There’s something perversely satisfying in the pairing of hard spirit and cold beer. It’s a combination so utterly lacking in frills that makes absolutely no concessions for those who desire elegance, nor any effort to conceal its base identity. It is what it is, and it does what it should. Often in life the simplest pleasures are the greatest, and this time-honoured duo serves just one, honest, carnal purpose: inebriation.
Beer has been the bedfellow of many a spirit over the years. The Norwegians have long chased nips of their native aquavit with a brew, affording temporary relief from an otherwise eye-wateringly ferocious drinking experience. A related tradition exists in Russia: yorsh is a heady combination of beer and vodka, suited to social settings and designed to be mixed and downed. Mexicans are well known to enjoy tequila with seasoned, ice-cold beer in the form of a michelada, and in Australia rum is served with the frothy stuff as the so-called brindabella. The hauf ’n’ hauf, a Scottish tradition harking back to the country’s industrial heritage, refers to a half pint of ale – generally a heavy – with a dram of Scotch. The Dutch arguably boast the most frivolous embodiment of the concept, though: a kopstootje, a tulip-shaped glass of genever served alongside a glass of beer. The two are intended to be sipped simultaneously. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s any less potent for its elegant pretention, though – kopstootje literally means ‘little headache’, and it’s an easy route to one of those.
It’s in North America, though, that the tradition of combining spirit and beer has become most synonymous and most deeply embedded in culture. Time was the North American bar was considered a cornerstone of democracy to the working class – a place where working men would go to drink and, by extension, get drunk. To this end few phrases struck a more macho chord, heralded a bigger slap on the back, or signalled a surer opening of the hatches, than that all-American holler, “Barkeep: a shot and a beer!”
Those who gave rise to this pairing’s cult moniker were those who most patronised the drink: boilermakers, a catch-all used to denote not only makers of industrial boilers but blue-collar workers in general – blacksmiths, ironmongers, shipbuilders, locomotive engineers, and so on. Precisely when and where it was given its name, however, remains a hotbed of contention, something blue-collar trade body, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, itself concedes.
That’s not to say that romanticised yarns haven’t ever surfaced, though. One roundabout suggestion, proposed by the Brotherhood, is that the inspiration for the Boilermaker didn’t actually come from North America, but instead from across the Atlantic in the English county of Cornwall – before the word ‘boilermaker’ even appeared. There, a local inventor and engineer named Richard Trevithick, known to be something of a dab hand when it came to steam mechanics, completed work on a prototype road locomotive called the ‘Puffing Devil’. During one of its first demonstrations the locomotive broke down. Irked by the mishap, Trevithick and his associates made their way to a nearby public house and began drinking. Unfortunately they had forgotten to extinguish the fire in the locomotive’s boiler. The water soon boiled off, and the fire began to spread. By the time Trevithick and his associates exited the public house, worse for wear, their locomotive was in much the same state.
Whether or not the group of steam enthusiasts were drinking shots and beer together in that public house is unclear, but the yarn was enough to inspire the suggestion that this very combination reflected the perils of a good time gone bad. Just as Trevithick got things off to a promising start only to be met with ultimate destruction, so too can overzealous steaming-off with a few beers result in a similar scenario when hard spirits join the party.
If this sounds like a pessimistic genesis, things only get worse. While Trevithick was presumably met with a blinding headache and a pile of scrap metal the following morning, at least he wasn’t met with the prospect of having to clamber down a mineshaft thousands of feet below ground to begin working vein after vein of copper in dark, damp and cramped conditions. Such was the reality for the majority of the male residents of Butte, Montana across the Atlantic towards the end of the 19th century.
“Shift workers would live around the factories and would go into these to drink Boilermakers. It might be at seven in the morning or seven in the evening – it was absolutely a working-class thing.”
As The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink argues, this was the real birthplace of the Boilermaker. Long days spent labouring in such an environment left little time or indeed desire for luxury of any sort. What was needed at the end of it all was a quenching pick-me-up, and one that delivered on its promise fast. The combination of whiskey (likely bourbon, Canadian or American blended) and beer more than fitted the bill: unadorned, it simultaneously slaked thirst and achieved inebriation. What’s more, some miners reckoned that the whiskey actually cut the copper dust they had inhaled during the day, making for an essentially restorative drink.
