Alcohol, specifically ethanol, is the stuff we drink. Beer, wine, whiskey, vodka, tequila, schnapps, it doesn’t matter. The alcohol itself is all the same. But where does ethanol come from? Yeast. Yeast makes alcohol. How they do it is pretty amazing.
Yeast is a microorganism, a living thing. Like all fungi, they have some plant characteristics and some animal characteristics. Yeast makes alcohol through a biological process. Sugar, dissolved in water, is ingested by the yeast organism. The sugar is metabolized, generating energy for the organism’s life processes such as reproduction. The waste product it discards consists of alcohols (primarily ethanol) and carbon dioxide.
This process is called fermentation.
Since yeast eats sugar, it is easier to make alcohol from sugar sources (fruit, honey, sugar cane juice) than from starch (grain, potato). Saccharification is the process of converting starch into sugar, thereby making it something yeast can eat. It is a prerequisite for making beer and whiskey.
Grains are seeds. To grow, new sprouts need sugar, just like yeast do. So at the beginning of the germination process, the new sprout produces diastatic enzymes that convert the starch surrounding it into sugar. The process of sprouting grain to capture those enzymes is called malting. Any grain can be malted but barley is particularly good. The enzymes produced are so effective that a relatively small amount of malt (about 10%) will convert a mash of unmalted grains.
In Scotland, the law requires that only barley malt is used in the production of whiskey. In the United States, enzymes derived from other sources may be used and sometimes are, but most whiskey-makers use malt. Some use both.
All of the alcohol we drink is still made the old-fashioned way, by feeding sugar to yeast.
Enzymes are proteins that promote chemical reactions. All chemical reactions within cells are controlled by enzymes, so enzymes are also involved in the biological process by which yeast makes alcohol. You might think that modern science could just synthesize all of these different chemicals and make alcohol in some kind of machine. Maybe it can, but all of the alcohol we drink is still made the old-fashioned way, by feeding sugar to yeast.
All of these processes take place in water so before anything else can happen the starches have to be dissolved. First, they are ground to the consistency of corn meal, then water is added. Most starches have to be cooked to fully dissolve. This is especially true of corn, the main ingredient in bourbon whiskey.
Some solids, mostly cellulose, remain undissolved. Most brewers and some distillers discard the solids. Bourbon makers typically do not and they continue through the distillation process.
Regardless, in the end, after the yeast and sugar are mixed and mashed, we have alcohol and it’s delicious!
As with most classic cocktail names, no one is really sure when the term “boilermaker” was first used or exactly what was originally served. In the workplace today, the name is associated with the trade union that represents blacksmiths, shipbuilders and a variety of welders and iron workers. The Oxford English Dictionary puts the origin of the word as a term specifically for steam engine builders first used sometime in the 1830s. So it’s appropriate that, throughout its history, the pairing of a strong shot of hard alcohol with a cold beer has always been associated with the working class.
That is, until recently, when it’s suddenly become the darling of any number of upscale (some might use the term “hipster”) drinking venues in the world’s trendiest cities, the patrons of which are unlikely to have work-calloused hands or come in at the end of the day covered in soot.
While the traditional dive bar boilermaker was cheap whiskey or bourbon paired with a PBR or Bud, this new incarnation is more likely to be Sazerac or Four Roses paired with a craft beer. It’s also more likely to run for much closer to $10 than any dive bar Boilermaker ever has.
The first evidence of the term “boilermaker” being used for the whiskey-beer pairing comes from British pub menus in the early 1900s.
How did we get from there to here? The beginning of the story is the most unclear part. The first attempts at distilling grain into what would eventually become whiskey began roughly 800 years ago, in the waning days of the medieval period in Europe. At the time, what they distilled was potent, but tasted absolutely nasty. So this is the likely origin of chasing whiskey with a beer to cleanse the palate.
Though it’s widely thought of as an American drink, the first evidence of the term “boilermaker” being used for the whiskey-beer pairing comes from British pub menus in the early 1900s. There was a long history throughout Europe of chasing a hard alcohol with a beer, but the practice was extremely uncommon in the United States until immigrants in the 1800s brought it over with them.
It’s unclear where the name “boilermaker” actually first appeared in the United States, but we do know that by the 1940s it was commonly seen on the menus at bars all around the country.
The “slam then drink” approach is widely regarded as the original method, though there’s no real evidence to prove this.
The traditional method of drinking is also a subject that is not historically verified and is still very much up for debate. There are three approaches to drinking a boilermaker: slam the shot first then drink the beer, chase sips of the shot with sips of the beer, or drop the shot glass entirely into the beer so that the two liquids mix. The lattermost of these methods was known to be practiced in British pubs in the 1600s, though under a variety of different names such as the “Pop-In.”
Modern bartenders will often call this a “depth charge” so that there is no confusion over what is being ordered. The “slam then drink” approach is widely regarded as the original method, though there’s no real evidence to prove this.
Boilermaker makes the upscale bar a more accessible place for those who don’t have the time to plumb the depths of the craft cocktail.
The only thing that is certain is that whiskey aficionados are cringing at the prospect of any of these options being perpetrated on anything better than a Jameson!
That’s the central point of the Boilermaker, however, and why it’s made a comeback in the most unlikely of places. It makes the upscale bar a more accessible place for those who don’t have the time or inclination to plumb the depths of the craft cocktail or Scotch scenes. It also represents a growing sense of embracing working-class roots in such venues, even if the price point is now at a level that the average working-class patron can’t afford.
All it takes to know that Shaun Traxler is one of the most creative up-and-coming bartenders in the industry (aside from tasting one of his concoctions), is checking out his Instagram account.
From images of his “Bedrock Breakfast”, the aptly titled alcoholic interpretation of Fruity Pebbles to “Deez Nutters” with butter washed rum, egg, salted peanut and honeycomb syrup, Traxler’s creations are anything but standard happy hour fare.
For those who know Traxler, however, this comes as no surprise, since the man himself is anything but your typical bartender.
In fact, he sees himself as a different breed completely, preferring to refer to himself as a “bar chef” instead of a mixologist.
From his professional beginning as the winner of a statewide mixology contest in Arkansas to his current full-time gig running the bar Sideways on Dickson in the same state, Traxler has still managed to fit in making guest-lecturer appearances at national conferences and keeping up a continuous flow of hard-to-believe new adults-only drink recipes.
And when he finds himself with a rare block of free time in his professional schedule? That’s easy. He fills it, just as he did in late March 2016 when he partnered with Bay City, Michigan’s bean roaster Populace Coffee to host “Coffee and Cocktails”. In an interview with Bay City Times the day before the event, Traxler shared the reason behind his distaste for the title “mixologist”, where he gets the inspiration for his creations and what he sees for the future of his career. Here are 7 takeaways from the Q&A with the self-titled “bar chef”.
Bowling alley beginnings
Traxler credits a bowling alley job at Pinny Lanes in Pinconning, Michigan with giving him his first taste of working behind a bar. While his official job title was mechanic, his love of bowling kept him wandering the lanes to check out games. There, bowlers would catch him and ask that he fetch drinks for them. While the unofficial orders were more often for soft drinks than beer, the experience gave him his first taste of life as a bartender. From there he worked the bar at a Buffalo Wild Wings, and nearly every position thereafter was as a bartender.
Foodie at heart
Traxler’s professional experience has largely been behind the bar, but his personal passion has always been more for food than drink. As a result, he finds inspiration for new cocktails primarily in the dishes he loves the most.
Traxler attributes the complex and unusual flavor profiles typical of his creations to his love for food.
One example? An arugula-pear salad topped with gorgonzola became the inspiration for a drink that married gorgonzola-washed tequila, pear, balsamic shrub and arugula. The verdict? “It tastes really good,” according to Traxler, which we’re sure is an understatement.
