In Puerto Rico, every family has its own prized recipe for coquito, a creamy, coconutty drink that originated there. But it’s meant to be revised and adapted, says LyAnna Sanabria, founder and beverage director of Puerto Rican bar and restaurant Papi in Portland, Maine. Her version of coquito incorporates her own Puerto Rican heritage, New England upbringing and craft cocktail sensibilities.
A riff on her uncle’s traditional recipe that she workshopped during a long winter during the height of the pandemic, Sanabria’s take changes by year and by mood; some batches are boozier, or more spiced, for instance. “Every family and family member has their own version,” she explains. “But the basic spices, Puerto Rican rum and coconut make it truly coquito.”
Sanabria, who grew up “in the middle of Vermont in a dairy town,” says her personal challenge was to create a local variation that featured Puerto Rican flavors. Her core recipe—a large batch that yields enough to gift several bottles to lucky friends—starts with a toasted spice coconut syrup. Deliciously fragrant, “it tastes like cooking for a big family,” she says.
Gentle simmering helps emulsify the coconut and dairy milks, a divergence from traditional recipes. “Not everyone warms the drink,” she says. “But to extract the flavors in this New England weather, you need to apply heat.” Rested overnight in the fridge and fortified with white rum—Puerto Rican rum, of course—each batch lasts roughly one month. “It keeps for the entire holiday season,” she says.
While coquito is often shorthanded as Puerto Rico’s answer to eggnog, the comparison is not quite right, Sanabria notes. While the two drinks share some characteristics—boozy, creamy, spiced—coquito tends to be lighter-bodied than eggnog, meant for sipping in warmer weather. It also has a complicated heritage entwined with the island’s colonial past.
Spanish conquistadors brought to the Caribbean a European affection for drinks enriched with dairy products and stiffened with spirits or fortified wines (possets, syllabub, etc.). In addition to sugar and rum, both imports to the Caribbean, the Spanish also imported the first coconuts and coconut palm trees. Enslaved Africans, many working in the sugar industry, incorporated coconut into food and drinks, and the fruit subsequently became part of Puerto Rico’s culinary heritage.
Another piece of the puzzle: the addition of shelf-stable condensed milk and evaporated milk, which remain integral elements of most modern coquito; the United States began sending convenience products to Puerto Rico after the Spanish–American War put the country under U.S. control.
Though the drink emerges annually around the winter holidays like clockwork, coquito’s precise makeup is always evolving. Even Sanabria continues to tweak her own variation. She speculates, for instance, that her next iteration will include making her own coconut cream in place of Coco Lopez (developed in Puerto Rico in 1948).
The hardest part is forcing herself to write down a fixed recipe. “There are many additions and modifiers that can go into it,” she agonizes. Her current recipe, however, is a coconut-forward drink that’s also boozy, spiced and rich—exactly how coquito ought to taste.
“It’s Christmas in the Caribbean,” she sums up. “It’s decadent and warming, but you’re still wearing a bikini top.”