For July 4, Independence Day in the United States, we’re drinking Boilermakers. After all, nothing says “Happy Birthday, America!” better than a shot of whiskey and a beer. Yes, the Boilermaker drink is that simple. Not exactly an adult beverage with an exacting recipe or great sophistication. It’s seemingly as old-school as you can get, and that’s why we like it to mark this most basic of U.S. holidays.
There isn’t even a particular Boilermaker drink recipe, it’s largely a matter of what bottle(s) you decide to pull out and what beer you have. Sure, there are combinations that are better than others, and it need not be whiskey. Feeling like Tequila? No problem, we have that covered below.
Boilermaker is the North American name for a shot of whiskey accompanied by or dropped into a glass of beer. Both these ingredients were made in the earliest days of the United States, so one would think it emerged there. But according to consummate drink historian David Wondrich that’s not the case.
As he explains in The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, the Boilermaker drink came to American drinking later than the basic cocktail as we outlined with the Improved Whiskey Cocktail on World Cocktail Day. The definition of the word “cock-tail” was published in 1806. That’s early American drinking.
Through most of the 19th century Americans chased their shots of whiskey with a glass of water, not a beer. An American visiting Scotland in 1846 was shocked when both whiskey and beer were set in front of him. Fifty years later the New York Herald published a story about a man ordered “beer n’ whisky” side by side in a saloon. This apparently drew real consternation.
But habits changed as German and central European immigrants arrived. The idea of whiskey and beer together started to seem less crazy. After all, it was an established practice back in the Old World. But these ingredients were not commonly mixed. When that happened, the mixture wasn’t known as a Boilermaker. It was either the Bohemian Cocktail, Rough Rider or Puddler’s Cocktail.
Sometime in the 1930s the unmixed combination got the name we use today. But it was first called the Boilermaker and His Helper. The term boilermaker denoted a skilled industrial worker, who was often accompanied by extra muscle. This caught on, and by the 1940s the drink was simply known as the Boilermaker. But it still wasn’t widespread, with columnist Billy Rose having to explain it as “straight rye with a beer chaser.”
Choices for making the Boilermaker
By the 1950s it became common to drop the shot glass of whiskey into the beer. This was called the Depth Bomb or Depth Charge. The Boilermaker, thinking of it classically for a holiday, does not require this mixing. We like to simply toss back the shot and drink the beer. But you do you, either way is alright.
Now, just what Boilermaker you’ll make to celebrate a holiday has a lot of wiggle room. Nowadays the Boilermaker is sometimes a menu item in bars and the combinations have become more imaginative than whiskey and beer. After sending out the Bat Signal to the bartender community we have learned of specific bartender favorites and recommend the following:
- Bourbon or Rye Whiskey with Miller High Life or Pabst Blue Ribbon. This is about as American as you can get, but no points off if you use your craft beer of choice.
- Cocchi Americano and Hefeweisen.
- Irish Whisky and Guinness. Hey, if it grows together it goes together.
- Genever and a Pilsner. This is traditional in the Netherlands, where it’s known as kopstooje, or “little headbutt.”
- Acquavit and Cider. Cider was big in Colonial America. That’s why we mixed the Stone Fence for the Boston Massacre.
- Campari and Stiegel Radler. Stiegel Radler is a brand of mixed beer drink, a mix of beer and grapefruit juice.
- Applejack or Apple Brandy and Oatmeal Stout.
- Aperol and Miller High Life.
- Blanco Tequila and Tecate beer.
- Coconut Rum and dry Irish Stout.
We prefer to drop the shot into the beer if it holds a low-ABV component like Cocchi Americano, Aperol or Campari. With distilled spirits we like to keep the shot separate. Either way, it’s still a Boilermaker in our book.
These suggestions are just starters. Go ahead, exercise your independence and combine whatever you like. For that matter, go ahead and make a Pickleback skiping the beer entirely if you’re so inclined.