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Boilo: the original Coal Miner Liquor

3 min read

In Pennsylvania’s Coal Region, chilly winters have long been accompanied by a powerful and potentially explosive companion, known as boilo. Typically, it’s an orange brew made of liquor, honey, citrus fruit, and spices and, sometimes, raisins or ginger ale are added to the mix.
My brother recently learned many truths about boilo, but none more prominent than this: everyone loves talking about its propensity to explode.
And it’s understandable: heating up a vat of alcohol over an open flame is not exactly the safest kitchen mission!
Boilo is potent to the point that locals joke about its combustible vapor, even though it’s often made in the safety of a slow cooker. Brewing a batch of boilo is a time-honored traditional event rooted in the early mining communities and the Schuylkill County area.

Boilo is a wintertime drink, often sipped around the Christmas tree. While every family has their own recipe, it’s generally agreed that its origin can be traced back to a Lithuanian honey liquor.
This punch, locals will tell you, can be traced back to Pennsylvania’s immigrant coal mine workers.
In the period between the end of the Civil War and the mid-1960s, anthracite mining boomed in the surrounding counties, luring, of course, eager miners from all over Europe, including Ireland, Wales and Italy. The Lithuanians, however, are often credited with introducing the drink to this part of the state. Infused with spices and herbal notes to temper the natural sweetness, krupnikas, the honey-flavored liqueur drunk throughout Eastern Europe, is the predecessor to what we know as boilo today.
But, where did the name “boilo” come from? No one has the definitive answer, but many infer it grew out of anthracite slang. English-speaking miners, not accustomed to pronouncing Slavic words like krupnikas, witnessed Lithuanians boiling the drink and just called it like they saw it. In addition, it seems that the “O” on the end serves as a built-in safety warning: “boilo” being short for “boil over,” which you should avoid if you’d like to keep your house intact!

Moreover it developed a reputation as a soothing beverage: It was once considered powerful enough to soothe colds and the flu. These days, though, it’s drunk more for fun than for health, giving it the nickname “the Champagne of the Coal Region.”
It is made of grain alcohol or cheap whiskey that is enriched with fruits, cider, and spices to add different and interesting flavors. It’s a holiday punch best served warm. Make sure to sip the final product slowly, as boilo can easily knock you off your feet….

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