The boilermaker is god’s perfect drink in that it is actually two drinks: a shot of liquor (usually whiskey) and a beer. (To be clear, we are talking about the shot and chaser version of a boilermaker. The kind where you combine both beverages in one glass is undignified and not to be countenanced.) From that combo come infinite variations. I’ve seen one pairing called a Teacher’s Pet (apple whiskey and cider). A cursed “Chicago Handshake” used Malört as the liquor. And one beloved, defunct British pub had the Kate Moss: a shot of strawberry-infused vodka and a glass of champagne.
Everything you need to know about a bar, you can learn from its boilermaker special. Is the liquor offered swill? Is the beer a tallboy, a pony, a pint? If you order tequila, will they give you a lime? These are all vital questions, but they’re all secondary to the ultimate Q: How much? Anything under $10 is a dive bar, a beautiful and precious thing to be cherished. Over $10 isn’t a dealbreaker, though. If they serve quality booze or have some fun with their liquor-beer combos, it could be worth it. And if they don’t have boilermakers at all, fuck ‘em.
According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, the boilermaker originated with miners in Butte, Montana. Originally, it was called the “Sean O’Farrell”—-presumably a slight against the hard-drinking Irish, which rings hollow when you’re the one inventing and naming the drink. “You’re such a drunk, you’d probably drink this thing I made up and drink regularly” is not the own the miners of Butte thought it was. But perhaps Sean O’Farrell was a real person who popped off so legendarily his name is now in British reference books.
Alleged anti-Irish origins aside, the boilermaker is a gorgeously proletariat drink. The name evokes rust belt machinist, pre-rust. And it’s usually found at more worker-friendly establishments, in both price point and vibes. It should come as no surprise then that shot-beer combos are often present on that most workaday of pleasures, the happy hour menu. Nothing says “I don’t have time for this!” like ordering a shot and a beer at happy hour. It’s the peak of efficiency.
I first encountered the boilermaker in its Philadelphia-specific form, the Citywide Special. Throughout Philly, at least when I lived there, you could get a shot of whiskey and a tallboy of PBR for $5. It was a lawless custom for a lawless city. (For example, one time, a woman sprinted past me, holding a large mass of hair and cackling like a witch.) There are restaurants that are BYOB and bars that are BYOF. That’s bring your own food. Outside food and drink are illegal in most places; in Philly, it’s a suggestion.
The Citywide fits perfectly into this ecosystem. You want a drink? Cool, how about two drinks for the price of one in most cities? You want a hot dog to go with that? There’s a gas station down the road; we call it Murder Mart. Because of all the murders that happened there. Get me one too, and while you’re at Murder Mart, can you grab me some SEPTA tokens and unlicensed Tinashe incense? Thanks, pal. Philly is the only place that takes such civic pride in their boilermaker. New York has the Manhattan; Philadelphia has the two cheapest beverages available, and fuck you if you don’t like it. Chicago has their special “handshake,” but that’s just an excuse to make the gullible drink Malört. The beer is a bribe to keep your mouth shut about how unpleasant the shot is. But the Citywide personifies the city of brotherly love because it’s so service industry-friendly.
The last great argument in favor of boilermakers is their ease for servers. One shot, one beer, and you’re probably not coming back up to the bar for twice as long. (That is, if you remember that you’re drinking in sets of two. Many a person has downed boilermakers at the rate of, say, whiskey sours and lived to regret it.) But if you handle your boilermakers responsibly, you get to be that most glorious and exalted of things: not annoying. There’s only one thing better than drinking in a bar, and that’s drinking in a bar in a way that’s unobtrusive. In this era of drinks of the summer, TikTok-prompted rushes on Campari, and strange liquids drizzled over cotton candy, take some solace in the good, old-fashioned Citywide. Your bartender will thank you.