‘Bar Chef’ explained
Aside from the fact that his concoctions sound more like they belong on the light fare menu than they do the drink menu, Traxler shies away from the term “mixologist” for another reason as well. “It’s a term that has…become bastardized,” he opines. “…you’ll see people putting gummy worms in a cocktail and calling themselves a mixologist.” Hence, the title of “bar chef”.
A day in the life
When he’s not hosting events like the one with Populace Coffee or indulging in recipe-inspiring meals with his wife, Traxler spends his time behind the bar at Fayetteville, Arkansas’ Sideways on Dickson.
He laments that the crowd is comprised mainly of college students, but adds that there is also a craft beer and cocktail menu that he is proud to have created. “…you can dip your toes into every market,” he boasts of the 150 beers, 115 whiskeys and 24 ciders Sideways stocks.
While he is content running Sideways for now, ultimately Traxler aims to open his own bar. He hopes to achieve his goal within three years but stipulates that he has yet to settle on where he wants it to be. While he appreciates the potential in cities such as Detroit, he adds that having a child in Arkansas means that realistically he will probably stay in the state for the long run. What he does know is what vibe he is aiming for.
“It’s going to be super intimate. I’ve always wanted to do something that incorporates live jazz…”
Those with shallow pockets may not want to hold their collective breath, though. Traxler also wants his establishment to be “…super intimate with very expensive drinks.”
Surprisingly, despite the entire collection of recipes and potential recipes at his disposal, Traxler is a meat-and-potatoes man when it comes to pouring one for himself, preferring whiskey neat (like the bottle of Elijah 18 he got for his last birthday) and, of course, beer.
To check out more of Traxler’s creative libations, drop into Sideways. Even easier? Check out Instagram and take in the photos featuring his newest recipes for some inspiration.
While there have been a number of pioneers and inventors who have revolutionized the spirits industry, too often the women who have made spirits history are excluded, or the importance of their contributions are diminished. In this post, we would like to highlight the brilliance and ingenuity of the many women who have led to the vibrant spirits culture that we now live in.
The first alchemist
Without the work of Mary Hebraea in the 1st Century, the world may never have experienced the spirit at all. Hebraea, an alchemist, is often credited with having invented the first alembic still, which is a still wherein vapor is carried through a tube from a heated vessel into a cooling vessel where it recondenses into liquid. This distillation method is, in principle, the very foundation of the spirits industry. Anyone who loves a stiff drink owes much to Hebraea’s invention.
Pioneer in distaff distillation
Helen Cumming was not an inventor, but she was a fierce fighter for the love of spirits during an era when the high taxes on their production were illicitly avoided. In the 1800s Cumming worked the stills at Cardow Farm, owned by her and her husband John. Cumming was known for craftily avoiding the excise men who had come to cut the couple’s profits: she would bake bread to cover the yeasty smell of fermentation, often inviting the tax collectors in for tea and scones, and even invented a flag-based signalling system to alert fellow distilleries of the presence of government officials.
Her Majesty of Scotch Whisky
Queen Victoria, who reigned for the last 63 years of the 19th Century, was notoriously fond of Scotch whiskey. Her passion for it, as well as her popularizing the now common Scotch & soda mixed drink, led to the decline of Cognac as the most popular spirit and the rise of the whiskey-dominated market we see today. Without her support, the Scotch industry would undoubtedly be much more marginal than it is now. In addition, Queen Victoria serves as the icon of Bombay Sapphire due to her leadership at the time of its distillery’s first formulation.
Pauline Morton Sabine
The Society Queen Who Dethroned Prohibition
Though it might seem strange to include a fierce backer of Prohibition on this list, Pauline Morton Sabin switched sides when she realized how ineffective actually-existing Prohibition really was: after supporting heavy restrictions on alcohol in public, politicians would frequently toast with alcoholic beverages behind closed doors. Bootleggers and other nefarious business dealings troubled her, as well. Resigning from the Republican National Committee, she founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform which served a vital role in the eventual repeal of Prohibition. Without her change of heart we might still live in a dry country.
Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lythgoe
Queen of Rum Row
Gertrude Lythgoe is one of the most famous bootleggers of the Prohibition era. Upon the announcement of Prohibition, Lythgoe moved from her New York home to the Bahamas where she dominated in a male-driven industry. She was renowned for her intellect and beauty, but also for her fierce actions: when men believed they could disrespect her, she would haul them to her office and make clear that they could desist or take a bullet. Primarily a smuggler of whiskey, she was once charged with importing over 1,000 cases into New Orleans but managed to secure her acquittal.
The mother of Japanese whisky
Rita Cowan is the woman who is single-handedly responsible for the entire Japanese whiskey trade. She met her future husband, Masataka Taketsuru, while studying at Glasgow University and he asked her for her help and knowledge in producing Scotch-style whiskey in his native Japan. The two were married in 1920 and moved to Japan shortly thereafter. Their venture was a huge success, and Cowan is now often referred to as the “mother of Japanese whiskey.”
To all these women who have made spirits history and to those who have yet to make their mark, cheers to you!
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The craft spirit industry is in the midst of a boom, but confusion remains about what exactly qualifies a spirit as ‘craft’ and, as a consumer, how to know if what you’re buying is actually considered ‘craft’.
What Is A Craft Spirit
Unlike craft beer, there is no national, over-arching legislation defining what can be called a ‘craft’ spirit. No production minimum, no control of additives or ‘fake’ ingredients (outside of existing parameters for specific spirit categories), no corporate vs. private ownership status requirement.
Adding to the confusion is that a ‘craft’ spirit can be made from a non-craft base.
In the case of craft vodkas and gins, the base spirit often originates from a neutral spirit purchased in bulk from industrial suppliers. As for whiskey, independent bottlers who purchase aged whiskey by the barrel then blend, or ‘cut’, it to create something new can also be considered ‘craft’.
As you can see, there’s a fair amount of gray when it comes to what is and is not a craft spirit. However, industry advocacy groups, including the American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) and the American Distilling Institute (ADI), have created some guidelines to address the question, mostly based on ownership and production/sales numbers.
Production-wise, the general consensus is that to be considered ‘craft’, no more than 100,000 proof gallons can be produced per year.
As for ownership, both groups maintain that in order to qualify as a craft spirit, the distilled spirits plant (DSP) where the spirit is produced must be independently-owned.
Meaning “less than 25% is owned or controlled by alcoholic beverage industry members who are not themselves craft distillers.”
ADI goes a step further in its qualification rules by not only including a provision about ‘vision‘, but by also distinguishing between ‘craft distilled’ and ‘craft-blended’ spirits, the former requiring that the spirit is distilled by the DSP itself while the ladder originates from a non-craft base.
How To Tell The Difference
So, let’s summarize. A craft spirit is one that is produced in smaller quantities by an independently-owned distillery, of which there are essentially two types:
CRAFT DISTILLED SPIRITS: Goes from grain to bottle in-house at the craft distillery; the bottle declares “distilled and bottled in..”
CRAFT-BLENDED SPIRITS: Originates from commercially produced spirits that are then blended by the craft distillery; the bottle declares only “bottled in…”
Although a bottle may make several references to a state, like Tincup does with Colorado, this does not mean it is a craft distilled spirit unless the label specifically reads “distilled and bottled in…” In Tincup’s case, it does not; Colorado refers to the fact that the whiskey is cut with local water, so it is a craft-blended spirit.
If you’re thinking this is quite deceiving, then you’re on the money.
The craft spirit industry is full of clever marketing meant to entice buyers. Words like “small batch” or “handcrafted” may look good, but, remember, the only way to truly know what you’re buying is by looking at the writing on the label!