© 2023 90.5 WESA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip: news@wesa.fm

Oh Boi-lo! Holiday Beverage Source Of Cheer And Warmth

Many in the coal region celebrate with holiday season with a drink called boilo, made of oranges, lemons, spices and grain alcohol.

'Tis the season for a hot beverage that warms from the inside out.

For many residents of the coal region, that means it's time to heat up a batch of boilo.

The sweet citrus drink has remained a popular beverage for cold winter days, even as other traditions from coal region's eastern European immigrants have faded.

Boilo's roots are in Lithuania, where a spiced honey liqueur called Krupnikas has long been a holiday favorite. When Lithuanian immigrants made their way to coal region, they attempted to replicate the drink, substituting traditional ingredients with those more readily available.

Gregory Sacavage, an advocate for maintaining Lithuanian culture in Mount Carmel, said he makes the yuletide drink each year using a recipe passed down through generations of his family.

Sacavages's grandfather was a Lithuania coal miner, he said, and his earliest memory of boilo is from when he was just five or six years old. In those days, his family would attend Mass at Holy Cross Church on New Year's Day, then go to the Lithuanian Club on Oak Street. He recalled the club president walking around with a warm heated pitcher of boilo and giving everyone a small taste — even the children.

"When I was out of high school, college, I decided I wanted to make it," he said.

He learned the recipe from his uncle, and now teaches it to anyone in the Mount Carmel area who expresses interest in learning the art of boilo.

"It's a labor of love," Sacavage forewarns, adding that the name "boilo" comes from a boiling process that melds together the fruit flavors with a variety of spices.

Boilo takes about an hour and a half to two hours to finish. The process begins with juicing oranges and lemons, then adding whole spices like cinnamon and caraway seeds. These ingredients are mixed, brought to a boil and simmered. The mixture is then painstakingly strained — Sacavage said the clearer the liquid, the better the boilo.

Honey and a grain alcohol are added, then the boilo can be bottled and stored. Though some boilo-makers give preference to certain alcohols, like Four Queens Whiskey, Everclear or moonshine, Sacavage is more flexible.

"There's really no bad boilo," he said.

Shortly before drinking, the boilo is heated up. Sacavage also suggests adding boilo to other drinks, like tea, to dilute it and create a tasty beverage.

"It's pretty strong," he said. "You just gotta watch and drink it in moderation."

Ed Stellar said he had his first taste of boilo while tailgating at a Penn State football game. The tailgate's regularly had apple pie boilo heating on the stove, Stellar recalled.

"Those cold November games, it absolutely hit the spot," he said.

Stellar said his wife's grandmother, Alma, believed boilo would cure anything. Even in old age, Alma could detect when a neighbor would arrive at the home bearing the gift of boilo, Stellar said.

"When she spotted it and smelled it, she'd say, ' I'll take some of that,'" he said.

Sacavage said he regularly gives bottles of boilo away as gifts, and he is always flattered when he receives the bottles back because it means the recipient would like more.

Recently, Sacavage, Stellar, Stellar's son, Jayson Stellar, and Stellar's cousin, Eric Giorgini, practiced preparing boilo in the rear of Hollywood Pizza, Mount Carmel, in anticipation of an annual boilo-making competition held by the Mount Carmel Eagles. Sacavage said people have traveled from as far away as Harrisburg to compete.

(Photo Credit: Mike Steinhoff/Flickr)

As a public media organization, WESA provides free and accessible news service to the public.

Please give now to continue providing fact-based journalism — a monthly gift of just $5 or $10 makes a big difference.