After Maria, Coquito Is More Important Than Ever to Nuyoricans

You need coconut milk, rum, cinnamon, cream of coconut and condensed milk—though recipes vary. Photo by Alicia Kennedy.

I grew up drinking my aunt’s kid-friendly version of coquito, a Puerto Rican holiday milk mostly made of coconut milk, rum, cinnamon, cream of coconut and condensed milk. The season would start right after Thanksgiving; I’d be drinking and helping make batches well until Three Kings’ Day right after the start of the New Year.

My aunt and other Puerto Ricans I knew would sell bottles out of their apartments alongside their homemade pasteles to fellow Latinxs who wanted to wow their friends during holiday dinners. Whenever friends or a friend of a friend would ask around for a “coquito hookup,” I’d suggest my aunt or my cousin who lives on the other side of Queens. She sells out of her kitchen, as well, and even taught her Italian-American husband how to make the creamy drink.

This year, coquito has been so much more important to me than ever. As part of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City, this fall has been difficult. Most of my father’s side of the family still lives in Puerto Rico. For several weeks after Hurricane Maria, I didn’t know how my relatives were doing; it took a long time before I had a sense. I also saw how other New Yorkers with a connection to the island struggled through not hearing from loved ones for days.

Online posts showed damaged houses. Some lamented in the comments that this Christmas would be hard. I self-soothed during Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, flan and several cups of my old neighbor’s coquito.

I know I’m not the only person who uses food to feel a close connection to Caribbean roots during the holiday.

Almost 9 percent of New York City is of Puerto Rican origin. This city holds the largest Puerto Rican population of any other city worldwide. Nuyoricans also get to boast the largest show of pride in the United States, with the Puerto Rican Day Parade that is held in Manhattan every June.

All of this means that when coquito season comes around, families start to make their own batches, or reach out to a fellow Rican in hopes of snagging a few bottles for their holiday parties. <

Deborah Quinones, the founder and coordinator of Coquito Masters, an annual coquito recipe competition, said that the drink and her event mean so much more to her now.

“It’s our culinary identity; it talks about the resilience of our community,” she said. “More than ever, there need to be efforts to promote and celebrate our food and culture.”

Quinones also said that owing to the hurricane and financial difficulties so many Puerto Ricans on the island face, she’d like to expand her efforts of promoting and preserving other dishes that originate from the island. She thinks it’s important to do so before the identity is threatened further, or before it’s appropriated and overpriced.

She feels like helping promote coquito and helping small vendors educates New Yorkers on the importance of Puerto Rico’s contributions to the city. Quinones also wants to showcase the different variations of coquito and how each person has their own preference on what the drink should taste like.

She isn’t the only person who is trying to spread the gospel of coquito. Several Manhattan restaurants happen to have it as part of their menu. Havana Social gives complimentary shots of coquito to patrons; Marcha Cocina in lower Manhattan has fireball coquito, and Sazon in Tribeca serves it during the holiday season.

Mary Marcos, the assistant manager of Havana Social, said that the shots and the cocktail itself are part of the year-long menu. Though the restaurant is Cuban, she said, the owner has incorporated other Caribbean cultures found in New York, including Puerto Rican.

“So many people get excited when they see it; they grew up drinking it and they appreciate having it here,” she said. “A lot of people like having it as a dessert.”

True to the new variations on the drink that Quinones mentioned, the summer menu offers an iced coffee version of coquito for anyone who wants to relive the holidays during warmer weather.

Robert Nieves, a bartender from Queens who has worked in several establishments throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, uses his Nuyorican upbringing to inspire his work. He’s the co-founder of The Shake Down, a pop-up drink event where he incorporates his creativity when mixing drinks, and his love for hip-hop and salsa.

Nieves has family scattered throughout Puerto Rico. He and his mother were worried about older relatives going too long without food or a functioning AC in the humidity.

“As worried about them as I was, I know the resilient nature we have as a people,” he said.

Like so many other Nuyoricans, Nieves sells coquito out of his home. His own recipe involves using Coco Lopez and Bacardí rum, and cooking his unique mixture until it’s smooth and thick. He also makes sure that everything is measured so that every pot tastes the same.

“I made a label and put it in bottles and even took photos of it in my kitchen with a coconut,” he said.

Over the last few years, people have passed his number around and he’s often inundated with texts and calls from potential clientele.

“Some of my best customers are repeat customers,” he said. “One year a guy bought like eight bottles and then called me back for even more bottles not too long after.”

And just as Quinones did, Nieves also sees using his culture in his work as a way to continue showing how the community can still be positive after a difficult time, even if it’s done with holiday drinks.

“It’s our work as a subculture of Latinxs to rise up from what happened in the past,” he said, “and try to be successful and continue to push the culture forward and celebrate it.”