Monday, November 18, 2019

It's Time To Make The Boilo - A Coal Country Tradition

Boilo is a traditional holiday spiced alcoholic drink, traditionally made in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving,  created by Lithuanian Coal Miners who settled in the anthracite region of central Pennsylvania.

"A peculiar sort of alchemy takes place each Christmas season in Pennsylvania coal country, where skilled practitioners huddle over big pots of steaming liquid, coaxing a potent but soothing elixir from secret recipes handed down through the generations." The Morning Call, Saturday December 22 2012

In the 1860s, Lithuania was being heavily persecuted by the Russian empire.  Serfdom had just been abolished, there was a great famine, and the Lithuanian language was banned. Conditions were so poor for Lithuanians, that ten hour work days in Pennsylvania Coal mines, at 25 cents an hour wages, was far preferable than staying in their homeland. So many Lithuanian men came to central Pa that it became known as "Little Lithuania", and Pennsylvania is known today as the home of the worlds oldest Lithuanian overseas community.

The Lithuanians had a honey liquer at home, called Krupnikas, that they no longer had access to here in central Pa.  So they set about creating their own version, today known as Boilo.  Originally Boilo was often made with moonshine, because it was all the miners could afford, and all they really had access to.  But Four Queens Whiskey is the alcohol of choice, and what most Boilo makers prefer to use today. 

Although Boilo is unique to a handful of Pennsylvania counties, areas where coal was mined by European immigrants more than 100 years ago, a similar drink can be found in the Lithuanian community in Baltimore, where it is called virtaya.

"A bottle of Krupnikas, a honey liquer from Lithuania.  Boilo, as in "boilin" was immigrants attempt to recreate the drink here" - Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 2017

Boilo takes about two hours to make, with the fruits and spices being cooked first, strained very thoroughly, then added to honey and grain alcohol.  The boilo can be then be bottled and stored.  The drink is warmed up before being served.

Fritz Lynagh, a retired Pottsville police officer,  remembers his parents administering small doses of hot boilo as a cold and flu remedy. Sometime in the 1980s, he began makinghis own, basing his technique around a recipe he received from a coworker at the county courthouse.

"His boilo begins with two liters of raspberry ginger ale emptied into a sturdy stock pot, along with staples like honey, raisins, oranges, lemons, cinnamon and cloves, plus some of his own touches: dried mint, pink peppercorns, caraway seed and concentrated OJ. This base simmers for a good half-hour before Lynagh pulls it from the heat, strains out the solids and stirs in his own reserve of Four Queens, plus a glug of Everclear for good measure. He does not boil the alcohol, but some do. He doesn’t add peaches or apples or blueberries or schnapps, either. Newfangled variations are fine, but he likes “the traditional stuff.”
Boilo Varieties  at the Schuylkill Fair

Although  coal country families are proud to share their Boilo throughout the season, they are less likely to share their family recipes.  There's a bit of a competition to to have the best boilo, at any gathering.  The base recipe for Boilo however, is easy to find:

4 cups water
4 1/2 pounds clover honey
4 oranges, quartered
3 lemons, quartered
1 cup raisins
 6 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 gallon 190 proof grain alcohol

In a large pot over medium heat, mix the water with honey, and stir to combine. Stir in the orange and lemon quarters, raisins, cinnamon sticks, caraway seeds, allspice berries, and cloves, and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, and strain the liquid into a large pot. Allow to cool for a few minutes.

Slowly pour the grain alcohol into the honey mixture, and stir to combine. Pour into bottles, and cap; refrigerate until use. Serve gently warmed in shot glasses.

Here's a great video showing Boilo being made over a campfire - 

 An Article from the 1954 Allentown Chronicle:


1 comment:

  1. Looking over the many "bolio" recipes online convinces me that things change with time and geography. I am of Lithuanian decent and traveled to Lithuania for the first time in '03. There I made many friends, went back every 6 months and decided to move there and open a bar in '07. During my years there I was invited many times to go to "the village" to visit friends parents and grandparents. Almost always a pot was being heated on a back burner which I later was advised was the base for krupnikas.
    Well, to make a long story short, the American or "coal region" version of this is much different than traditional old country. Here people say that their recipe was handed down but you must realize that most Lithuanians came here in the late 1800's and early 1900's. At this time orange juice, ginger ale, or cranberry juice was unheard of in Lietuva. Yet, most here use this as their "base". The citrus connection is almost the same in both countries. Children would receive a few oranges for Christmas (a dozen then was a few hours wages) thus never squeezed for the juice. After the children enjoyed their gift the peel was then added to the pot for a little more flavor. Then it was also used as a garnish when waste....same orange used 3 times.
    Over there apples are plentiful, grapes and peaches are available, and honey is everywhere.......thus.......the main ingredients. Then added was "berries from the forest". Children's job was to go collect them. The grain alcohol is abundant....can be found in every kitchen in gallon jugs under the sink (not kidding).
    Soooooo....what I am trying to say is that although "coal region" boilo is great, its just not the traditional thing. Also, makers here try to make it as potent as possible actually just making flavored grain alcohol.....over there its not made nearly as potent but more of a soothing, medicinal drink.


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