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Boilo remains a strong coal region tradition

Ann Pizzoli (left) and Patrick McDevitt, both of Mt. Carmel, sample boilo at the annual contest hosted in Mt. Carmel.
Haley O'Brien
Ann Pizzoli (left) and Patrick McDevitt, both of Mt. Carmel, sample boilo at the annual contest hosted in Mt. Carmel.

A generations-old tradition remains strong - in pride and in alcohol content. The holiday staple known as boilo brings people in the coal region together to try each other’s concoctions and celebrate their heritage.

People make the spiced whiskey drink and customarily give a jar to friends and neighbors as a gift. It’s served warm, and Pennsylvania Dutch families would often have a pot of boilo on the stove when hosting tree-trimming parties.

Greg Sacavage was introduced to the drink by the Lithuanian Club and his church. He has hosted an annual boilo and limoncello contest at the Mt. Carmel Fraternal Order of Eagles for roughly ten years.

While limoncello recipes are all over the internet, it’s not as easy to find a recipe for boilo. Families pass their recipes onto younger generations and each one seems to vary. That’s why Sacavage likes bringing coal crackers together to try everyone’s recipe.

“It's wonderful actually getting back to the heritage of it, and how it's made,” said Mark Verbyla, who grew up in Catawissa. “Old timers, they had what they had, and that's what they went with. Sometimes you'd run into some people that will use something brewed in a copper kettle.”

Ann Pizzoli, who was there to judge, likes to keep her hometown tradition alive.

“My father would make it, my grandparents made it,” she said. “I introduced it to some people in D.C., I lived in D.C. for a long time, and Philly,” she said. “People are always like, ‘what’s boilo?’”

“I love all the local traditions, and this is a huge one,” said Patrick McDevitt, another enthusiastic taster.

Judges paid $5 and rated each sample in the categories of aroma, color, clarity, and taste. Mark Verbyla won fourth place for his boilo recipe.

“There's no real wrong way to make it. It's just you gotta put in your heart, and your family's heritage,” he said. “What really built this was family and tradition. And those are the two big things that will always make this area.”

Whiskey with a Twist (of Lemon)

The holiday cocktail is inspired by a popular Lithuanian liqueur, Greg Sacavage explains.

“Krupnikas is basically a honey drink with liquor and different spices in it, but the only difference is no lemons or oranges, there was no citrus in it,” he said. “The immigrants came here with their krupnikas recipes. And what happened was, you know, they started to look around and say, ‘We could throw a little bit of orange juice in there.’”

John Darrah says boilo is a little bit like a ‘hot toddy,’ which is made with whiskey, hot water, lemon, and honey.

“But really, I think if you've never tried it, I don't think there's anything you can exactly compare it to. It's definitely a different taste,” he said. “Some people put some cherry or cranberry in and some people do peach, some people do like an apple pie type of boilo.”

“Boilo has allspice, some kind of pepper, whole pepper, usually, I have a cousin that puts a hot pepper and floats that in, but I'm not sure about that,” Sacavage said.

Most recipes include orange juice, honey, ginger ale, caraway seeds, cloves, and cinnamon. Some insist that the alcohol must be of a certain brand.

“There's a school of thought that says, you gotta use Four Queens,” he said. “The reason people use Four Queens is because it's 100 Proof whiskey. And you want to try to get a higher alcohol content in your boilo because you're mixing it off with a lot of water and a lot of juices.”

John Wahl is regional sales manager at Laird and Company, the distiller of Four Queens.

“The product is available nationwide, 95% is sold here in Pennsylvania and my guess is 40% of that is sold in the coal counties,” Wahl said. “We depend on boilo and boilo depends on us. I hope the boilo tradition continues from generation to generation.”

Haley joined the WVIA news team in 2023 as a reporter and host. She grew up in Scranton and studied Broadcast Journalism at Marywood University. Haley has experience reporting in Northeast Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. She enjoys reporting on Pennsylvania history and culture, and video storytelling.

You can email Haley at haleyobrien@wvia.org