Boilo Is the Most American Yuletide Drink

The warm, boozy beverage is a holiday staple in the coal counties of Pennsylvania.

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Boilo mulled drink with all its ingredients
Photo: Chris Hatler

The Pennsylvania coal region isn’t just known as the home of America’s oldest brewery or for its ever-burning underground fire and resulting ghost town. It’s also home to a delicious holiday beverage worth adding to your Yuletide repertoire: boilo.

I first tried the stuff at a friend’s bridal shower in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill (pronounced skoo-kill) County. As the warm autumn afternoon faded into a chilly late-September night, her parents broke out some Crockpots and ladles, pouring everyone willing to hang out in the blustery cold a lowball glass full of the hot, spiced beverage. My palate jumped at what seemed at first to be a familiar, infamous taste—think Fireball—until the citrus fruit and honey aftertaste mellowed my tongue and warmed me in a way the adjacent bonfire couldn’t. I grew up just a few hours away in northwestern New Jersey, but I’d never had anything like it before. What was this drink, and where did it come from?

What is boilo and how is it made?

Boilo is the grandchild of krupnik, the eastern European liqueur that melds strong grain alcohol with clover honey and a blend of herbs and spices. When settlers from countries like Lithuania and Poland emigrated to the Pennsylvania coal counties looking for work, krupnik came with them, evolving over time to incorporate citrus fruit and favor bottom-shelf whiskey over grain alcohol.

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There are two widely accepted ways to make it: Crockpot style and stove top style. Both go something like this: Cut up some peeled oranges and lemons, squeeze them into a pot of water, and toss in the fruit along with it. Add spices of choice: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, caraway, and/or anise. Dump in a lot of honey. Let it simmer and cook down. Discard the fruits and spices, then turn off the heat. Pour the concoction into a pitcher or just leave it in the pot, then add your whiskey to the mixture and serve hot.

News sources list the New Jersey–distilled Four Queens as the proper boilo whiskey, but as long as it’s something high-proof, no one will bat an eye.

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But those are just the general guidelines; there are as many boilo recipes as there are families in the coal region. Some add raisins, others include cherries or apples or cranberries, still others use moonshine—the very original boilo add-in—instead of whiskey. As long as it’s sweet, boozy, and piping hot, you did your job correctly.

So conjure up some boilo, fill up a few pitchers, and serve it at your next holiday party. Next thing you know, your guests will be requesting a refill in “coal speak.”