The formula for boilermakers seems so obvious and simple, it’s astonishing they haven’t always been more popular. Yet for something so straightforward, bars still manage to put their own stamp on the classic beer-and-a-shot duo. Unlike the type of frat swill some might association with boilermakers, there are several variations in Chicago currently that are just as noteworthy as fully composed cocktails.
At Presidio, the house version draws inspiration from the Bay Area for the “San Francisco Boilermaker.” What’s cool about this iteration is not only the beer of choice, that of San Fran-based Anchor Steam brewing company, but the addition of the specially made Fernet-Dogma. Bracingly bitter and deeply herbaceous, this stuff is made in partnership with CH Distillery specifically for The Dogma Group, which operates Presidio. Not only is the Fernet locally made, it’s packed with extra local flavor in the form of Dark Matter Coffee and Rare Tea Cellar botanicals. The depth and complexity of Presidio’s boilermaker speaks to the cocktail bar’s overarching philosophies. “A boilermaker is a cocktail, and we treat it as such,” explains Brian Sturgulewski of Dogma Group. “We like boilermakers because the sum of the drink is greater than the total of the two parts.” He describes the San Francisco Boilermaker as having roots in the Bay Area, but with a unique Chicago twist. “Anchor Steam is a refreshing beer, but it’s also darker and richer than a lager or pilsner. The rich but refreshing qualities in the beer are echoed in Fernet-Dogma, balancing mint, menthol and eucalyptus flavors with dark coffee notes.”
Dark Matter Coffee also plays a pivotal role in the boilermaker being poured at Roots Handmade Pizza, which just opened a new outpost in Lincoln Square. Dubbed the DMC Boilermaker, it’s made with a Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout and a shot of Basil Hayden’s bourbon that was aged in a barrel that previously aged Dark Matter Coffee beans. You got all that? The idea for coffee-aged whiskey barrels stemmed from a longstanding business relationship between Roots’ The Fifty/50 Group and Dark Matter. “Jesse Diaz from Dark Matter and I are good friends and we collaborate with them very often at West Town Bakery with our barrel-aged coffee chocolate bars,” says Scott Weiner, partner in the restaurant group. “We were tossing around the idea of re-aging whiskey back into a Basil Hayden barrel that had had coffee aging in it and the drink idea came from there.” The ensuing drink is quite the process for a seemingly simple boilermaker, which entails aging Basil Hayden in barrels for a week, acquiring some of the dark licorice-like notes present in the coffee-tinged barrel. “The coffee nuances needed something to help heighten them however,” says Weiner, who opted for a stout-based boilermaker over a cocktail so as not to bury the ingredient-rich bourbon too much. “If you were to actually sip the bourbon and then sip the stout, you’d notice the similarities. The obvious are the coffee undertones, but when you taste the licorice undertone from the barrel-aged bourbon with the same characteristic from the stout, you realize you have something pretty neat.”
Astra Urtyp beer and Rebel Yell bourbon are the boilermaker fixtures of choice at Humboldt Park’s Haywood Tavern. “We always felt a boilermaker was part of any good bar or tavern,” explains beverage director Jason Balutan. “It’s part of the bar culture in Chicago and while we are not your typical tavern in concept, we do feel we are a tavern in spirit.” With that ethos in mind, Balutan set out to make a boilermaker that would typify Haywood’s bar concept. Saying “we are dive bar guys at heart,” he paired an imported lager called Astra with Rebel Yell bourbon. The result is a boilermaker he describes as clean and delicious, with a Kentucky bourbon that goes down smoothly.
At Twisted Spoke, the bar offers three levels of boilermakers. The first level is a shot of Beam and a “Grab Bag” beer chosen from a selection of classic “cheap” beers. Level two is called the Platinum Boilermaker, featuring the likes of Stagg Jr. and a barrel-aged beer on tap; and level three consists of Van Winkle 23-year old and The Duchess Flanders Red sour. “The grains of a whiskey mixed with the grains of a beer are a great combo and quite a few brewers are now making whiskey out of the grist (spent) grains used in constructing a beer,” says Shawn Thompson, general manager of Twisted Spoke. On these three different levels of boilermaker, he says they wanted something mid-tier and upper-tier to go with the cheaper grab bag, offering a variety of price points and flavor profiles. With combos like these, flavors are all over the map, ranging from smooth and sweet vanilla and chocolate to a smooth sour that drinks like a Cognac.