Translating to “little coconut” in Spanish, coquito is a coconut-based cocktail that’s similar to eggnog in the sense that it’s creamy, spiked with liquor and served at Christmas (but it’s different in that it usually doesn’t contain eggs). Coquito is one of many creamy, dairy-laced drinks that are enjoyed during the holidays throughout Latin America, South America and the rest of the world, like rompope in Mexico and crème de vie in Cuba. It can be prepared with an array of winter spices (though cinnamon and nutmeg are basically nonnegotiable), and there are a range of flavored versions that can be found around the island, made with everything from pineapple to pumpkin.
“The origin of coquito is still unknown, but the famed holiday drink is usually made and consumed only during the holiday season,” says Prieto. “Coquito marks the arrival of Christmas on the island.” Some families drink it as early as Thanksgiving and as late as Día de los Reyes, or the Epiphany, on January 6, a Christian feast day that celebrates the Magi visiting Jesus.
Coquito’s history isn’t cut-and-dried, but it’s theorized that Spanish colonizers brought their version of eggnog, posset, to the island. (Posset, which dates back to medieval times, is a term used for drinks made with hot milk that’s curdled with some sort of alcohol or citrus juice.) There, it was infused with local Puerto Rican rum, but many varieties have sprung up as a result of the Spanish settling across the Caribbean and beyond.
Many other nations use rum in their eggnog-like bevs (like Panama’s ron ponche and Venezuelan ponche crema), but coconut is what makes coquito uniquely Puerto Rican. (Just for the record though, coconut was a colonial import brought to the island from West Africa by Spanish settlers—it’s only been cultivated in Puerto Rico since the 1500s.) Some O.G. recipes involve cracking a ripe coconut and scooping out its pristine flesh, but nowadays, coconut milk and coconut cream are the go-to ingredients. Canned condensed milk and evaporated milk eventually became key components after the Spanish-American War, once U.S. governance brought the shelf-stable ingredients to the island.
Coquito has become increasingly popular stateside in recent years, a trend Prieto chalks up to Latin culture’s ever-growing exposure in the U.S. “Not only Puerto Ricans, but many Latins are now living in the US,” he says. “The same thing is happening with local dishes such as mofongo, pigeon pea rice and alcapurrias.”