There is one absolute, 100 percent, gold-plated way to make all Puerto Ricans—and most people who have visited the island—smile. Walk up to them and say one simple word: coquito.
Coquito is an aged creamy, sweet, and boozy holiday beverage unique to Puerto Rico, one that is so dear to the heart and history of every Borinqueño. It’s full of spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and vanilla. There’s dairy in it, but also both coconut milk and cream of coconut, which are slowly cooked with eggs to create an emulsion. Oh, and there’s a bunch of 151-proof rum. You might be thinking that this sounds like eggnog, but calling coquito eggnog would be like comparing Humvees to smart cars or thigh-high Louboutin boots to dollar-store flip-flops. There’s just no comparison.
Just about every family of Puerto Rican descent has the softest of soft spots for this delicious holiday libation. And they all have their very own family recipe. Each year, the matriarch makes a new batch that is then added to what is left from the previous year, like a starter that both flavors and informs the new coquito.
The patriarch usually has a “guy.” The “guy,” whose name is never spoken aloud, delivers an unmarked bottle of moonshine rum just in time to spike a fresh batch. If there is no “guy,” store-bought, high-octane island rum can be substituted in a pinch.
My first encounter with coquito was in the mid-seventies at a Three Kings’ Day party, when my Coast Guard family and I lived in Puerto Rico. Three Kings’ Day, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church, celebrates the three wise men, who traveled from afar to a little barn under a miraculous star and brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
On January 6, most Spanish-speaking, Catholic countries observe El Día de los Reyes with their own traditions and ceremony. In Puerto Rico, the wise men are remembered as the original bringers of the party. The Borinqueños’ holiday and its resulting celebrations and parades are the glittery, pig-cooking, salsa-dancing proof.
When I saw my parents and their friends enjoying coquito at a Three Kings’ Day party, I asked my mother what they were drinking. She told me they were “grown-up milkshakes.” If she’d wanted me to crave a taste, she couldn’t have come up with a more alluring term.
So, of course, when no one was looking, I tried it.
To me, it remains the flavor of that golden island, adult sophistication, and warm, happy holiday nights. It’s creamy, spicy, sweet, and the dangerous 151-proof rum mellows into a caramel-flavored background note—a note that can turn a curious kid’s knees to noodles after more than a few sips.
Since coquito is a cooked, aged milk punch with rum, and the laws of North Carolina’s ABC commission state that premade drinks mixed with spirits can only be sold in sealed, inspected containers, the only way you’ll be able to enjoy it by the glass is at a holiday party in a bar, restaurant, or private home. Failing that, your best bet is to make your own coquito.
Family coquito recipes are prized family heirlooms and therefore not easy to come by, but former Durham police chief Jose Lopez and his gracious wife, Becky, have generously shared Becky’s grandmother’s recipe. Becky says the drink can be enjoyed after twenty-four hours of aging, but Jose’s minimum threshold is fifteen minutes. I usually wait until it’s cool enough to add the rum and not burn my tongue.
Becky Lopez’s Grandmother’s Coquito
5 fresh cinnamon sticks
½ inch piece of ginger
2 12-oz cans of evaporated milk
2 13.5-oz cans of coconut milk
2 egg yolks (no membrane)
1 15-oz can of cream of coconut (such as Coco Lopez)
2 capfuls of vanilla extract
151-proof dark rum or your choice of dark rum*
*Bacardi stopped making 151-proof last year. I now use Cruzan 151-proof aged rum.
Take cinnamon sticks and smash them in a paper towel with a mallet so that their oils and taste may be released in the boil. Peel the ginger then cut it into thin pieces. Place the cinnamon and ginger in a small pot filled halfway with water (1½ to 2 cups) and boil it for about 15 minutes. This should yield no more than 1 cup of liquid mixture.
Open 1 can of evaporated milk and 1 can of coconut milk and empty them into a large pot. Place your egg yolks in this milk mixture (an extra yolk or two will make the result thicker and creamier). Stir this well until there is no separation between eggs and liquid. Remove anything that is floating (i.e., any egg membrane) and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the cream of coconut, stir, then add the rest of the ingredients including the remaining cans of evaporated and coconut milks, vanilla extract, and the cinnamon-and-ginger water. Stir well. Let the mixture cool down and add rum to taste. Note: It’s important to add the rum only after the mixture has cooled down. Buen provecho!
Optional: Before adding rum, store this mixture overnight in a cold place (fridge or outside, at 45 degrees or lower), then strain the congealed fat from the top.
Storage: Because the eggs were slowly cooked, this drink can last for years in the fridge. Grandma would always bring out the previous year’s coquito (which always tasted better) and serve it in shot glasses. With time, the drink mixes and thickens even more. I have had up to four-year-old coquito in my fridge. The trick is to shake your refrigerated bottles at least once a month.