Warm the holidays with boilo, a favorite of coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania
Earlier this month, HangoverCure.org surveyed 1,000 drinkers and came up with a list of iconic state drinks. The answer in Pennsylvania turned out to be a bit of a mystery, at least on the western side of the state: boilo.
So what is it?
“Here in the anthracite region, boilo is called ‘the champagne of the coal crackers,’ ” said Paul Kennedy, president of the Schuylkill County Fair and part of the panel that judges the fair’s annual boilo contest.
Boilo is a traditional Christmas drink popular among immigrant coal workers in the state’s anthracite coal region — primarily Carbon, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland and Schuylkill counties in northeast Pennsylvania — and its origins can be traced to eastern Europe.
The drink itself is made with oranges, lemons, honey, whiskey and a variety of spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, caraway seeds and star anise.
“In its true form, it’s from eastern Europe,” Kennedy said. “We have a very big Ukrainian and Lithuanian population. I’m Roman Catholic but I was adopted into a Lithuanian Catholic church, and boilo was absolutely part of the traditions there.”
There are several varieties that can be entered into the fair’s contest, with the traditional style taking on a very citrus-y taste. Traditional boilo must also be made using whiskey or, at one time (and possibly still today in some places), moonshine.
“The local state stores sell more Four Queens Whiskey in Schuylkill County than anywhere else,” Kennedy said of the locally favored whiskey base. “It’s not something you’d usually drink straight. It’s about $9 a bottle.”
Another style, apple pie boilo, is made using a clear grain alcohol as the base, and nontraditional boilo is a bit of an “anything goes” situation.
“One of the boilos I make is a peach boilo and, technically, it’s not a boilo at all, but the process is very similar,” Kennedy said. “At the contest, we’ve had a root beer one, and we’ve had all kinds of berry boilos, including a blueberry one that was very interesting.”
Kennedy has made boilo over an outdoor coal fire in the winter and in a hotel room using a slow cooker.
The important thing is to boil everything but the alcohol beforehand, “and then as it cools off, you add your liquor,” Kennedy said.
Boilo is mostly a social drink. Kennedy said he recalls attending holiday tree-lighting ceremonies as a child and walking up to one of the many folks handing out drinks from a Thermos.
“I’d go up to ask for some hot chocolate, and I’d be told, ‘No, no, no, that’s not what this is,’ ” he said.
While it may not be nearly as familiar to Western Pennsylvanians, for Kennedy and residents of the anthracite coal region, it’s as familiar as eggnog among Christmas traditions, which is why it has a place at the county fair.
“We celebrate it along with everything that’s part of Schuylkill County,” he said.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .