The history of boilermakers isn’t a particularly pretty one. While it’s unclear when the term was first used, its origin is closely associated with the drink of choice of many 19th century blue collar workers after a hard day’s work. A shot of bourbon or whisky and a beer as a chaser was the best way those boilermakers who had spent the long hours working in dangerous conditions on America’s railroads could relax. Nothing particularly glamorous to see here.
Just like many of the historical beer styles that have been resurrected by modern craft breweries, today boilermakers have been reinvented, moving far beyond their past incarnation as the fastest way to a nasty hangover. While some drinkers may still see boilermakers as a means of mixing a cheap whisky with an even cheaper beer, in recent years there’s been an attempt to recast the combination with some level of sophistication and style.
Given how they are made it’s unsurprising that pairing whisky and beer works so well. Since they are both malt-based alcohols they share a familial bond. Even though they are vastly different when consumed, they start out life almost exactly the same. Perhaps more importantly, just like those small breweries that have exploded across Australia over the past decade, Australia’s distilleries and the haunts that stocked them are the domain of passionate people dedicated to their craft.
One clear example of this passion is Melbourne’s Boilermaker House, which, since opening in 2015, has been one of the champions of the combination. Greg Sanderson is one of the owners of the venue and first developed the idea as a way to offer drinkers an experience he had long enjoyed. Greg also runs the laneway cocktail bar Eau de Vie and, like plenty of other hospitality workers, often found himself enjoying the same drink, night after night.
“It came from what I drank after work, a love for good beer and a love for good whisky,” says Greg.
“Bartenders, cocktail bartenders, restaurant bartenders, even waiters, when they finish work, they drink beer and whisky. Even though I was a cocktail bartender my go to drink was a beer and a whisky.”
Boilermaker House has brought a similar approach to that used by cocktail bars as a way to help popularise the style that is their namesake. Although it’s far simpler than most cocktails, behind any good boilermaker lies a similar philosophy.
“The idea is to create a drinking experience that is greater than the sum of its parts”, says Greg. “In a good beer and whisky match you really love the beer, you really love the whisky, so if you drink them side by side they really play off each other – they heighten different flavours, they cut through flavours and it just really works.”
With more than 800 unique whiskies and around 50 beers (12 of which heavily rotate on their impressive wall of taps) even seasoned beer or whisky drinkers could be forgiven for not knowing where to begin. Yet even those who are complete newcomers to both drinks can easily be guided on their own malt-laden journey.
“We get people who are mad about their whisky and have no clue about good beer and then beer geeks who are just getting into the world of whisky,” says Greg.
“Generally when we get customers who really know their beer, then I talk about beer – ‘what kind of beers do you like? Okay cool, this might be the kind of whisky that you would enjoy.’
“And it works both ways; if you have a whisky lover, then you just get them to talk through the whiskies they like and you can say, ‘Great, this is probably the beer you would like to match with that whisky’.
“I tend to talk to people on their common ground; what they know, what they're confident in talking about. But even if you don’t know anything about whisky, even if you don’t know anything about beer. There’s that one international language that everyone knows about and that’s flavour. As long as you can talk about flavour and know what you like, we can guide you in the right direction."
“It’s very rare that you can have a beer and whisky side by side and absolutely hate it and think that they don’t work together. Generally, you can pick a beer you like and pick a whisky you like.”
While that may be true, that doesn’t mean the perfect boilermaker can be made at random; a lot of thought does go into finding the right combination. Since opening, Boilermaker House has sought to make sure people understand the array of flavours that can be derived from the perfect matching.
“In our signature boilermakers we put a little garnish in the middle as well to help tie the flavours together and to get the person really thinking about the flavours,” says Greg.
There are three main approaches towards flavour profiles in regards to whisky pairing: contrasting, cutting through and comparing – the same basic guidelines one might use when pairing beer with food.
Contrasting is about finding the right whisky to contrast with a given beer style; perhaps a sour matched with a sweet American whisky. This allows the different prominent flavours in both drinks to work off one another. Cutting through is a way to find certain aspects of a whisky to push against parts of the beer; perhaps a big, citrusy IPA and a smoky whisky.
Finally, comparing allows common elements in both drinks to shine, highlighting certain flavours and bringing them to the fore. Pairing a rich, dark porter with a sweet whisky can help bring out notes of vanilla that are less prominent when the porter is enjoyed on its own.
