Coquito: The Puerto Rican Eggnog That Has Its Own Festival

If you're in Puerto Rico — or a household with Puerto Rican roots — around the winter holidays, you're certain to encounter coquito, a creamy, chilled beverage that tastes like tropical Christmas. Families often have their own take on the drink, with ingredients that can distinguish one coquito from another made right next door. The basic cocktail is fairly simple, though its rich cultural context is anything but.

Coquito, which translates as "little coconut," is basically a Caribbean version of eggnog, but with differences that mark the cocktail as uniquely Puerto Rican (via Amigo Foods). It includes ingredients that reflect the history of the island, and sharing it with friends and family around the holidays celebrates the heritage and diversity of those who have shaped the territory's evolution.

Rum, the alcoholic beverage that gives coquito its kick, is one of Puerto Rico's major exports. Rum has a long history in Puerto Rico, and more than 70% of what's consumed in the U.S. is produced on the island, per Discover Puerto Rico.

How does Puerto Rican history figure in the coquito?

Amigo Foods explores how the history of Puerto Rico is expressed in coquito and how the indigenous Taíno, Spanish, African, and American influences all play a part.

When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island that would later be called Puerto Rico, Smithsonian explains that millions of native inhabitants called the Taíno populated the land. To the Taíno, Spanish settlers brought a fondness for possets, a warmed beverage made with milk mixed with wine, brandy, or sherry. European contact transformed the island, and much of the land and labor was committed to producing sugarcane, among other cash crops (via Casa Melaza). Because the alcohol needed for possets was in short supply on the island, the (now abundant) sugarcane-derived rum became the tipple of choice.

In the 16th century, according to History, the Spanish increasingly relied on the labor of enslaved people brought to the island from Africa. Spanish colonizers brought not only African slaves but also coconut, which wasn't native to the island (via Caribbean Business). At the end of the 19th century, Spain relinquished control of Puerto Rico to the U.S., and in 1952, the island officially became a commonwealth of the U.S. The last ingredients required for the coquito, which came to Puerto Rico from the U.S., are the canned, shelf-stable milks. The U.S. had a robust dairy industry, and the population developed a taste for milk products that could make the journey to the island.

How do you make coquito?

Coquito is easy to make, and even though it's often called "Puerto Rican eggnog," most recipes don't actually contain eggs. It starts with rum, usually rum from Puerto Rico, like Don Q, Barrilito, or Bacardi. According to Will Cook for Smiles, to the rum you'll add condensed or evaporated milk, cream of coconut, vanilla, and holiday spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and ground clove. You'll blend all your ingredients until smooth, then transfer them to a sealed container. Because you're working with warm ingredients and don't want to water down the drink with ice, you'll want to refrigerate at least four hours before serving. 

Many Puerto Rican families have their own secret variations on the coquito theme, and a kid-friendly, non-alcoholic version can be made by omitting the rum. The Conscious Plant Kitchen even provides a vegan coquito recipe, swapping sweetened condensed coconut milk for the dairy-based version and using almond and coconut milks in place of evaporated milk.

Coquito is for celebrating the winter holidays

According to PureWow, coquito is practically synonymous with Christmas in Puerto Rico and in places where Puerto Ricans have migrated. Some families, each with their own recipe, of course, bring out the coquito as early as Thanksgiving, and some families enjoy it all the way until Epiphany on January 6. Coquito is always served cold and usually in shot glasses, either as a welcome drink for guests, to accompany a meal, or as dessert.

The coquito is so iconically Puerto Rican that each year since 2018, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance has held the National Coquito Festival in Chicago. In 2022, the event will be held on December 3, and it will feature competing coquito recipes, Puerto Rican food, and Christmas music. The best coquito at the festival will earn its maker bragging rights. And if you can't make the Chicago festival, you'll have another opportunity to whip up a batch of coquito on December 21, which is National Coquito Day.