The local Butte bars which serviced such patrons as these – and which numbered in excess of 200 – were frequently run by Irishmen, granting the drink the name of ‘Shawn O’Farrell’, or the ‘Shawn O’. Before long, though, word had spread and bartenders the length and breadth of the country were imitating the practice of serving up working men the combination of whiskey and beer.
By the turn of the century, cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were blue-collar capitals. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, factory work had become the mainstay, as it had for much of Europe at the same time. “Steel, ladders, suits, paint, ice cream – we made everything here,” says Jack Prince, long-time owner of Philadelphia bar and local institution, Bob and Barbara’s.
A new class of labourers was therefore inevitably clamouring, like the miners in Montana, for that same satisfying, quick-drinking experience at the end of gruelling shifts, or even during short breaks. “There were what they called ‘tappies’ on every corner – little taprooms or bars,” explains Prince. “Shift workers would live around the factories and would go into these to drink Boilermakers. It might be at seven in the morning or seven in the evening – it was absolutely a working-class thing.”
And no other class knew the tribulations of hard graft better. According to Gary Regan in his book The Joy of Mixology, they drank to effectively wash away the taste of factory life. “It’s not a story with a lot of romance. It was such a horrible job, you’d just want to slam a whiskey before you had your beer.” And so to this end the shot and a beer came to symbolise an all-too unhappy hour, but one which at the very least heralded the end of work for the North American boilermaker.
Method, composition and results
Overzealous Cornish engineers, parched Montanan miners, exhausted Pennsylvanian factory workers – if the Boilermaker’s precise history is uncertain, its proper method of delivery is even less set in stone.
To most, it was seen as a serviceable, DIY ‘cocktail’, intended to be mixed in the drinker’s own stomach for maximum effect. The whiskey was, of course, to be shot, and then the beer sunk in one. Others suggested shooting the whiskey and then nursing the beer – the so-called rip an’ sip method. Some even preferred sipping the two simultaneously.
Occasionally drinkers went for a more combined approach, favouring the ‘bomb’ delivery method now deployed in the modern Jägerbomb. An oddly satisfying clunk notwithstanding, this practice wasn’t widely adopted in blue-collar spheres. Fewer still ordered the drink premixed (‘wet’), for the simple reason that it gave thrifty bartenders margin to scrimp on spirit. The more dexterously gifted might even have held the shot above the beer in the same hand, allowing for an unnecessarily elaborate ‘waterfall’ spectacle (and a good chance of spillage).
Whatever the chosen method, one thing at least was universally agreed upon: taste didn’t factor. In the New Dictionary of American Slang, Robert L. Chapman references the ‘Boilermaker’s delight’, suggesting that this phrase – used to describe any rotgut spirit capable of cleaning the scales from the inside of an industrial boiler – gave rise to the drink’s now-established name.
It’s a telling insight. The Boilermaker wasn’t a drink for the fussy – it was purely engineered to achieve maximum inebriation in minimum time. “I always quaff that fucker straight on down,” explains an enthusiastic contributor on the Modern Drunkard online forum, capturing something of the drink’s true purpose. “Taste rarely comes into it.” Indeed not – to call for a shot and a beer was (and evidently still is in some places) to call for a shot of cheap ‘well whiskey’ and an even cheaper ‘lawnmower beer’. Together, they constituted a swift intoxicant – little else was considered.
Yet herein lies the true beauty of the Boilermaker, and one of its great mysteries. Call it blue-collar alchemy, when such poor-quality ingredients are met together they both become perfectly potable. No doubt this is pure fantasy, but it seems that a process of neutralisation takes place, be that in the stomach or in the glass. On this level the Boilermaker is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of a combination greater than the sum of its parts.
A discussion with the Communications Director for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Mike Linderer, revealed an interesting truth: in almost a decade surrounded by such people as his eponymous institution represents, he’s hardly heard Boilermakers being ordered at the bar.
That may sound like a surprising confession given the history of the Boilermaker, but it’s well to consider the impacts that North America’s gradual donning of the white collar over the last few decades has had on the nation. That there is still such a brotherhood affirms the existence of a manufacturing economy, but it would be remiss to suggest that that economy is anything like the powerhouse it once was.
Needless to say, times have changed, and such is the magic of the world of booze that these kinds of change are almost always reflected in national drinking habits. The traditional Boilermaker has, for all practical intents and purposes, lost a good proportion of its original patrons as time has gone on. They constitute a now almost mythical past, and have done for some time – a past symbolised by what is now referred to as the ‘Rust Belt’, spanning the upper northeastern United States, the Great Lakes and the Midwest States.
