Shot & awe: putting Boilermakers to the test

06 February 2018

The trusty beer and a shot is an on-trade favourite everywhere. Clinton Cawood joins a panel of Boilermaker-loving bartenders as they find out how to get the most out of this timeless combination

How do you spot an off-duty bartender? They’re probably the one at the bar with a beer and a shot. The delicious combination is not only universal but beloved throughout the on-trade. It can be a default order in an establishment of dubious cocktail merit, or an easy serve to help out a fellow bartender in the weeds.

But there’s no reason this classic serve shouldn’t be appreciated more widely.

Perhaps because of its inherent simplicity and down-to-earth nature, there’s seldom much experimentation or innovation when it comes to the Boilermaker. It’s a bourbon and a lager, an Irish whiskey with a Guinness, or a tequila with any easy-drinking beer.

But beer’s come a long way in recent years, and back bars aren’t anywhere near what they used to be either. Maybe, we thought, there are beer and spirit matches out there that could help spread the word of this gloriously simple serve to a wider audience?

Prepare, my friends, to have some Boilermaker preconceptions shattered….


Laurence Bowes, Hush Heath Estate; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Catia Cestra, The Lucky Pig; Rasa Gaidelyte, Trailer Happiness; Nathan King, London Cocktail Club; Kieran Rocks, Merchant House;  Jasmine Sumeray, East London Liquor Company

How it works
We called in eight spirits, each a good example of their category. We did the same with four beers – lager, IPA, sour and porter. Bartenders tasted the resulting combinations alongside one another, rating each match. All prices given are RRPs, for 70cl in the case of spirits, unless otherwise specified.

Beer cask-aged Irish whiskey: Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition, Ireland
Best Beer: Porter

All’s right with the world when a whiskey aged in a cask previously containing stout pairs best with the dark beer in a line-up. Jameson’s Caskmates Stout Edition was described as rich by a number of tasters, with strong nutty, maple and malty notes, as well as some spice. ‘Chocolate, walnut and vanilla – this match was always going to work,’ said one taster of the pairing with The Kernel Export India Porter, though the full flavours meant this wasn’t a Boilermaker you’d be drinking all night long.

While the porter match proved best, this was a whiskey made to pair with beer in general, standing up to the hoppiness of the IPA, for example, resulting in a complex meeting of flavours, and celebrating the boldness of both elements. Along similar lines, but in a more subtle way, the lager resulted in an extremely appealing, very drinkable combination.

While the match between Caskmates and the sour beer had its proponents, the acidity was an unwelcome addition to the rich character of the whisky.
40% abv, £26.45, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484

Bourbon: Whiskey Thief, US
Best beer: Lager

Bourbon is a classic in a Boilermaker, and relatively new entrant Whiskey Thief – from the team behind London whiskey specialist and gig venue The Lexington – offered all the classic hallmarks. Tasters described corn, vanilla, brown sugar and chocolate notes, with some distinct oak character too.

Californian lager Green Flash Sea to Sea proved to be our panel’s favourite beer to match with it.
Together they enhanced each other’s grain notes, as well as bringing out the caramel and vanilla in the bourbon to great effect. A natural match and, as tasters were quick to point out, a dangerously drinkable one.

While the IPA was a solid match on paper, the beer proved too much for the bourbon. The stout combination had a few fans, who liked how the darker chocolate and coffee notes of the whiskey were enhanced, but for most this didn’t hold a candle to the lager-bourbon match. Nor did the sour.
40% abv, £28.25, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840

Irish whiskey: Slane, Ireland
Best beer: Lager or porter

Slane offered everything you’d expect from an Irish whiskey – relatively sweet, light and accessible, but with some interesting spiciness too. The combination somehow made it equally brilliant with beers at two extremes in this tasting: the lager and the porter. Tasters liked how the brisk freshness of the lager played nicely with the sweetness of the whiskey, creating an appealing and uncomplicated match.

The porter, meanwhile, brought some whiskey-like flavours to the table, including coffee and dark chocolate, and these were enhanced and highlighted by the match.

The influence of the cask on the whiskey was enhanced too, as was a spicy, almost aniseed note in the spirit. This is a classic match for a reason.

Like Jameson Caskmates, this was a good all-rounder, with tasters finding good things to say of the pairings with the other two beers too. The IPA was an unusual match, with a fresh, fruity result not unlike a Whisky Sour, but with a sharp, almost bitter finish. The acidity in the sour beer wasn’t quite as harmonious as previous matches, but was interesting nevertheless.
40% abv, £29.99, Brown-Forman Brands, 020 7478 1300

Mezcal: Derrumbes Michoacan, Mexico
Best beer: IPA or sour

Unmistakeably mezcal, this expression from Derrumbes had no shortage of big, earthy, savoury character, with some agave sweetness on the palate and a hit of characteristic smokiness on the finish. This expressive, bold spirit unsurprisingly found a good match with the more unusual and powerful of the beers in this line up: the IPA and the sour beer.

