12/24/19: UPDATED to include Cape May Brewing’s Coquito beer.
Every year around this time, my friend Christopher Jones starts begging for coquito, Puerto Rico’s traditional holiday coconut rum milk punch.
“For years I would harass Puerto Rican people I know along with anyone who looks remotely Latino to give me some,” he jokes. “Then this year I realized the internet has everything and I looked up a recipe.”
The New Jersey state lobbyist has no Puerto Rican in him, has visited the island once for a work trip (but didn’t know about coquito at the time) and isn’t even dating or married to a boricua. Truth told, he’s about as pale, blonde and Irish-American as you can get. But once a former neighbor introduced him to it as “Puerto Rican eggnog,” he was hooked.
“I told him, ‘This is way better than any eggnog I’ve ever had,’” he says.
Having discovered it a decade ago, Jones is way ahead of our fellow gringos in his knowledge and appreciation of the drink whose highly personal recipes get passed down through generations, with secret ingredients guarded like the code to a safe holding the family jewels.
While it’s unlikely most will start sharing the entirety of their valued recipes, a few Puerto Rican companies are starting to promote the beverage here on the mainland, believing the time is right to capitalize on the recent recession- and hurricane Maria-sparked influx of Puerto Ricans, as well as the popularity of similar boozy, creamy products like RumChata.
“A, it’s delicious. Period. It is. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like it. B, the audience is definitely there,” says Yisell Muxo, director of brand advocacy for Puerto Rico’s Serrallés distillery, which owns the island-wide staple rum brand, Don Q.
In 2018, Muxo officially registered December 21 as National Coquito Day. This year, Serrallés mailed bottles of Don Q Cristal to spirits journalists along with a printed coquito recipe from the Serrallés family. Muxo’s own award-winning recipe is on the website.
However, true to tradition, “I would not put my hand on fire and tell you that’s the whole recipe,” she laughs.
Also this year, Puerto Rico’s Bacardi released a bottle of pre-made coquito, and packaged-food corporation Goya announced a new initiative to promote coquito to “those who are looking to give a Caribbean twist to their seasonal beverages.” To be transparent, I can’t find any evidence of a promotion beyond a webpage full of photos, recipes and ads for canned Goya products that go into the drink. The press representative listed on the published announcement didn’t respond to a request for comment.
However, as this blog post shows, Cape May Brewing in South Jersey is more than willing to explain how its brewers conceived of and made Coquito, a tasting-room-only barrel-aged imperial cream ale with toasted coconut and Madagascar vanilla beans.
It’s incredibly hard to track any growing familiarity with coquito, as home mixologists buy the ingredients separately – rum, cream of coconut, condensed milk, evaporated milk, an optional egg yolk, plus any individual additions like pistachios, baking spices, vanilla, and fun flavorings like Nutella, coffee, brandy, dulce de leche or mint.
But these types of drinks are definitely trending. According to Nielsen data:
· Eggnog holds a 5.8% share of the creamy cocktail category and delivered 12.6 % segment growth this year.
· Bacardi Coconut Flavored Rum is growing 20% year-to-date, while other coconut flavored spirits are growing 8%.
Also, says Ned Duggan, senior vice president of marketing for Bacardi, “In recent years we’ve seen a spike in coquito social chatter around November and December. We worked long and hard with our blenders in Puerto Rico to develop a recipe that is authentic to Bacardi and our Caribbean roots, and the response so far has been phenomenal.”
As a Puerto Rican, the executive chef who oversees culinary operations for Orlando’s Exploria Stadium and other venues has collected plenty of anecdotal evidence over years of making the drink for client events and, at a former job, as an unlimited welcome drink for Diamond Club members at Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino.
“We get very good and positive comments,” says Hector Torres, who works for Spectra, a Philadelphia-based hosting and entertainment management company. “We had a Spectra conference at our stadium and we had coquito as a shot on the bar.”
Current scholarship can’t place the origin of coquito to a specific time or person. But many Latin American countries make their own home versions of seasonal milk punches.
Muxo says, “Not that it’s usually cold in the Caribbean in the winter but it’s kind of warming, and the ingredients are very accessible economically and easy to pin down: sugar cane, milk, some sort of distillate and spices indigenous to our countries.”
Torres is a rare Puerto Rican who does share his recipe (see below), and he loves to get creative with flavorings. Not only did he suggest the flavors I mentioned above, he makes a non-alcoholic version, giving kids, including his own, cinnamon sticks and candy canes as swizzle sticks.
“As long as you maintain the consistency of the main ingredients you’re able to transform those elements with any flavor,” he says. “At home, we do coquito every year. If we don’t do coquito it’s like not Christmas.”
As for my buddy Chris Jones, he’s bringing his first-time attempt to my house Sunday so we can sample it together while we participate in a quintessentially American holiday pastime: rooting against the Dallas Cowboys. We’ll also try my own first-time attempt, which I made for friends this week using the Serrallés recipe, which Muxo hints is likely not the full version, either.
I’ll force Chris to see the 39-year-old scar on my foot and hear the traumatic story about the three stiches I endured when a bottle of coquito fell through a shopping bag and shattered atop it. Because I curiously didn’t like coquito as a kid, I resented it mightily for this injury until I re-tried it a few years ago and realized what I’d been missing.
Also, I’m sure my brother will call in to brag that his version beats both of ours, given that he’s whipped up his own recipe based on one he somehow managed to finally squeeze out from a family friend whose relationship with our own family dates back no less than 6o years and three generations. He even had the audacity to proclaim his better than the bottled Bacardi batch we tasted a few weeks ago alongside his own.
Chris and I don’t profess ourselves at that level yet. I found mine a little bland, and Chris admits he “over-coconutted” his.
Even so, he’s already got the braggadocio thing down.
When I asked him how it turned out, he answered, “It’s awesome. It is awesome.”
All I have to say is, we’ll see about that Sunday, Jonsey. We’ll see about that.
Chef Hector’s Coquito, by Hector Torres, Spectra executive chef at Exploria Stadium
Ingredients: 2/4 teaspoon Cloves, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, Pinch of salt, 15 Oz. can of Cream of Coconut, 13.5 Oz of Coconut milk, 12 Oz – Evaporated Milk, 14 Oz Condensed Milk, 2 Star Anise, 1 Cup Water, 1 1/2 Cup Coconut Flavored Bacardi White Rum or a rum of your choice
In a small pot add water and star anise gently boil, 3 minutes, add cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, let cool completely. Remove star anise from the water. The water mixed with the spices adds more flavor to the cocktail. It can be made without the water too as an option but this is what makes it special.
In the blender, add the water and all the remaining ingredients except for the rum. Note: Depending on the size of your blender, you may need to do two batches. In a larger pitcher, add rum with the mix and keep stirring until all liquids are included.
Refrigerate one or two hours before serving.
If you want to add more flavors you can add them to the mixture. For example, for Pistachio coquito just add a scoop of pistachio ice cream or a ¼ pistachios. Get creative with flavors to enhance it with Nutella or dulce de leche to taste. For the children in your family, separate a batch before adding in the rum for them to enjoy it and celebrate with the group. Garnish with a candy cane or cinnamon stick to be more festive!
Store in the refrigerated in air-tight container for up to four days to enjoy later on or give as a gift.