If you've lived in New York City around Christmastime, you may have heard whispers about coquito — a coconut-and-rum-based egg nog-like beverage that seems to be everywhere in certain neighborhoods in December. The drink, which originated in Puerto Rico, seems almost omnipresent among the city's sizable Puerto Rican and Dominican diaspora, and if you ask around you're bound to find someone who knows someone who not only makes coquito, but will sell you a bottle — usually in a repurposed spent rum bottle.
Technically, it's illegal to sell coquito without a liquor license in New York, but you're likely to have a harder time finding the stuff legally. Few legal options exist — Bacardi debuted their version just two years ago — and while the store-bought versions are fine if that's all you have access to, they pale in comparison to the homemade stuff.
The illegality of selling homemade coquito, coupled with the need to "know someone" in order to obtain it, might cast a negative light on coquito for some. And yet, coquito does not suffer from the same poor reputation as New York's other illegally sold homemade hooch, the high-proof juice concoction known as Nutcracker that's all over the streets of Harlem and Washington Heights every summer. That's probably because coquito is not associated with teenage partying, but rather family togetherness at the holidays with a deep and historic connection to some of New York's most vibrant and visible communities.
To find out more about coquito's connection to Puerto Rican culture in New York City (as well as how to make the stuff), I chatted with a woman who operates a holiday coquito-selling outfit out of Harlem called Coquito Mas Rico that sells both traditional and vegan coquito. To protect her identity, she has asked to be referred to only by her nickname, A-Rod.
Note: Selected portions of this interview have been condensed for clarity and length.
GP: Could you start by telling me a little about coquito and what it means to you?
A-Rod: It signals that Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) is quickly approaching. Time for music, dancing and homemade pasteles. I am Puerto Rican and Dominican, born and raised in NYC. Coquito signals that the best holidays of the year are approaching and quality time with family is near.
I remember being a kid gathering with family and all of the adults would come around and drink coquito; it was a must. The kids even had a special batch to drink along and join in on the toast! Those moments are some of my favorite memories of my childhood. So once Thanksgiving comes along, the coquito gets popped and it doesn’t stop until the New Year.
GP: Can you tell me a bit about coquito’s presence in NYC culture? This is anecdotal, but I feel like everyone I know in the city of Puerto Rican or Dominican heritage has some kind of coquito hookup.
A-Rod: The presence of coquito in NYC makes it feel like being back on the islands. Everyone wants some and everyone knows someone who makes it. It is everywhere in the city during this time, showing the strength of the emigrated Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic population in NYC, which only seems to be growing. Coquito is a connection to our culture and other cultures that share in similar holiday drinks, like Haitian Kremas. The strong presence of coquito in NYC is an indicator that our cultural traditions are being passed down through generations and it's a reminder of our home away from home. I love being from NYC because the presence of our culture and the diversity in so many communities shine so bright, especially during the holidays.
GP: So it seems like everyone certainly enjoys drinking coquito, how did you come to make a business out of it?
A-Rod: I remember watching my grandmother, mother, and aunt make coquito around the holidays and I was always attentive. I noticed they each made it differently but it was always good. Once I decided I wanted to make it I asked different family members for their preferences and then got to work on my own recipe.
Not everyone loves an overwhelming coconut taste or an unbalanced amount of spice or rum. So, I wanted to create a perfect blend. I began trying different mixtures, and found the combination I found was perfect. I then gave samples out and confirmed that it had the perfect balance and was not too thick.
Coquito Mas Rico really started just for family and friends and now has a small social medial presence. It is based in NYC with local delivery available or pickup in Harlem.
When it came time to share her recipe, A-Rod decided to keep her own "Perfect" coquito recipe a secret, and I certainly don't blame her. After all, she spent the time perfecting it, so I'd consider that her intellectual property. What she did instead was lay out all of the ingredients you need, along with rough measurements to make a coquito that you like, and she encourages you to experiment with your mix.
How to Make Coquito: An Approximate Recipe
A-Rod: There are so many ways to make traditional coquito so I am going to start off by saying that some people use eggs. I do not. (Editor's note: a quick Google search seems to suggest that many "Dominican-style" coquito recipes feature eggs.) Also, I don’t use exact measurements for everything — I eyeball some of the ingredients. It’s our people’s superpower, haha!
Some people cook their coquito in a pot on the stove others use a blender. Both styles are refrigerated upon completion so it’s a matter of personal preference. My preference is to use a blender. The milks that you use and the quantity of them are also dependent on your personal preferences and what taste you are trying to achieve. The cream of coconut has a strong taste of coconut (you can use Goya or Coco Lopez), so you can decide how much you want to use. The more you use, the more coconut you will taste, especially if you use coconut milk as well.
Although it is not my exact recipe, you will find everything you need to find your perfect blend below.
Cream of Coconut
Sweetened Condensed Milk
Ground Cinnamon or Cinnamon Sticks
White Rum (A-Rod likes Bacardi Superior)
1. Start by pouring the cream of coconut into the blender (use one-half or one whole can).
2. Add one can of coconut milk OR one can of evaporated milk. If you want a strong coconut taste, use coconut milk only. If you prefer a more balanced taste, use evaporated milk only. If you use coconut milk only and the taste ends up being too coconutty for you, add a bit of evaporated milk until you reach your desired flavor.
3. Add at least half of a can of sweetened condensed milk to the blender. I recommend using the entire can, but if you used both evaporated and coconut milk, you may want to start with just half a can.
4. Add ¼ - ½ tablespoon (to taste) of vanilla, 3-5 shakes of ground cinnamon (or 2-3 sticks) and a dash of nutmeg. Turn on your blender and mix until the cinnamon is dispersed evenly.
5. Add your favorite white rum. I recommend between eight to twelve ounces of liquor based on how strong you want it. The longer the coquito sits, the stronger it gets so I recommend settling somewhere in the middle of those measurements.
6. Blend for another minute and pour into a bottle. Refrigerate for at least two hours, but it will be best if left overnight. Pour into a glass over ice when serving for the best experience.
In addition to her classic coquito, A-Rod also makes a vegan version for those who can't or don't drink dairy milk.
GP: Where did the idea to make vegan coquito come from?
A-Rod: I decided to offer vegan coquito because I had friends who were special to me that were vegan or lactose-intolerant in their adult life but really missed the coquito they had when they were younger. Being either is obviously a problem when it comes to coquito because there are various milks in the traditional recipe. Again, coquito really is our culture so I decided I would do something about their dilemma to bring some cheer to their holiday. So, it was back to the drawing board.
I did some research on alternatives to the ingredients I use, tried out a recipe idea, provided some samples and I had a hit. People love the vegan coquito and appreciate it because it is not widely offered. I really started making coquito to begin with because it made my loved ones happy, which brings me joy, and the vegan offerings just add to that.
How do I make it? Although I can’t give out the exact details, it is not as hard as you think. Don’t … use … milk! Use coconut milk, cream of coconut, and replace the sweetened condensed milk with an alternative such as sweetened condensed coconut milk. The beauty of creating your vegan coquito at home is deciding on what blend tastes best to you.
You can follow the exact steps for how to make regular coquito to make the vegan, just be sure to swap out all of the dairy with non-dairy (and vegan) alternatives. It is worth noting that since there is no real milk, vegan coquito tends to be a little less thick, so even if you're using the same amount of liquor, the drink may taste stronger.
Remember, pour over ice and enjoy!
If you're in New York City and are looking to pick up your own bottle from Coquito Mas Rico this holiday season, head on over to their Instagram page and place an order.