When it came to sipping with Timequake Session IPA from Magic Rock x Modern Times, hoppy grapefruit notes emerged, reminding tasters of a Paloma. Panellists liked the way the two bold components of this Boilermaker stood up to each other, highlighting the best of both. When it came to the sour beer, the acidity in Redchurch Urban Farmhouse’s Tartelette was balanced by the sweetness of the mezcal, toning down some of the spirit’s earthiness in the process. A fresh and unusual combination.

The porter had the power to stand up to the mezcal, although the spirit benefited far more from the pairing than the beer did. And while none of our panel would turn away a shot of mezcal with a lager, the beer served little purpose beyond cleaning the palate.
44.7% abv, £52.05, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Rye Whiskey: Bulleit Rye, US
Best beer: Sour

You’re looking for some spice from a rye whiskey, and Bulleit was more than capable of providing it, with tasters describing woody, pine-forest aromas, with a touch of mint and some sweetness too. That combination turned out to be a perfect match for the fruity acidity in the sour beer. Together, they created a beautifully balanced cocktail of flavours – crisp and fresh, yet with complexity and depth. Specifically, the rye spiciness proved a perfect match for the brisk citrus notes in the beer, and both had distinctive grain notes that were reinforced when tasted together.

That superlative match aside, Bulleit Rye was an excellent accompaniment to both the lager and the IPA. The former was an easy-drinking Boilermaker, with the crispness of the beer lifting the richer notes in the whiskey, as well as elevating the cereal notes in the beer. The IPA and the rye proved to have complementary flavours, with crisp apple notes emerging, although the beer was a little too powerful for some of the more delicate elements of the rye.

The porter was our panel’s least favourite with this spirit, although the darker flavours in each were enhanced, making for a rich combination suited to
a cold winter evening.
45% abv, £32, Diageo, 020 8978 6000

Rum: Appleton Estate Reserve, Jamaica
Best beer: Sour

A quintessentially Jamaican rum, Appleton Reserve brought some tropical fruit notes to the table, as well as some distinct cane and molasses character. Its boldness was up to the task of standing up to some beers, with Redchurch’s sour proving to be the best match. The sweetness of the rum was tempered, while its fruitiness was enhanced. As one taster rightly pointed out: ‘It’s like a Daiquiri in your mouth.’

Considering all that tropical fruit in the rum, it’s unsurprising that the fruity IPA was also a hit here. The flavours were well matched, but the boldness of both the beer and the spirit ensured that neither overshadowed the other.

In theory, the porter should have been a good match, but the rum was rather overpowered, leaving a somewhat astringent finish. The lager, while not an unpleasant partner for this rum, wasn’t quite forceful enough for the job.
40% abv, £24, Campari UK, 020 3100 9600

Single malt scotch: Auchentoshan American Oak, Scotland
Best beer: Porter

The Glasgow distillery actively promotes an Auchentoshan and ale serve, so it was an obvious choice as a Scotch whisky to road test alongside four different beer styles.

American oak in name, this light and easy-drinking triple-distilled scotch is decidedly American oak in nature, with big vanilla notes. And when it came to doing its part in a Boilermaker, those characteristics served it best alongside a porter. A touch of sweetness in both helped to bring this very drinkable match together.

As approachable as that match was, when it came to lager our panel was deeply divided. Its detractors thought the pairing too light, but that was precisely its strength for the match’s fans: a Boilermaker for a summer’s day, and a pairing where each element could shine. The IPA proved too much for the delicate notes in the whisky, while the porter’s big toasted notes dominated this pairing.
40% abv, £35, Beam Suntory, 0141 243 2323

Tequila: Ocho Blanco Tequila, Mexico
Best beer: Sour

Tequila’s no newcomer to being served alongside beer, and Ocho offered all the hallmarks of a classic blanco perfectly suited to this: sweet yet fresh, with a grassy and citrus element, and rounded mouthfeel. To predict which of the four beers it would pair best with, you only had to think of that most classic of tequila cocktails, the Margarita. You couldn’t ask for more than the combination of Ocho with Redchurch’s Tartelette.

There’s a reason tequila is so often paired with lager, our tasters found, as this proved to be a capable – if not exactly revelatory – match. The beer played a supporting role here, highlighting the tequila’s flavour profile, and encouraging you to go back for a second sip.

While the IPA dominated the tequila, tasters liked the complexity and spiciness that the porter brought to the match, with a dominant toasted coffee note.
40% abv, £20/50cl, Cask Liquid Marketing, 07944 835 356

Many thanks to the team at Merchant House of Fleet Street for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day, and also to The Bottle Shop for providing the beers.

Related content

News |  Spirits & Cocktails

Sidecars and Sazeracs: Putting cognac to the test

Cognac has been around since the dawn of cocktails, yet it rarely receives the attention it deserves.

News |  Wine

Putting Kiwi Syrah 2016 to the test

We tasted a range of Kiwi Syrah wines from the epically good 2016 vintage to find out why the style is making waves.

News |  Wine

Enter the dragon: How Ningxia is putting Chinese wine on the map

Chris Losh paid a visit to Helan to see whether this fast-growing region really could be the Chinese Napa.