Boilermakers are simply a pour of beer and whisk(e)y consumed alongside each other. There is a lack of agreement on where specifically the term is thought to have originated from, but we favour the version where it was named for the boilermakers who built and maintained the boilers used to power steam trains during the 1800’s, who after a hard days work would retire for a well earned beer and a shot of whisk(e)y.
Now more popular than ever, boilermakers have reached near cult status, thanks in no small part to the dramatic increase in beers and whiskies to choose from when putting together a boilermaker and the amazing flavour and texture combinations that can be had.
While there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to making or drinking a boilermaker (besides the obvious rule – give it a go!) there are some general pairings which seem to work quite well ‘out of the box’. Also we have to say we do prefer the more modern trend of sipping the whisky and beer alternatively instead of shotting the whisky and chasing with a beer (although as long as it is done responsibly we can’t say that this is not an enjoyable experience every now and then).
Where to start?
Beer, much like whisk(e)y comes in a bewildering array of styles and formats these days. This can lead to much head scratching and trepidation of getting it ‘wrong’. The best advice I was given when starting out was to pick a beer and/or whisk(e)y you already know and love and work from there. Worst case scenario you still have two drinks to enjoy, albeit independently. The other way forward for those looking to dip their toes in the waters would be to ask your local liquor store or bar staff for recommendations. At good bottle shops and bars, there is usually at least one or two people who are passionate about boilermakers who will be able to recommend a good combo or two.
Generally when pairing whisky and beer we tend to think of other food and beverage pairing techniques such as;
Complement – Like for like effectively – fruit to fruit, smoke to smoke and so on. Both elements share characteristics, increasing the intensity of the dominant flavours and/or textures.
Contrast – Think sweet and sour for a good example here. Matching two opposites for a combination that highlights the main features of both through the constant contrast of the dominant characteristics. Some of the best combinations (and worst – no guts, no glory!) can be had using this method.
Cut – This is where we look for flavours or textures that ALMOST tame the more dominant flavour. Blue cheese and fruit paste/muscat grapes is an example where the oft-times metallic tang found in blue cheese can be cut through by the sweetness of the fruit leaving the flavour of both intact but in a more balanced way.
Below are a few examples using relatively generic whisk(e)y and beer styles giving examples of complementing, contrasting and cutting boilermaker pairings.
Peated Whisky + Porter (complement) – The dry woodsmoke and iodine of a typical peated Islay whisky goes perfectly with a well made porter (which generally have a bit of dark roasted coffee about them) which is drier than a stout. Beginners Pairing – Ardbeg 10 and Feral Smoked Porter.
Peated Whisky + NEIPA or DIPA (contrast) The hoppy funk, texture and tropical fruit of an NEIPA or DIPA bomb contrasts beautifully with the dry woodsmoke and iodine of a typical peated Islay whisky . Beginners Pairing – Laphroaig 10 and Sauce Brewing Trouble and Squeak (not easy to find but well worth the hunt and price!).
Peated Whisky + Gose (cut) – The salty citric herbal nature of a typical gose wonderfully cuts through the (for some) aggressive smoke and iodine notes of a younger Islay quite wonderfully. Beginners Pairing – Lagavulin 8 and Nomad Freshie Salt N’ Pepper
Bourbon + Amber Ale (complement) – The sweetness and spice of a younger bourbon is complemented nicely by the creamy mild spice of the Amber Ale making for a super easy sipping combination. Beginners Pairing – Makers Mark 46 and James Squire Nine Tales.
Bourbon + Stout (contrast) – The big bold toffee and caramel of a typical bourbon contrast nicely here with a dark, rich chocolate and coffee flavours and creamy texture of a stout. Beginners Pairing – Woodford Reserve Double Oak and Guinness.
Bourbon + Wheat Beer (cut) – Wheat beers are typically light, easy to drink and have little to no aftertaste, perfect for taming a more rich toffee and grain driven bourbon. Beginners Pairing – Wild Turkey 101 and Blue Moon Belgian White (or White Rabbit White Ale if that’s easier to source)
Irish Whiskey + Pale Ale (complement) – Pale Ale encompasses a fairly broad spectrum of beer, so look for a more yeast driven, dry, ‘bread’ flavoured beer to match nicely with the Irish whiskies buttery, biscuity delicate nut and honey flavours. Beginners Pairing – Jameson and Coopers Pale Ale
Irish Whiskey + Sour Beer (contrast) – The smooth, buttery, nutty and sweet characters of a typical Irish whiskey are highlighted when sipped with a fruity sour style beer. Beginners Pairing – Slane Irish Whiskey and Wayward Raspberry Berliner Weisse.
Irish Whiskey + Wheat Beer (cut). Most Irish whiskey is already fairly restrained as it is so this one is a challenge. Similar to our bourbon cut pairing, wheat beer is as soft as it gets so is a good option if you are looking to tame a tame whisky style (maybe for friends and family who baulk at the ABV of whisky?). Beginners Pairing – Teeling Small Batch Whiskey and Erdinger Weissbrau Weißbier.
Sherried Whisk(e)y + Malt Beer (complement) – We’ve decided to double down on the Christmas cake nature of a lot of sherried whisky and finish the cake by pairing with a rich malt driven beer which buffs up the malt in the whisky and amplifies the cake aspect to match the fruit and spice. Beginners Pairing – Glendronach 12 and 4 Pines Brewing Draught (Kolsch).
Sherried Whisk(e)y + Saison – We’ve decided here to contrast the dried fruits, Christmas cake spices and darkness of the whisky with a lighter, brighter and drier style beer which brings a tartness and brightness to a dark whisky, in a good way. Beginners pairing - Bunnahabhain 12 (yes it’s peated too!) and Two Birds Spring Saison
Sherried Whisk(e)y + (Milk) Stout – Sherry ‘bombs’ which a lot of whisky drinkers chase can be absolute beasts in terms of spice which means we need a seriously creamy and chocolate driven beer style to work with the malt of the whisky while taming but not drowning out the spice and fruits of the whisky. Beginners Pairing – Aberlour A’bunadh and Batch Brewing Elsie the Milk Stout.
Cheap Beer + Rye Whisk(e)y (cut) - This combination seems to work quite well, especially for people who are new to Rye whisk(e)y. The spicy nature of the rye is balanced and reigned in a little by the cool refreshing, familiarity of the cheap beer of your choice – almost any cheap beer style works as bitters, lagers, pilsners etc all offset nicely against the rye – beginners pairing – Bulleit Rye and <cheap beer of choice>.
We hope you enjoy (and share) your adventures in whisk(e)y and beer exploration!