My feverish obsession with making the best coquito took off 4 years ago. I had settled back in Nuyorico after a one year research stint in Puerto Rico. New (once more) to my Puerto Rican community in New York, I set to perfect the recipe of my foremothers. Scratch that. I set to one-up the Carmen Aboy Valldejulis’s in my life, and claim my Puertoricanness amongst my new Puerto Rican community. I would like to think that I succeeded in making the best coquito. Anyone who has ever made coquito will try to prove me wrong, but they are all just lying. I know I succeeded because my mom texted me last week asking me for my coquito recipe. Mom knows best. Not one to rest on my laurels, however, la fiebre de perfeccionar mi coquito no se me ha pasado. Google, YouTube, and E-gullet have been my allies in the search for the coquito holy grail.
Coquito exchange between the author and her mom
Fast forward to two years ago, and I decided to expand the reach of coquito past my Puerto Rican peers. It was time to grace my boyfriend’s Jewish family with this delicacy from my island. Coquito, I am proud to say, has become a staple at the Zuckermans’ Thanksgiving table. And if a recent New York Times article is any indication, coquito has become a favorite of many beyond our national borders. Coquito, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most sought recipes in certain parts of the United States during Thanksgiving. I would bet this extends to the rest of the holidays.
Indeed, nowadays, coquito has been making the rounds around the United States, amongst Puerto Ricans and non-Puerto Ricans alike. Last November, my favorite Colombian waiter at my favorite Spanish restaurant gushed about making coquito for his family’s holiday festivities. Two days ago, I met Mike and Ingrid whose only relation to Puerto Rico are the strong ties they built through bonds with German, a Coquito Masters contestant, their frequent trips to Culebras, and their love for Coquito. Ingrid, a self-described “nice Jewish girl from New York City,” professed her love for coquito. Her husband recounted his first encounter with it, “I bought it from this guy doing homemade coquito out of the trunk of his car…and all of the sudden here I am…it was like a drug dealer, but it was coquito. It was very nice, with a ribbon. He met me in some corner of an intersection and was like, I’m here. And I went out and he opened up his trunk and grabbed a couple of bottles…and my friend I run with every Sunday, his doorman makes it too. So, I’m getting a bottle from him, and a bottle from another guy and a bottle from my friend’s brother.” Given my own penchant for coquito, I wasn’t at all surprised by their enthusiasm. Still, as coquito entrenches itself into the United States gastronomy, my intrigue about the drink deepens. How did coquito come to be? And how did we come to love it so?
First, a little bit of history. Try as we may, Coquito’s history remains as elusive and enigmatic as its many recipes (some people keep theirs locked, quite literally). A quick Google search may suggest otherwise. Theories abound about coquito’s origins. If you tout yourself a coquito aficionado, you may want to skip ahead. This will be old news. For everyone else, here are the Cliff’s Notes. There are two main theories about coquito’s beginnings—both signaling to some colonial influence. One suggests that coquito was a bastardization of Spain’s ponche. The other links it to the American eggnog. The latter may be perpetuated by Puerto Rico’s longstanding connection to the United States and the US media’s recent interest in the drink. My favorite theory suggests that the coconut’s fat provided a way for Puerto Ricans to drink rum during the prohibition era. Thank you, Giovanna Huyke. The fact remains, however, that none of these theories appeared to be backed by actual facts.
Given the scant evidence, all that was left to do for me was to retrace steps, starting with coquito’s main ingredients—rum, sugar, and coconut milk—to begin piecing together its origins. What follows is by no means the ultimate word on coquito’s beginnings, but a loose sketch meant to set us on the right track towards uncovering the drink’s roots.
While we don’t know much about coquito, we do know much about the history of its main ingredients. Rum and sugar reigned supreme in various periods of Puerto Rico’s economic history. Sugar, for instance, was grown in small quantities in Puerto Rico since the 16th century. During the 19th century, its production took off, and it continued expanding rapidly across the island well into the 1930s, when the Sugar Crisis led to the crop’s rapid decline. Rum’s popularity grew concomitantly to the rise of sugar production across the island. As Dr. Frederick H. Smith, Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of the book Caribbean Rum, related to us, “Distilled rum does not appear until the seventeenth century. Puerto Ricans may have had a small distillery or two during that time, but they probably got most of their rum from the British and French through illicit trade with the British and French islands. Puerto Rico's rum industry does not fully emerge until the nineteenth century when sugarcane production takes off on a large scale. Poorer classes probably made moonshine rum in small still during this period. In the twentieth century, especially after prohibition in the 20th century, rum making in Puerto Rico begins in earnest.”
Coconuts, not endemic of but vastly abundant in Puerto Rico, were also a favorite of the Puerto Rican kitchen. It’s possible that this was the water and milk of choice given the issues with milk and water that the island, as the rest of the Caribbean, faced until mid-20th century. On this, Smith establishes that, “No one in the colonial Caribbean drank water if they could avoid it. Alcoholic beverages from beer to wine to spirits have always been a healthy alternative to the bacteria laden water often found in the rivers and streams of the Caribbean and almost everywhere else in the world in the colonial days.” Even beyond colonial periods, the use of liquid extrapolated from the coconut seemed a better option than other kinds of milk. During World War I, for instance, the Department of Education revamped its Home Economics curriculum to replace all fats, milks, and creams with those found in coconuts. Throughout this period, adulterated and unstable milk was an issue on the island, as it was around the rest of the world.