Despite having the most obvious connection to the style, Boilermaker House isn’t the only Melbourne bar that has embraced the combination. Whisky and Alement, as it's name suggests, peddles a find line in whisky and beer while, coming initially from the beer side of things is The Local Taphouse in St Kilda. The venue has long held a prominent position in the city's craft beer community and now it too has plenty of love for the humble boilermaker.
It was for this reason that the crew behind the Taphouse developed Wilfred’s Bar: a pop-up bar upstairs at The Local that gives a little more prominence to its spirits and cocktails than the Taphouse proper.
Cassie O’Neill (one of the few Cicerone trained bartenders in the country) has long been an advocate within the pub for giving a similar level of devotion to craft spirits as to craft beer.
“We’ve been doing craft beer for a long time here," she says. "I thought it was important for us to do craft spirits as well and local spirits, which we weren’t really doing as well as we should have been. So we changed up our list and got heaps of Australian stuff and heaps of good whiskies and just tried to freshen it up a bit, and that’s how Wilfred’s came about.
“We try to keep up with good Australian whiskies but it can be hard because they keep running out. We have to keep rotating through them, depending on what we can get. But we’re fine with that, we like to rotate our whisky list, just like we do with our beer list.”
During this year’s Good Beer Week, the Wilfred’s team worked closely with Garage Project, showing how perfectly the worlds of spirits and beer can be brought together.
As Cassie says: “I think it’s important, just like you do with beer and food matching, to either compare or contrast. For example, we did a Garage Project takeover at Wilfred’s for Good Beer Week and we did their Oyster Stout with Old Puteney which is quite salty, so you have the flavours of a salty beer and a salty whisky, so there’s great comparison of flavours there.”
Cassie also stresses the importance boilermakers can have with educating the palate of the beer lovers, particularly with the continued rise of barrel-ageing both here and abroad.
“Heaps of beer drinkers don’t drink whisky but they drink all these barrel-aged beers, which I think is so funny. In the past we’ve done Boatrocker’s Ramjet, which is aged in Starward [barrels] and a Starward on the side, which is really cool to be able to compare the beer that’s been aged in a whisky barrel with the actual whisky.”
With craft distilling and craft brewing rising concurrently, the likelihood of being able to enjoy more of those sorts of matches is only going to increase. It also highlights one of the most exciting aspects of boilermakers: seeing small producer work together. Breweries, distilleries and bars all have the opportunity to bring their collective knowledge and experience together to create something really unique and exciting. It’s one of the aspects that Greg has found most exciting over the first 12 months of Boilermaker House‘s life.
“Like any drinking trend it always starts somewhere and I think that boilermakers in the last couple of years have always been a hospitality sort of thing, and it’s massively spread into the mainstream and as soon as it’s spread into the mainstream you get crossovers happening.
“There’s a lot of crossover happening now. We’ve worked with breweries Newstead and Moon Dog. We’ve picked a bottle of whisky and have said, ‘Right, we want a beer to match with this whisky.’
“It’s exciting to get a couple of people together who are passionate, who have got the time and are able to produce small interesting stuff like that. It showcases how people are willing to go that extra mile for a different experience.”
The willingness of breweries to collaborate on such exciting projects makes it clear that boilermakers have graduated from their humble beginning as a way workers could forget about their day. Today, they represent a new way to explore the flavours of beer, and it’s hard to find anyone who would have a problem with that. At least, not one a well matched boilermaker or two wouldn't resolve.
Some other places to get your boilermaker fix:
- Whisky and Alement, 270 Russell Street
- The Kliburn, 348 Burwood Road, Hawthorn
- The Baxter Inn, Basement, 152-156 Clarence Street
- Wild Rover, 75 Campbell Street, Surry Hills
- The Gresham, 308 Queen Street
- Cobbler, 7 Browning Street, West End
- Lefty's Old Time Music Hall, 15 Caxton Street
- The Dutch Trading Co, 243 Albany Highway, Victoria Park
- Dominion League, 84 Beaufort Street
- Varnish on King, 75 King Street
- NOLA Adelaide, 295 Rundle Street
- Clever Little Tailor, 19 Peel Street
- Maybe Mae, 15 Peel Street
- Robbie Brown's, 32 Osborne Esplanade, Kingston Beach
- The Winston, 381 Elizabeth Street, North Hobart
- Saint John Craft Beer, 133 St John Street, Launceston
About the author: Will Ziebell is a history graduate who finds the greatest use for his degree is telling anecdotes to anyone who will listen. Often they involve beer, especially when hosting Melbourne Brewery Tours. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter.