Light-adorned trees, elves on shelves, mistletoe, holiday sugar cookies, caroling, and mulled wine.
They all mean Christmas is here, and — in the U.S. especially — part of yearly ritual comes in the form of sipping eggnog. Creamy and boozy (or not) it's a holiday drink everyone can appreciate.
In Miami, however, we have something better. After all, it wouldn't be Christmas without a distinctive Latin American nuance to this spiked holiday libation.
It's one that's celebrated both stateside and in Puerto Rico, where Christmas starts the first of November and lasts until mid-January on Three Kings' Day, making it one of the longest Christmas celebrations in the world. These months of festivities include music, spending time with loved ones, and, of course, plenty of food and drink.
That's why Puerto Ricans celebrating the Christmas season in South Florida means no get-together is complete without a batch or two of home-made coquito, a word that translates to "little coconut" in English.
Where most seasonal nogs incorporate some formula of egg, milk, sugar, and spirit, Puerto Rico's innovation was to use coconuts and rum. While there is no doubt that coquito originated in Puerto Rico, there is some dispute as to the recipe’s origins.
A quick Google search reveals a number of theories, with no one story holding sway. What we do know, however, is that it's complicated.
The drink is most likely the product of Puerto Rico's complex colonial past and present, which includes influences from the island's indigenous Taíno population, its Spanish colonizers, the African slaves brought to its shores, and —later — the influence of the United States.
Spanish invaders brought to the Caribbean a European penchant for drink — think sherry-, brandy-, and madeira-fortified drinks. Another colonial import, coconut, was often incorporated into the local cuisine by African slaves who were working the sugar cane fields. And the addition of modern ingredients like canned condensed or evaporated milk are purely American, the country's modern and shelf-stable ingredients sent over after the Spanish-American war when the country came under U.S. control.
All of this delivers us a tropical take on eggnog, making coquito the official traditional Christmas drink in Puerto Rico, second only to the nation's moonshine known as pitorro. Made from sugar cane, pitorro has been produced on the island for centuries, created by mixing fruit with alcohol and storing it in a container in the dark, making it another celebratory drink on the island.
In the U.S., coquito is popular anywhere there is a strong Puerto Rican presence. That includes New York where a group known as the Coquito Masters works with the International Coquito Tasting Federation to keep the holiday tradition alive.
In 2013, New Yorker Debbie Quinones' community lost its designated coquito maker, realizing that nobody had recorded the chef's coquito-making process. While trying to recreate her recipe, Quinones decided to create a local competition, one that would serve to preserve and celebrate the coquito tradition. Founded in 2002, today The Coquito Masters tournament has grown to cover the Northeast, with home-made coquito makers participating in various neighborhood semifinals that lead up to a final showdown on Three Kings Day in early January.
So, just what goes into an award-winning coquito? It's your own personal touch, the experts say. While the recipe is fairly straightforward, it's the balance of each ingredient that separate one coquito from the rest.
If there's no designated coquito maker in your neighborhood, find one. Here in Miami, which has adopted coquito as its own, you can sample a variety of home-made takes to fuel your next holiday get together. Chefs across South Florida often peddle their own family tradition to others, selling bottles via special order, including: @CoquitoMiami305, @WandasCoquito, @ChefsOnTheRun, Koh-Kee-Toh, @NedasCoquito, and @TitosCoquito.
Or get in on the holiday tradition by making your own #HolidayJoy, following this basic recipe for coconut nog with a tropical twist. While recipes vary from household to household, traditionally it takes just a handful of ingredients including coconut cream, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and a healthy dose of rum.
o 8 ounces rum or coconut-flavored rum
o 13 ½ ounces coconut milk
o 14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
o 12 ounces evaporated milk
o 1 teaspoon salt
o ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
o ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
o Cinnamon sticks
o Add rum, milks, salt and vanilla to a blender, and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve chilled in individual glasses garnished with ground cinnamon and a cinnamon stick.