A PENNSYLVANIAN/LITHUANIAN YULE BEVERAGE
New Word: Boilo
Definition: alcoholic yule-tide cocktail; coal country cocktail, …1
(Not just any coal country. Pennsylvania coal country.)
…a name unique to a handful of Pennsylvania counties.
And not just any Pennsylvania coal county.
My sources speak of counties that, more than one hundred years ago, were populated with Lithuanian immigrants who mined anthracite coal. This includes the Schuylkill County community of Minersville, town where my the family of my maternal grandfather—Adam Borinsky, a. k. a. Albert Charles Briskay—emigrated from Europe to America in 1894 when my grandfather was two years old.
Thus it can be concluded that boilo is a part of my heritage, probably consumed, and perhaps made by, my ancestors, who lived in boilo’s epicenter: Brewing up a batch of wassail-like boilo is a time-honored traditional event, with roots in the early mining communities and cultures of northeast Pennsylvania, especially in the Schuylkill county area.2
The invention of Lithuanian immigrants, boilo shares ingredients with krupnikas, a traditional spiced honey liquor that has been consumed in Lithuania and Poland (where it is called krupnik) for centuries. Yet the name is unique to a handful of Pennsylvania counties…The cocktail also appears to be related to viryta, a drink popular with the Lithuanian-American community of Baltimore. In fact, viryta is derived from the Lithuanian word for “boil” or “cook.”1
During the yule season…which is now… skilled practitioners huddle over big pots of steaming liquid, coaxing a potent but soothing elixir from secret recipes handed down through the generations.1
The holiday beverage is best served as a punch (made of fruits, cider, and spices), heated to warm (not boiling), to which grain alcohol or cheap whiskey is added. It should be sipped very slowly, because it’s universally agreed that boilo can knock you off your feet.2
Eastern coal country’s boilo recipes were originally developed using moonshine2, perhaps because there was nothing else, or because the cooks had no money for anything else. This brew was strong stuff.1
Perhaps you’ve heard of boilo, a “home-brewed” blend of alcohol, honey, fruits, juice and spices whose popularity is second only to the lager crafted and bottled in Pottsville by America’s oldest brewery, Yuengling (YING-ling). Many family recipes, that vary slightly but use the same basic ingredients, have been handed down through the families for generations—with their exact ingredients remaining a family secret.2
Or perhaps you’ve heard of boilo by its other monikers: coal region nectar, coal cracker punch or the champagne of the coal region.2
I must admit that, although I lived with my Lithuanian grandfather for the first eight years of my life, and he wasn’t averse to drinking, I don’t recall our kitchen smelling of boilo spices during the holiday season.
Perhaps you’ve attended a holiday party which featured boilo. I haven’t. Or perhaps, right now, your coal-region kitchen is filled with the fragrant, intoxicating aroma of spices and citrus.1 Mine isn’t.
So perhaps, sometime during this Yule season, I should attempt to create boilo.
If so, I’m in luck. I could cheat with the assistance of Ringtown, Pennsylvania resident Chris Brokenshire, 40. Ringtown is a small Schuykill County town fifteen miles due north of Minersville (as the crow flies) or twenty-one miles by highway.
The forklift operator used his twenty-year history of making boilo to develop a powdered drink mix which purists sniff at, considering it to be a rather generic facsimile of the homemade concoction that’s typically made with ingredients like honey, oranges, lemons, caraway and anise seeds, cinnamon sticks, ginger ale, and whiskey.1
That is, I could cheat if I can manage to purchase the preparation which Brokenshire began selling in a few Schuylkill County stores in November 2012 and on his website*. Apparently the mix is selling faster than it can be packaged.1
Or perhaps, since I lead toward purism, I could create my own kettle of boilo from scratch, improvising a recipe using the clues in this post.
I think this would be an interesting way to claim my one-quarter Lithuanian heritage.