The first time I ventured to Puerto Rico was well over a decade ago in mid-December. Along with the colonial architecture and Latin charm of the walled city of Old San Juan, I was tickled to wander the cobbled streets and gaze at the holiday decorations — brightly lit palm trees, twinkling lights in the streets and shiny ornaments displayed on colorful houses — all while wearing sandals and a strappy sundress.
This was my first time experiencing the yuletide season in the tropics. At first, the feeling of seeing sparkly Christmas trees in 85-degree weather seemed strange … but it grew on me quickly.
The only thing missing from my Caribbean Noël was a festive, Christmas-y drink to match the tropical vibes.
As it turns out, Puerto Rico has a holiday drink of its own. It’s called the coquito, which translates into “little coconut.” While it’s often referred to as “Puerto Rican eggnog,” no eggs are used in the drink. The similarity is in the texture and the spices.
Recipes differ, but the principal ingredients are rum, coconut cream or milk, condensed milk and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla.
Ryan McGrogan, GM of Cuba Libre bar and restaurant in D.C.’s Penn Quarter, describes it as “a cocktail that exhibits the culture of Puerto Rico — celebrations, community, family, pride and, of course, flavor.”
This drink is steeped in tradition in Puerto Rico. McGrogan says: “When someone makes a good coquito, they are recognized for it. As the holiday season rolls around, neighbors and friends will collect empty liquor bottles with the tops and clean them out and bring them to the person making it. Hundreds of bottles may be dropped off, but the maker will choose the bottles he sees fit to be given as gifts that might be more special to his friends. He then will choose from the remaining bottles, which he will either sell or keep for personal use. They always have their personal-use bottles. Some go as far as to create their own label for the bottles.”
The taste of a coquito varies depending on the maker. McGrogan says that some add ice cream, such as pistachio or coffee, which changes the f lavor amazingly from the classic recipe. Other popular modifications include f lavored rums, rum cream and even pitorro (Puerto Rican moonshine).
If the joyful season is a little too short for you, you can head south. According to McGrogan, “Puerto Rico celebrates Christmas longer than any other culture I am aware of. Parties every night. If you are invited to a party … you go. And you bring friends. It is two months of celebration and all are welcome.”
Should you decide to stay local, pop into Cuba Libre for a bit of Latin hospitality and sample the bar’s first-rate coquito, or mix up some holiday cheer at home.
1.25 oz. Don Q Oak Barrel Spiced Rum
1 oz. Brinley Gold Shipwreck Coconut Rum Cream
1 oz. Coco Lopez Cream of Coconut
1 oz. half-and-half Nutmeg
Combine all ingredients in a tin shaker with ice, shake vigorously and strain into a glass snifter. Top with a pinch of ground nutmeg. A cinnamon stick makes a nice garnish.