- 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
- 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 (15-ounce) can sweetened cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez or Goya
- 1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk
- 3 cups white rum
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
The easiest way to describe coquito to those who aren't familiar with it is to call it "Puerto Rican eggnog." The two do share some similarities — both are creamy dairy-based cocktails enjoyed during the Christmas season, but for those of us who grew up with coquito, the comparison takes away from the fact that coquito is a cherished beverage with rich culture, traditions and passionate admirers of its very own.
If you enjoy coconut treats or festive drinks spiked heavily with rum, you will like coquito. In fact, you’ll probably fall madly in love with it.
Coquito is essentially a pantry recipe. The star ingredients of coquito are coconut milk and sweet cream of coconut, which thickens the drink and intensifies the tropical flavor. Evaporated and condensed milks add additional sweetness and body, while cinnamon and vanilla add subtle warmth. The spirit of choice is (no surprise here!) Puerto Rican rum, and due to the strength and richness, the final beverage is usually served in small shot glasses, known as "chupitos" in Spanish, or poured more generously over ice, which dilutes the drink and makes it delightfully chilly and sippable.
The recipe specifics vary from family to family, but one consistent note is that coquito is a drink that comes to life when shared. Like Christmas cookies, fruitcake and other holiday treats made for gifting, coquito is a beverage that is designed to bring smiles and joy to those you love.
Each Puerto Rican family or community can usually point to one or two designated coquito-makers who each year prepare large batches to bottle, sell or gift to those who are lucky enough to be in the know. The Puerto Rican Christmas season is one of the longest in the world, starting just after Thanksgiving and stretching through to Dia de Los Reyes (Three Kings Day) on Jan. 6. That means weeks of festivities and celebrations where coquito needs to make an appearance — hence why the family coquito makers are so sought after and loved.
When I was growing up, my mom would always whip up several bottles of coquito just before Christmas, whirring the ingredients up in the blender then dividing them into pretty glass bottles she’d label and tie with ribbons and bows. My dad would bring most of these to work as gifts for his colleagues (often along a batch of Puerto Rican shortbread cookies called polvorones), but we'd keep one or two for sipping throughout the holiday season or serving at parties.
Because of the rum, coquito was mostly off-limits for my brother and me, but every year, my parents would pour each of us a tiny capful of it to taste.
It’s because of these precious first sips that my earliest memories of coquito are, like most childhood memories, all kind of hip-level and low to the ground. I was still too tiny to see over the tabletops, running around the living room of our childhood home in a frilly party dress, itchy tights and shiny patent leather shoes that pinched my toes conspiring with my brother and cousins to snag further sips of the forbidden beverage.
The tiny taste from our parents was obviously meant to be our only one for the night, but — like generations of children before us — we’d dart around the room, looking for opportunities to grab the final sips leftover in the grown-ups’ glasses when nobody was looking. Grinches might call our behavior naughty, but I think this is how the best memories are formed and I hope that if I one day have kids, they will also have the curiosity to sneak a tiny forbidden sip when we grown-ups look away.
I believe the beauty of the coquito gifting tradition is the way it opens doors and makes instant friends out of strangers. A bottle is not just a treat, but also an excuse to meet a new neighbor or the perfect ice breaker at a party where you don’t know many folks. Whether they grew up enjoying it with their family or tried it on a trip to Puerto Rico, those who know it usually light up with excitement upon seeing it.
A few years ago, I made a batch to share with my neighbors at our co-op’s December tree-trimming party. It was my first time actually meeting many of these people I usually only saw in passing, and I was worried about it being an awkward evening. Those fears disappeared as I walked into the party and was greeted by an enthusiastic neighbor who spotted the bottle in my hand. "Ooh, that looks like coquito!" A small crowd formed, and by the end of the night, the bottle was empty and we were strangers no more.
Like with all traditional recipes, there are of course as many different versions of coquito as there are Puerto Rican families.
Some recipes call for raw egg yolks to be added, while others note that the eggs should first be cooked into a custard. Some people say coquito with eggs isn't real coquito, but another drink called "ponche," and some people will say the exact opposite. There are people who will break down a coconut and grate it by hand the old fashioned way, patiently squeezing out the fresh coconut milk. And then there are people who will open up a few cans, whisk it all together and call it a day. Purists will debate long and hard and loud (especially after a few glasses) about what makes a "real" coquito, but that’s never been my style. Everyone has their own idea about what makes the drink special, and that to me, is part of why it's so wonderful.
My personal adaptation, which I share with you below, was designed for ease.
I don't like raw eggs in my drink, and leaving them out makes this better for gift-giving and making in advance, (both of which I highly recommend) so my coquito recipe is egg-less. My recipe is also strong. As in, you can feel it down to your knees after just a sip or two. I like it that way (as do many others), but feel free to cut down or even completely omit the rum, if you prefer.
In fact, there are so many wonderful ways to personalize your coquito. A dash of almond or anise extract is lovely. Some orange or lime zest is a fabulous addition. Raid your spice rack and experiment with notes of cinnamon, black pepper or cloves. Puerto Rico-based food writer Alicia Kennedy adds her custom pumpkin spice blend to her batch, while another colleague, Jessica van Dop De Jesus, purees in freshly shelled pistachios for nutty twist, and Illyanna Maisonet, author of the forthcoming Puerto Rican cookbook "Diasporican," includes other warm spices like ginger and cardamom in her go-to recipe. Swirl in thinned chocolate ganache, hazelnut puree or even peanut butter, or add a coffee-flavored kick with a couple teaspoons of instant espresso. I personally prefer the traditional version with rum, but it’s equally easy to swap in a spirit like vodka, tequila or cognac. Skip the booze altogether for a virgin coquito or replace the dairy milks with additional coconut milk, cashews or oat milk for a vegan batch.
As noted, I’m not a purist, particularly when it comes to the kitchen. I think at their root, recipes are stories that are meant to inspire, and I strongly believe that once I share a recipe, it is now yours, a gift to play with, learn from and use to create your very own memories and traditions. So here is my coquito recipe. I hope it will bring you and yours joy for years to come. ¡Salud y Feliz Navidad!
Technique tip: Like most fats, coconut oil solidifies in the cold, sometimes making this drink very thick after a night in the fridge. Let sit out for about 15 minutes to thin it out before serving, then shake vigorously. If you're in a rush, you can also run the bottle under warm tap water for a minute or so.
Swap options: Want to make it a little bit less strong? To cut the rum, replace the desired amount of rum with equal parts ice-cold coconut or whole milk. For a non-alcoholic or virgin coquito, cut out the rum, and replace it with one cup ice-cold coconut or whole milk and one cup ice cold filtered water.1.
Combine evaporated milk, condensed milk, coconut cream and coconut milk in a large blender and blend until well combined. Add the rum, vanilla, ground cinnamon and salt, and blend in (if your blender is small, do this in batches and pour into a large bowl as you go).2.
Pour into a pitcher or glass bottles with sealed lids and drop in the cinnamon sticks and vanilla bean halves. Cover and chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours or until very cold.3.
Serve straight in small glasses garnished or on the rocks in larger ones. Garnish with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a cinnamon stick. Leftovers will keep tightly sealed in the refrigerator for about one week (shake the jar vigorously each time before serving).