What is a Boilermaker? A Brief History and the Best Boilermaker Combos

Even if you’ve never ordered it by name, you’re probably familiar with a boilermaker. At its simplest, a boilermaker is a beer and a shot, taken together, in one of a few different ways.

See? We told you.

What was once seen as a plebeian drink for the lower classes has, of course, grown in popularity. You can find boilermakers on menus across the country from the dive-iest of dive bars to high-end cocktail bars.

But how did this simple pairing come to be named a boilermaker? Is there a right way to drink it? What kind of shot do you take with your beer?

The History of the Boilermaker

The story of how the shot and a beer combo came to be named a boilermaker is murky at best. In short, no one really knows. There are two main camps, though, when it comes to the boilermaker’s origin story.

The more prevalent story first popped up in the early- to mid-1800s and centers around literal boilermakers — the hardworking men who built and maintained boilers for trains and ships — and their go-to drink after a long day of backbreaking labor.

what is a boilermaker
Irish whiskey and stout. Sam Slaughter/The Manual

It makes sense when you think about it. After a minimum of eight (though probably more) hours, working in intense heat and dirt, the first thing you need is something to take away the pain in your weary joints, followed by something to slake your thirst. Down goes the whiskey, down goes the beer. Repeat. In many ways, this is how porters came to be known as porters; the beer style was popular with the porters that worked the docks in London.

Another popular theory, according to the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, states that the name comes from one specific man, a Cornish blacksmith named Richard Trevithick. The brotherhood writes:

“In 1801, on Christmas night in the Cornwall village of Cambourne, he set out to test his latest invention, a steam-propelled road vehicle.

One thing is for certain: A true boilermaker consists of a shot of whiskey paired with a beer.

Trevithick’s vehicle succeeded in climbing the hill into the village carrying the inventor and some of his friends. When they reached a pub at the top of the hill, they parked the vehicle in a shed and went inside to celebrate their success in holiday season style.

As the celebration continued, everyone forgot about the fire in the vehicle’s boiler. It continued to burn until the water ran dry. When the party was over, they discovered that the wooden structural members had caught fire and the vehicle was reduced to a mass of tangled scrap.”

A much more interesting story, for sure, but is it true? We may never know.

One thing is for certain: A true boilermaker consists of a shot of whiskey paired with a beer. As you’ll see below, it doesn’t have to be limited to whiskey, but in the historical sense, that’s what a boilermaker was and continues to be in most circles. It must be noted, though, that in the United Kingdom, a boilermaker can also refer to a mix of two beers – a brown ale and a mild – in equal proportions.

Now that we know the “history” of the drink, it’s time to talk about how one goes about drinking a boilermaker.

How to Drink a Boilermaker

There’s a lot more to drinking a boilermaker than meets the eye. Below, you’ll find four different variations, all of which are technically right as far as boilermakers go:

  1. Drink the whiskey, then chug the beer until it’s gone.
  2. Drink the whiskey, sip the beer until it’s gone.
  3. Drop the whiskey in a half-full pint, then chug until its gone.
  4. Pour whiskey into a bottle or can of beer, then sip or chug.

No. 3 might sound very familiar if you’re a fan of the Jägerbomb. That particular method (pictured above)— while known as a boilermaker to some — is also called a bomb shot, a depth charge, or a drop shop. These get their names from dropping the liquor into the beer. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Best Boilermaker Pairings

While the classic boilermaker is a shot of whiskey and a beer, people have been experimenting with the type of whiskey or beer, as well as different spirits. In fact, in many countries where whiskey is not prevalent, the equivalent of a boilermaker is served with the spirit that is most popular. In Germany, that would be a spirit named korn. In The Netherlands, you’ll get it with genever. The idea of a beer and a shot is a universal thing, and for that, we love it.

Here are pairings that we think go well together. From whiskey to gin, we’ve got you covered.

Whiskey

  • Bourbon and American pilsner
  • Rye whiskey and light lager
  • Irish whisky and stout
  • Islay Scotch whisky and rauchbier (smoked beer)
  • Blended Scotch whisky and märzen
what is a boilermaker 3
Rye whiskey and light lager. Sam Slaughter/The Manual

Agave spirits

  • Mezcal and dry cider
  • Blanco tequila and Mexican lager
  • Reposado tequila and amber lager

Rum

  • Gold rum and Caribbean lager
  • Dark rum and porter
  • Coconut rum and dry Irish stout
boilermaker
London dry gin and IPA. Sam Slaughter/The Manual

Gin

  • London dry gin and IPA
  • American Gin and west coast IPA
  • Old Tom gin and Vienna lager

Miscellaneous

  • Banana liquor and hefeweizen
  • Apple Brandy and stout
  • Amaro and IPA

Vodka

As a neutral spirit, vodka can technically go with any beer. If you’re looking at flavored vodkas, then think what sort of beers you’ve seen the flavor used in (or what kind of beer has a contrasting flavor). For example, if you have a raspberry vodka, consider a wheat beer, as the fruit flavor would mix well with the characteristics of the beer. A fun combination that features contrasting flavors would be pepper vodka and a chocolate stout.

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