Despite what some local old-timers might preach from atop their barstools, Pittsburgh did not invent the boilermaker. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the simple idea of pairing a spirit and a beer even originated in America. Scots have long enjoyed the hauf ’n’ hauf (a nip of whiskey chased by a half-pint of beer); Germans have the schnapps-and-beer marriage known as a Herrengedeck; yorsh is a Russian mixture of vodka and beer — the list goes on.
Regardless of origins, Pittsburgh has long embraced its reputation as a “shot and a beer” town. Though scholars are uncertain where the name “boilermaker” originated, the drink is likely named for actual boilermakers (those who fabricate and repair boilers) and other blue-collar laborers who downed them in great quantities. Because in a hardworking, industrious town, after (or sometimes before) a backbreaking shift in the steel mill or coal mine, it’s hard to imagine a better salve than a bracing shot of whiskey and an ice-cold beer.
When it comes to actually drinking the thing, there are a few different approaches. Some drop the shot (glass and all) into the beer, while others will shoot the liquor and chase with the beer. I prefer to sip on both, letting the sharp sting of alcohol linger on my tongue for a moment before washing it away with a slug of beer. Ultimately, the allure of the boilermaker is much like that of a Reese’s Cup — there’s no wrong way.
Here in Pittsburgh, the classic boilermaker is a shot of Imperial Whiskey paired with an Iron City: an “Imp ’n’ Ahrn.” If you want to jazz it up, however, plenty of local bars have gotten creative with their shot-and-beer specials. The menu at Ace Hotel’s bar features “A Bat and a Ball” section, with pairings like Tiger and tequila. Downtown’s new Pork & Beans offers boilermakers that unite high and low, like Wigle rye whiskey alongside good old Yuengling. And at Lawrenceville’s Goldmark, the drinks menu revolves around tiers of boilermakers that range from “Ballin’ on a Budget” (Hamm’s and Wild Turkey) to “That Sh*t Cray” (Victory Golden Monkey and Booker’s).
Of course, the boilermaker hardly needs to be featured on a menu. Unlike fussy craft cocktails, boilermakers are widely available and ready at a moment’s notice. When pairing a beer and a spirit, take the same approach as a sommelier matching wine to food. For a congruous pairing, match a robust stout with a scotch that will echo the smoky notes in the beer. For a complementary pairing with the same stout, select a bright, spicy rye whiskey that will cut through the roastiness.
Whether you slug something cheap or sip on a carefully considered pairing, to drink a boilermaker is to pay homage to Pittsburgh’s proud working-class history.