Making of Coquito. Photo courtesy of Li Yun Alvarado
This is all fine and dandy, but what about coquito? Smith found the question particularly interesting because, “[t]he earliest reference to a fermented sugarcane based drink is from Puerto Rico. Enslaved Africans in the sixteenth century experimented with sugarcane beers in their attempts to recreate African types of drinks, such as Palm wine….” Bienvenida Matias, renowned producer and director, had her own set of suggestions and queries, backed by her own research into the question. Matias, who is currently working on a documentary on, you guessed it, coquito (alongside producers Tami Gold and Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez) sought to answer the question of coquito’s origins while doing research for the film, “I thought, well, they had sugar cane, and they would have spiked it with some rum. So I got coconut water and added some rum to it. I tried it, and it tasted terrible. Terrible. A friend of mine who owns a restaurant asked me why didn’t I add sugar to it. And I hadn’t thought about it…” She mused that the process may have evolved in a similar manner. Trial by error was the mother of this invention. Some of her other questions centered on how women’s entrance into the workforce contributed to the development of coquito. She also wondered whether the use of evaporated milk and condensed milk had something to do with the economic situation of the island throughout certain periods and with the influence of American soldiers who had learned to use these canned products as a source of nutrients. For Bienvenida, these remain questions that “need a lot of more research.”
While all the pieces of this puzzle have yet to create a clear picture of when coquito started, it does provide plenty of room to develop a deeper sketch about it. The ponche and eggnog theories suddenly seem cheap facsimiles of a clear explanation. The search continues for me. Talking to Bienvenida, however, revealed to me why the question mattered so much in the first place. When Matias set out to make this new documentary, she sought to, “tell the history of our island through this Christmas drink.” And there lies the crux of it for me. Exploring the history of coquito, past and present, helps me ground myself in my own history and develop a sense of identity. I suspect that this is the case for others.
This certainly seems to be a driving force behind Coquito Masters, the national coquito competition Debbie Quiñones has been hosting since 2001. Debbie started the event after a close friend, the coquito master in her group, passed away. What started as part of a tree-trimming celebration amongst friends quickly snowballed into what the event is today. At the competition, recipes and tastes abound. Each person has an opinion about what makes a perfect coquito. The connecting threads, however, are at once universal and specifically Puerto Rican. They speak of creating family, and community through the making of coquito. Rolando Cortes, who has frequented the competition since its early days, explained his connection to coquito as, “I love the cultural values because I think of my ancestors. Los viejitos. And I think of my father. My mother. I think of how they gathered together, going back two generations. They would, on a fun event, really struggle to make this concoction…con agua ardiente…then, of course coco, agua de coco…And how it wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today, but…I get emotional…this was an event not to drink and party but to socialize, to show dignity, to celebrate the Octavitas, Christmas, los Reyes. I can imagine the little ones watching los viejos just having a great time...”
Embedded in Rolando’s response is a metaphor for Puerto Rico’s diaspora, one that celebrates the old while making it authentically theirs. It is, thus, no surprise that some of the other themes prevalent at the Coquito Masters were those of a need to innovate, reinvent, and adjust the recipes to one’s taste. New York born, Long Beach resident, Li Yun Alvarado goes through this process almost every year. She learned her coquito recipe from her mother, and started tweaking it using her cousin’s recipe. Yet, she often finds herself reinventing the coquito wheel. “I used to call her [mom] every year because I'd never write the recipe down. Some years I would buy over eight cans of everything, and I wouldn't remember the ratios. I've finally written one version down, but every year there's some trial and error. Moving to California made it difficult last year because it was hard to find coconut cream. This year, I found coconut cream, and it was fine. Pero aqui no tienen Coco Lopez.”
New York-born Steven Toledo, started making coquito when he was about 22, and has been improving his recipe since. His aunt taught him, but he consistently crowdsources it. Speaking of who should take the credit for the recipe, he shared, “[The recipe I use today] is definitely more mine than my aunt’s, but I think it’s more Google’s than mine…it’s more the people who contribute online. And I go, and I share in that Puerto Rican space online.” As for mine, much like Li Yun’s and Steven’s it is based on some traditions that I have made my own through exchanges in my own communities and cultural spaces. Yes, this includes the interwebs. What about you? Where do you get your Coquito recipes? And where did coquito start? Ponder the questions with a recipe passed on the good ol’ Puerto Rican way—from my friend, Li Yun, who put it together from her mom Lilliana and her cousin Josmara, to me. Happy Coquito Making!
Li Yun's ever-changing Coquito recipe
Coquito profile picture by Flickr user Jennifer Dubernas.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 17 December 2014.