The mainstream Christmas celebration is exceedingly Anglo-Saxon. Christmas trees, mistletoe, mulled wine, eggnog—it can be easy to forget that distinctive yuletide traditions flourish on every part of the globe, and we’re not all living under the same Coca-Cola Santa Claus.
In Puerto Rico, for example, Christmas ritual comes in the form of an eggnog-like rum punch knotted up with the country’s complex colonial past and present. Spanish invaders brought to the Caribbean a European penchant for possets—the brandy-, madeira- or sherry-fortified forebear of our nog—but it wasn’t long before the Spaniards’ recipe got cozy with local rum and began to pop up wherever they settled. Soon enough Mexico had rompope, Venezuela had ponche crema and Puerto Rico had what they call coquito.
Most of those variations hew closely to the original formula of egg, milk, sugar and spirit, but Puerto Rico’s innovation was to add coconut, another colonial import that was incorporated into the local cuisine by African slaves who were working in the sugar industry. But its most indelible modern ingredients are pure American convenience: canned condensed milk and evaporated milk, shelf-stable modern ingredients sent over after the Spanish-American war put the country under U.S. control.
Not produced commercially until very recently—unlike eggnog—coquito remains a homemade tradition. It’s also the stuff of dynastic legend, with families jealously guarding their recipes and debating endlessly over the particular qualities of the perfect batch. It’s the booze version of matzoh ball soup; what any individual drinker thinks is “correct” boils down to how his or her grandma made it. Unfortunately, a grandma-reliant product means that as generations get farther away from the homeland, fewer apprentices are willing to learn the old ways and knowledge begins to evaporate.
New Yorker Debbie Quinones’ community lost its designated coquito maker some 15 years ago and realized too late that nobody had recorded her process. While on a quest to recreate the recipe, Quinones had the idea to turn her hunt into a competition that might help preserve and celebrate the coquito tradition. The Coquito Masters tournament was founded in 2002 and now covers the Northeast, with home coquito makers participating in neighborhood semifinals that lead up to a final showdown on Three Kings Day in early January.
In the 13 years of the coquito competition, every contestant has had their own version of Quinones’ story. One woman broke into her elderly father’s safe to get at his recipe after he refused to compete with it; this year’s New York champion, Jean Scales, picked up the torch from her grandmother and has been bottling and distributing her coquito to family members for a decade. “The way you make coquito should be the same for everybody,” she said coyly before claiming her trophy. “It’s just a matter of how much [of each ingredient] you put in that makes it yours.”
But there is one matter on which coquito makers differ: To egg, or not to egg? Many claim egglessness is crucial in distinguishing coquito from plain old Anglo eggnog, while others insist eggs impart a creamier texture that’s essential to the finished product. Without picking sides, we prefer omitting the egg, which allows the coconut flavor to really shine, unmuddied by any custardy notes.
One thing everyone does agree on is the booze: white Puerto Rican rum, traditionally Bacardi, in a nod to that brand’s island domination. Simpler is better here, as the sweet vanilla and caramel notes of a golden añejo or the funk of a rhum agricole will overpower the coconut. That said, no one will force Bacardi on you, but if you source your rum from elsewhere in the Caribbean, just be sure to hide it from your Puerto Rican guests.