“Bars the world over are exploring the delicate art of pairing beer and whisky, and for the most part they’re onto a good thing”
They do say, though, that traditions die hard, and if you look closely, the Boilermaker’s actually no exception. Indeed, modern culture has toyed with its licence to romanticise the concept and amplify its macho associations over the years (John Wayne in Brannigan, Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino – heck, even Thor sinks them in his titular 2011 blockbuster), but in places once regarded as industrial epicentres, it’s still firing the furnaces of some serious fans.
But they don’t all wear blue collars and they’re certainly not all men. We’re not talking exclusively miners or factory workers now, but also people who live and work in places where such labourers once did, sodden with sweat, choked with copper dust, building a nation. In this light the Boilermaker of today can be considered both a deeply rooted, not entirely forgotten drinking tradition as well as a potable toast to a definitive industrial past.
Prince believes it has taken on an institutional status, and the one served up at his bar is absolutely representative of this. It’s even garnered its own name, acknowledged city-wide: ‘The Special’, a 12oz can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jim Beam White Label served in a heavy shot glass. “Say I lived in the city as a grad student or a young professional and my friends came to visit,” he says, “we’d be looking to go to Bob and Barbara’s to check out the band and drink The Special.”
And if he were a hipster, he’d be doing the very same thing, albeit less out of institutional respect than sheer style, for 21st-century hipster culture has endorsed the Boilermaker with the same relish it has horn-rimmed wayfarers, plaid shirts and once-mainstream lager. But let’s not criticise the fact, for it is the hipster who has given the Boilermaker its most significant lease of life since its very inception.
The craze extends beyond a straight-up fetish for Americana, though, and enters – for the first time in the drink’s history – the territory of taste. Bars the world over are exploring the delicate art of pairing beer and whisky, and for the most part they’re onto a good thing. Beer, after all, shares a distinct affinity with whisky, and the sheer amount of styles of both available today has made for an infinite number of possible combinations, resulting in the Boilermaker being considered more of an exercise in blowing taste buds than steam. What’s more, beer itself is becoming a familiar resident inside ex-whisky casks, and vice versa. Foodies are even being treated to Boilermaker-inspired dishes such as ‘Boilermaker-marinated brisket’ and ‘Boilermaker soup’, and bars are cropping up that specialise in nothing but ‘designer’ Boilermakers, very often paired with food.
To hell with taboo
Times have changed for the Boilermaker. Few drinks offer so much in the way of heritage and yet so little in initial appearance. Gastronomic twisting, artful pairing, blue-collar lamenting, inventive daring – the varied journey of the Boilermaker rivals the celebrated histories of even the most flamboyant libations. Yet at the risk of rendering everything that has come before defunct, the fact that the Boilermaker has such a heritage is beside the point. The truth is, it’s not a flamboyant libation, and it shouldn’t really be treated as such. The traditional Boilermaker is in many ways an escape route from a modern world of booze in which flavour is king and intoxication taboo.
At the end of the day, be it one spent labouring down a mine shaft or staring at a computer screen, the combination of a shot and a beer has always served and will always serve its initial purpose to those willing, regardless of changing times. “You know,” says Prince, “after a hard day, if you have a shot of whiskey, boy that’s going to take the edge off right there. Now you drink a little beer – it might not be the finest beer in the world but it’s refreshing, it’s cold – and everything feels good.”
He’s speaking sense. To hell with the taboo of drinking to get drunk – there are times when only a shot and a beer will do. Regardless of the colour of your collar.
The Boilermaker’s Blueprints
The Classic, aka the Imp ‘n’ Ahrn (Pittsburgh)
1 x 35ml shot Imperial American whiskey
1 x 12oz can Iron City
The Citywide Special, aka The Special (Philadelphia)
1 x 35ml shot Jim Beam
1 x 12oz can Pabst Blue Ribbon
The Jimmy ‘n’ Ginney (Ireland)
1 x 35ml shot Jameson Irish Whiskey
1 x pint Guinness
The Hauf ‘n’ Hauf (Scotland)
1 x 35ml shot Scottish Leader whisky
1 x half pint McEwan’s 80/-
1 x 35ml shot Ardbeg 10
1 x 330ml bottle Brew by Numbers Saison Citra