This is standard practice at London Underground in Ames, Iowa, where bartenders serve boilermakers with an empty glass for this very purpose, says Darian Everding, the bar’s product and talent development specialist.
Popular Boilermaker Combinations
Boilermaker combinations are endless. You can either strive to complement similar flavor notes of your beer and liquor, or contrast or cut them with tried-and-true flavor combinations like sweet plus sour, says Timo Torner, founder at Cocktail Society, a digital cocktail community.
Your boilermaker can also be as affordable or top shelf as you want it.
“Good bartenders are going to steer people toward enjoying a really good whiskey and a really well-crafted beer,” says Colin Asare-Appiah, trade director for multicultural and LGBTQ+ advocacy for Bacardi and co-author of Black Mixcellence: A Comprehensive Guide to Black Mixology. He likes to pair a Guinness barrel-aged stout with a shot of either Angel’s Envy or Basil Hayden whiskey.
Guinness’ original stout is a popular choice for boilermakers. Neff likes to pair his with Slane Irish Whiskey, while Torner prefers it alongside Eagle Rare 10.
Other boilermakers Torner suggests are Lagavulin 16 with Feral Smoked Porter, Teeling Small Batch Whiskey with Coopers Pale Ale, GlenDronach 12 with Gaffel Kolsch, Jameson with Berliner Kindl Weisse Raspberry and, for a democratic option, Wild Turkey 101 with Blue Moon Belgian White.
Looking to create a boilermaker with a macro lager? Neff likes Jack Daniel’s with a Miller High Life or Widow Jane 10 with Miller Lite, while Everding prefers Wild Turkey 101 with Miller High Life.
If you ask for a bartender’s favorite boilermaker combination, you may get to learn about great local breweries or spirits you’ve never heard of before.
“Be experimental, play with things,” says Everding. Some of her favorite beer-and-whiskey boilermakers are Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or with Exile Brewing Company’s Ruthie Lager, Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon with Peace Tree Blonde Fatale and Basil Hayden Dark Rye with Samuel Smith Organic Chocolate Stout.
Boilermakers Without Whiskey
Don’t feel limited to whiskey and beer, either. Everding especially enjoys pairing cinnamon whiskey with hard ciders.
“Cognac is my favorite spirit, and I’m always trying to find ways to pair it with things,” says Jesse Cyr, beverage director at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle and its speakeasy, Founders Club. “Most Cognacs have some level of complex fruit aromas to them, which works well with the rich and creamy flavors of a lot of porters. What’s not to love about pairing fruit with chocolate? It’s a great combination.”
Cyr also sometimes likes to sip a shot of mezcal alongside a gose or sour beer.
“This style of beer lends itself well to mezcal,” he says. “The smoke and minerality really gets emphasized by the acid, and there’s usually a bit of a saline element in the beer which really makes all the tasty mezcal flavors pop. This dream combo is reminiscent of a mezcal margarita.”