Friday afternoon I finally had the good sense to further darken the doorway to the best and dirtiest bar in the universe, Rudy’s of Hell’s Kitchen, a scummy but righteous dive that will trade any jerk off the street a beer, a shot, and a hot dog for five measly dollars. I knew about the free dog gambit— that’s what lured me in off the comfort of 9th Avenue in the first place — though I hadn’t expected it to come warm and in a bun, never mind with the option of both ketchup and mustard carefully applied by a living, breathing, wage-earning human being.
But I was not prepared for the sign advertising the deal of my lifetime, $5 for a shot of Bushmills and a pint of Rudy’s Blonde Ale (with a gun or a hot dog to my head, I would have guessed Busch Light). The pint was full and cold and as clean as the day it was born, which is to say the best possible expression of the house beer at a free-hot-dog bar with a creepy giant man-pig statue out front. The shot was fair, probably an ounce and a half, and plausibly Bushmills, rather than the bottle-shelf, caramel-colored vodka the price might suggest.
There’s something very gratifying and liberating about ordering a shot and a beer. I avoided it for years because I didn’t think I was grizzled enough to traffic in such mature pleasures, but I’ve lately come all the way around on the idea. I began my reconsideration last December, when Draft published Kate Bernot’s piece about fancy boilermakers. I recognized the recipes as deconstructed, and possibly superior, versions of the cheater’s beer cocktails I like to assemble from time to time by simply dumping a shot of tequila into a grapefruit IPA or any brown liquor into any brown beer.
Another potential hurdle to the boilermaking lifestyle is it requires you to abandon any qualms you may have about putting so much alcohol in your face at one time. But if you drink a lot of craft beer or deluxe cocktails, you’ve likely already crossed over to the light side as far as that goes. My Irish whiskey and macro lager combo at Rudy’s felt pretty damn louche, but it carried less total alcohol than the oversized Russell’s Reserve Rye Manhattan I’d paid four times more for the day before, and it’s also milder than many of the big bottles of imperial stout that see me through the darker months. Plus, you don’t have to chug it all down at once. All it takes is a bit of patience to turn a dirtbag’s shot of Bushmills into a gentleman’s Irish whiskey, neat.
Here are a few shot-and-beer combinations I’ve had good luck with. Drink them all, please, and then suggest your own.
A couple weeks ago I found myself stranded after work at a nice, generic bar in downtown Boston, watching baseball and waiting for the subway to unmangle itself enough to either get me home itself or at least bring the three-mile Uber ride below $40. I knew my team was probably going to lose and my cat was definitely going to rip my face off for getting home late, but I was able to salvage the night by turning to two of my most reliable sources of comfort: Eagle Rare and Notch Pils. I find that a good pilsner’s lemon, herbal, and subtle spice notes are the perfect complement to bourbon’s sweet caramel.
The light, sweet fruitiness of a mid-level cognac, or even decent California brandy that comes from grapes and glass bottles, sits nicely alongside a roasty, bitter style of porter or stout. I usually go with Hennessy out of habit (and because I don’t tend to hang out in places with extensive cognac lists), though I really need to perform a duly diligent taste test soon with Courvoisier and Remy Martin, at least. Any old porter will do, but as mentioned above, a less-sweet one will do even better; I like Mayflower Porter for this application.
Spice and spice! For the short glass, I recommend Russell’s Reserve if they have it and Rittenhouse if they don’t. Most bars are likely to present you with even fewer saison options, but if you have the luxury of choice, maybe try a more assertive version, like Great Divide’s Collette or even Brooklyn’s weird and wonderful Sorachi Ace.
Mezcal and fruity IPA.
A modern-style, fruitier, less-bitter India pale ale along the lines of Oskar Blues IPA or 21st Amendment Down to Earth helps to tame mezcal’s smoky, vegetable notes. Alternate sips and it’s like mixing a Paloma in the comfort of your own throat!
Blueberry liquor and hoppy wheat ale.
Every happy home needs an official house shot, and at my place that’s Maine Craft Distilling’s Blueshine, a 90-proof barley spirit finished with blueberries and maple syrup. The maple is subtle — which is almost never the case when brewers and distillers start messing around with tree honey— and the blueberry is strong but not over-the-top, and since I scored a couple bottles in September I’ve been experimenting with it in every possible combination. The Mainehattan is nice, but Blueshine probably reaches its fullest potential when paired with a glass of a multi-dimensional hoppy ale, such as Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ or Boulevard 80-Acre.