Food & Drink

Is the Boilermaker the World’s Most Democratic Drink?

When they finally sculpt the Mount Rushmore for cocktails, we personally are going to lobby hard for the Boilermaker to land a spot on the rockface (make that two spots—one for the shot, one for the beer). The drink—which consists of a shot of whiskey next to a beer, for those that don’t know—is truly an all-timer: It’s got universal appeal, it’s simple yet endlessly variable, and it has a very endearing impossible-to-mess-up factor.

Beyond all that (and speaking of Mount Rushmore, that shrine to heroes of U.S. democracy), the Boilermaker is also the ultimate equal-opportunity concoction: it can be fancy or economical—depending on taste, and billfold contents. You can build a Boilermaker with cheap beer and well whiskey, pricey craft ale and rare aged bourbon, or any combination in between. It’s truly a one-man, one-vote, people’s kind of drink.

That makes sense, since the Boilermaker, like U.S. democracy, has roots in England and came about in reaction to a failed experiment.

Or at least that’s one origin story for the famous drink. According to that version, the Boilermaker got its name after a misadventure involving an English inventor named Richard Trevithick. Following a successful test of the steam-powered vehicle he’d been working on, Trevithick and his pals retired to the local pub to celebrate. While they were inside enjoying roast goose, beer, and whiskey, the vehicle caught fire. Seems Richard and the boys completely forgot to extinguish the fire inside its boiler, and the flame burned all of the water off, then started on the wood-framed contraption, reducing it to a smoldering ruin. As a result, the name Boilermaker got attached to the combination of whiskey and beer.

Another version of the origin story is more straightforward: it suggests that 19th-century steam-locomotive craftsmen, aka Boilermakers, frequently capped their long, hard working days with a shot of whiskey and a beer at the local tavern, so their drink of choice simply took on the name as well.

Advertisement

Bulleit Boilermaker - Supercall
Matthew Kelly/ Supercall

Bulleit’s three variants guarantee you the freedom of choice that is your right. You can pull the lever for the vanilla notes of Bulleit Bourbon, the peppery accents of the Rye, or the deep, restrained profile of the 10-year-old. They all take different approaches, but they all believe in the Boilermaker ideal of pairing quality spirits with quality beer.

Whatever legend you choose to believe, the Boilermaker has transcended both its name and the blue-collar environs of its roots. Nowadays, you can order one in just about any type of bar, from a dive to a music club to a serious cocktail joint. In fact, the craft cocktail boom has championed the Boilermaker of late—partly in an attempt to counteract the self-serious elements of the movement. That’s because the Boilermaker is totally unpretentious—and yet it’s also a drink that cocktail nerds can still wax nerdy about. With the right pairing of beer and whiskey, each liquid brings out surprising elements in the other. You can sip one, then the other, back-and-forth, and enjoy the complementary notes in each.

Some bars devote a separate section of their menu to Boilermakers. Yes, right there next to the Aviations, Last Words, and Ramos Gin Fizzes, you’ll find a highly curated selection of beer-and-shot combos. And despite the setting in a place, and on a menu, some people might find intimidating, the democratic nature of the Boilermaker shines through again. Because while you may not know what the hell quinquina is, or whether or not you’d like elderflower liqueur in your cocktail, you can definitely navigate a roster of whiskeys and beer to find a matchup that suits you, no matter how fussy some of the pairings are.

Is there another drink out there with this kind of versatility? As brilliantly simple as a Martini is, it’s still possible to mess up, and it’s probably not your best choice in a dive bar. You might risk a Gin and Tonic at a dive, but you’ll probably end up being disappointed. The Boilermaker carries no such risk: you know exactly what you’re getting, and regardless of the bartender’s skill level, he or she will deliver exactly that.  

You can’t mess it up, and you also can’t stop it: the Boilermaker has been around since the early 19th century, and it’s still going strong in the 21st. Sure, it’s benefitting from the craft cocktail movement’s embrace at the moment, but the Boilermaker is no trendy flash-in-the pan. It’s an ingeniously simple idea with the functionality and the all-inclusive appeal to stand the test of time. Kind of like democracy.