The cashier shot a brief but doting glance at the two bottles of Four Queens whiskey I’d set down in front of him.
“Doing some boilo, are we?”
I nodded a I-am-down nod. He smiled a no-you-ain’t smile.
“Make sure you don’t blow yourself up.”
I’ve learned many truths about boilo, the homespun potion that lubricates the holidays in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal country, but none more prominent than this: Everyone loves talking about its propensity to explode. Heating up a vat of alcohol over an open flame, after all, is not exactly the safest kitchen project. But here in Schuylkill County, the heart of the Boilo Belt, residents half-jokingly offer their own “you’ll shoot your eye out” to those who might not know better. The counter guy at this wine and spirits shop had correctly identified me as one of them.
Gifted and received, toted along to winter get-togethers and produced en masse at festive boilo-making parties, it’s a sippable currency during Christmas. The thing is, you can’t really buy it. You just gotta know a guy.
A few hours earlier, I’d met up with Fritz Lynagh, a retired Pottsville police officer with more than 30 years in law enforcement under his belt. Born and raised in what he lovingly calls “The Skook”—a nickname for Schuylkill County that outsiders like me are discouraged from using—Lynagh remembers his parents administering small doses of hot boilo as a cold and flu remedy. Sometime in the ‘80s, he began making it himself, basing his technique around a recipe he scored off a coworker at the county courthouse.
I was introduced to Lynagh through his nephew Tim McGinnis, a friend of mine who also grew up in the Boilo Belt. After a quick run to the market, we head into Lynagh’s kitchen, where he turns on The Allman Brothers and gets to work.
His boilo begins with two liters of raspberry ginger ale emptied into a sturdy stock pot, along with staples like honey, raisins, oranges, lemons, cinnamon and cloves, plus some of his own touches: dried mint, pink peppercorns, caraway seed and concentrated OJ. This base simmers for a good half-hour before Lynagh pulls it from the heat, strains out the solids and stirs in his own reserve of Four Queens, plus a glug of Everclear for good measure. He does not boil the alcohol, but some do. He doesn’t add peaches or apples or blueberries or schnapps, either. Newfangled variations are fine, but he likes “the traditional stuff.”
Mine goes into a glass, but Lynagh’s preferred vessel is a custom mug that reads “Fritz’s Best Batch Ever” across the top. “Everybody’s recipe is pretty much the same. It’s just fruit and spices and whiskey. We’re not making rocket fuel here,” he reasons, even though we kinda are. Served short and steaming, boilo is sweet, soulful and soothing in a toddy-adjacent type of way. It’s also strong.
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 Schuylkill and the surrounding counties, luring eager miners from all over Europe, including Ireland, Wales and Italy. The Lithuanians, however, are often credited with introducing proto-boilo 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 logical predecessor to what we know as boilo today.
Coal Country Boilo
“During the Christmas season, when house-to-house visiting is more frequent, it is not uncommon to see more boilo in a Lithuanian home than liquor or beer,” reads a 1954 feature in Allentown’s The Morning Call. “Only one drink is recommended, but a second is permissible. A third is usually denied because of boilo’s potency.”
Lithuanian immigrants, who settled elsewhere in the country, brought comparable customs to their communities—Baltimore-based Lithuanians, for example, produce a similar drink they call viryta—but up here it’s been known as boilo since at least the 1930s, when the earliest newspaper mentions of the beverage begin appearing. Where did that name come from? No one has the definitive answer, but many infer it grew out of anthracite slang. English-speaking miners, not accustomed to pronouncing Balto-Slavic words like krupnikas, witnessed Lithuanians boiling the drink and just called it like they saw it. I’ve also heard 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.
Etymology notwithstanding, boilo-making has always been a skill passed through word of mouth. The coworker who provided Lynagh with his first set of instructions was fellow Schuylkill County native Gwen Holden. Her husband is Tim Holden, the longtime Democratic congressman who is currently the chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
During their time in Washington, D.C., the Holdens did their best to bring some high-proof hometown cheer to Capitol Hill at the outset of every Christmas season. “Other people were making cookies. I was making boilo,” says Holden. To commemorate every presidential inauguration, she’d whip up an enormous batch for Tim to share with friends and colleagues; she still gets emails from old neighbors who were inspired to take up the practice themselves.
While DIY distillates have been used in boilo forever (“You can always find a still up here in The Skook,” says Lynagh), Four Queens is far and away the preferred store-bought spirit among boilo-makers, Holden and Lynagh included. If you haven’t heard of the blended whiskey, it’s because it’s not widely available outside of the coal region.
“It’s a product that’s survived over the years uniquely because of boilo,” says Tom Alberico of Laird & Company, the venerable New Jersey distillery that owns the brand. He doesn’t know exactly when or how Four Queens became the go-to, but speculates it caught on thanks to a low price point ($10/750ml) coupled with the high proof (101) required to stand up to the boilo-brewing process. Schuylkill County buys so much Four Queens—more than $65,000 worth between late 2016 and now, according to the PLCB—that Alberico says they alone are responsible for the product’s continued existence.
Alberico, who is Laird’s VP of Sales and Marketing, has attempted a number of times over the years to bring boilo, and its association with Four Queens, to a broader audience, with middling results. “I don’t think there’s any place outside of coal country that knows anything about it,” he says. “We did a little bit of work to see if we couldn’t sort of bring it along, but we haven’t had any success.”
He’s not the only one who sees mainstream potential in this provincial specialty, though. In 2012, Chris Brokenshire, a warehouse manager from Ringtown, Schuylkill County, released a pre-packaged boilo mix containing many of the most popular spices and flavorings in powder form—just add alcohol. “Everybody was trying to figure out how to commercialize it at one point or another,” says Brokenshire, who has received ample grief (“people at the front porch with pitchforks”) from purists who believe the hard way is the best way.
One of these traditionalists is Paul Kennedy, who has served as the president of the Schuylkill County Fair for the last six years. “I think that’s cheating. It takes half the fun out of it,” he says. Though that weeklong fair happens in early August, when the weather is not exactly hot beverage-friendly, Kennedy oversees a multi-judge boilo contest, one of many like it around here. To him, the proprietary touches that make these events so competitive—think, Lynagh’s hand-picked herbs and spices—is what makes boilo so special, and so Schuylkill.
Making it from scratch, Kennedy believes, honors what all boilomakers believe about themselves deep down: “There’s many different types of boilo—but the one I make is the best.”