A Brief History of the Boilermaker and Its Many Forms

Make this simple, affordable, and efficient cocktail your next bar order.

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Now that I’m returning to bars and restaurants again, an ingrained phrase involuntary escapes my mouth the second my butt hits the barstool: “Do you have any shot and beer specials?” When I first started my drinking career in Chicago, it became a habit to grab a shot of well whiskey and an Old Style or PBR to kick off the night. While that combo may seem a bit trashy for a full-grown adult, I’m here to remind you it’s actually a classic (and therefore classy) American cocktail called the boilermaker, one that is easy to order, affordable, and more than capable of getting the job done.

What is a boilermaker?

While it may sound like something more complicated, a boilermaker is simply a beer and a shot, served side by side. There are some exceptions, like in England, where a boilermaker is a half pint of draft beer mixed with a half pint of brown ale. A boilermaker becomes a boilermaker cocktail, also known as a “depth charge,” when the shot is dropped directly into the beer before drinking.

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The origin of the drink can be traced back to 1890s Montana, Slate reports, where it came to be known in the mining camps as a “Sean O’Farrell.” We don’t know who Sean is, but we like their style. There’s speculation that the official boilermaker name came from the drink’s popularity among factory workers who may have been creating the boilers for locomotives, but the combo is now known by many names across the world (Thrillist has a great Thesaurus on the subject): kopstootje (Dutch for “little headbutt”), herrengedeck (German for “gentleman’s menu), one and one, and, most simply, a shot and a beer. Because no matter how you say it, that’s all this perfect little drink is. Any shot and any beer. The possibilities are endless.

Classic boilermaker combos

The beer-and-shot special is a staple here in Chicago, and many local spots even bring food into the mix. For instance, you can get what’s called a PB&J at pizza joint The Boiler Room: a slice of pizza, a shot of Jameson, and a PBR tall boy. Neighborhood bar The Moonlighter has the Taco Party: a taco (beef or Beyond meat), a Miller High Life, and a shot of Old Grand-Dad.

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But perhaps Chicago’s most famous boilermaker is the Chicago Handshake: an Old Style tall boy and a shot of Malört. And it’s not the only regional boilermaker the country has to offer. The Citywide Special (also known as the Happy Meal) is a Philadelphia specialty consisting of a can of PBR and a shot of Jim Beam. Pittsburgh has the Imp ’n’ Ahrn, a can of Iron City beer with a shot of Imperial Whiskey.

While many of the classic boilermakers employ whiskey, there are plenty of other spirits you can pair with beer for a tasty combo:

  • Tecate and tequila
  • Stiegl Radler and gin
  • Leinenkugels Summer Shandy and vodka
  • Your favorite tropical IPA and rum

Next time you’re at a bar, ask and see if they have any suggestions—the beer-and-shot specials aren’t necessarily listed on the menu. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Try a shot with your favorite seltzer or cider, go for a nonalcoholic boilermaker with some booze-free spirits and sparkling water or kombucha. Boilermakers are for everyone, and they can be whatever you want them to be.

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