Whiskey is good. Beer is good. Whiskey and beer together? Even better. Enter the boilermaker.
A boilermaker is, simply put, a shot of whiskey and a serving of beer. However, depending on where you are and who you ask, you can drink it in several different ways. You might shoot the whiskey first and chase it with the beer. You might alternate between the two, taking a sip from one and then the other. You might even drop the whiskey right into your pint glass and down it all at once. No matter how you take it, two core elements always remain the same: straight whiskey and cold beer.
This year, Tullamore D.E.W. is on a quest to bring the boilermaker back into the spotlight. They’re touring the United States until St. Patrick’s Day, stopping at various breweries to pair their Irish whiskey with local beers. I attended the big kickoff for the D.E.W. and a Brew series in Santa Monica where Tullamore partnered with Santa Monica Brew Works. The evening turned out to be more than I’d bargained for.
History of the Boilermaker
First, let’s talk a little bit about where this pairing comes from in the first place. Adam Teeter at VinePair explains that the name “Boilermaker” either comes from the steam locomotive workers who would drink it after a long day’s work, or from an unfortunate incident involving a British steam vehicle that burned to the ground. Either way, it’s a tradition among blue collar workers that eases all ailments with a swift punch.
These days it’s become a slightly different affair. While a boilermaker has been a popular post-shift option for weary bartenders, the drink is now also popping up on the menus of craft cocktail bars. Rather than just throwing any old shot and pint together, these establishments are carefully curating suggested options for you to try. ￼As Kayleigh Kulp at The Daily Beast puts it, this “elevated boilermaker is also a way to give more thought to flavors and encourage imbibers to try something they ordinarily wouldn’t.”
That’s exactly what Tullamore D.E.W. is out to prove on its tour. Will they have us all assembling boilermakers this St. Patrick’s Day? Well, let me tell you how it went down for me.
D.E.W. and a Brew Tour Kickoff
To be honest, I’ve never been one to order a boilermaker or even to take shots at all. If I have a whiskey, I sip it solo and neat, and I take my time. But that’s just the thing: with this new attention to the art of pairing, that might actually be the way to do it. By sipping your whiskey in between slugs of beer, you slowly uncover how the two pieces play with or against each other. When I found out I’d be meeting Tullamore D.E.W.’s brand ambassador to sample selected pairings, that’s basically what I expected: several of us sitting around a table and comparing tasting notes.
I was incorrect.
When I arrived at The Victorian, a beautiful historic venue in downtown Santa Monica, clusters of people were gathering outside around Tullamore’s tour van. We then descended to The Basement Tavern, a dark underground bar hidden down below the charming old building. I weaved my way through the crowd to find an open spot at the bar and soon realized I was in for some varsity level drinking.
There were three different boilermaker combinations on offer that night. Each one paired Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey with a different beer from local Santa Monica Brew Works so we could compare how the flavors changed with each setup. As I made my way through, I opted for my usual approach: I took alternating sips between the shot and the beer, letting the flavors and aromas co-mingle as many times as possible. Here’s what I came away with from the three pairings:
- Tullamore D.E.W. + Santa Monica Brew Works Inclined IPA: Bitter and floral hops kicked against the sturdier malt of the whiskey, accentuating the IPA’s multiplicity of citrus tones. It was like biting into a big slab of grapefruit peel—pith and all.
- Tullamore D.E.W. + Santa Monica Brew Works 310 Blonde: Bowls of sweet Saturday morning cereal led the way followed by a light touch of tangy fruit flavors. The finish settled into a handful of candied malt.
- Tullamore D.E.W. + Santa Monica Brew Works Modern Witbier: Honey and banana slices tumbled across chunks of Hawaiian bread. As I sipped further, citrus peel came to the surface along with a faint touch of chamomile.
The bartenders also had two whiskey cocktails on the menu in case anyone wanted a break from the boilermakers. What I can tell you is that I tried them both and I’m pretty sure they were delicious. I can’t tell you exactly what was in them or what they were called, unfortunately. I know one of them was a riff on a whiskey sour. My apologies for the lack of clarity, but two cocktails and three rounds of boilermakers was putting a bit of a haze on my night.
I do remember, however, that we enjoyed the music of several live bands. Meanwhile, Tullamore Brand Ambassador Jane Maher kept the party going as cameras clicked away, documenting all the delicious revelry. As I said, the night was not what I had expected, but in the end, that was just fine with me.
Bring the Boilermaker Back
Just as I was readying to leave the event, some newfound friends talked me in to staying for one last round and I couldn’t say no. Savoring another Tullamore + IPA, I surveyed the room. Everyone was having an amazing time, laughing and chatting and cheering on the musicians. I’d call it a success.
Yes, the shot + beer combo knocks you for a loop or two. It gets you loose very quickly and can definitely keep a party in high gear. At the same time, however, it’s fascinating to see how a beer changes as it tangles with whiskey. Some flavors soar to the front while others fade into the background. It doesn’t always work how you think it will. Honestly, there were times that night when I felt like certain aspects of the beers got lost in the whiskey’s fire—and not in a way I necessarily liked. Still, that’s half the fun: discovering which combinations work best for you.
Yes, I must say that I have been converted to the magical powers of the boilermaker. I’m a longtime fan of craft cocktails because they blend and marry different flavors, textures and aromas to create something entirely new. With the current craft brewing boom, however, sampling boilermakers might be my new favorite game. It’s a fantastic way to re-experience the offerings of your local brewery and see your favorite ale in a new light.
This Saint Patrick’s Day, rather than treating your shots and pints as two different options, bring them together to see what new flavor combinations you can discover. Beware, however—this kind of imbibing can lead to some tipsy downfalls. In addition to blanking out on the two cocktails I tried that night, I’m pretty sure I also lost my earbuds on the way home.