All across the Caribbean, creamy alcoholic beverages are an important part of Christmas celebrations. The most widespread of these is Ponche Creme, a drink made with rum, eggs, and condensed milk that is present in Venezuela, the country where it originated. Ponche Crema is also popular in several islands of the southern Caribbean, like Trinidad, Grenada, Aruba, and Barbados. Less common across the region is Coquito, a beverage only associated with a single island, Puerto Rico. The presence of a large and influential Puerto Rican diaspora across the United States however, has resulted in Coquito becoming the quintessential Caribbean Christmas beverage for many Americans. In New York City, a place often considered to be the center of Puerto Rican culture in North America, mixologists enter the annual Coquito Masters for the opportunity to be crowned that year’s coquito champion. Elsewhere in the city, thousands of other New Yorkers make Coquito with no desire to compete, but simply to share their culture with friends and relatives.

In recent years, a Haitian drink similar to Coquito called Kremas has become increasingly popular in places with large Caribbean populations like New York City and Miami. This is due to changing perceptions of Haitian culinary culture across the United States, as well as the growing popularity of a Haitian white rum known as Clairin. The only major difference between Kremas and Coquito, is that the first one uses Clairin; a style of unregulated, artisanal rum made by thousands of small distillers in the Haitian countryside, while the latter typically calls for Puerto Rican rum brands like Don Q or Bacardi. There are also recipes for similar drinks across the rest of the Caribbean, that only differ on the type of rum used. In addition, there are related drinks throughout the wider region that don’t require rum; for example, Batido de Coco in Brazil, and Cocada in Venezuela. The wide array of similar drinks across the Caribbean suggests that beverages using both milk and coconut milk existed all across the region sometime after the Columbian exchange, and they only developed national identities based on the use of local rum in more recent times.

Coconut Punch and Rum Punch in Dominica

The earliest examples of milk and coconut milk being used together can be found in Sri Lanka and southern India several thousand years ago. In these regions, cattle and coconut trees were recognized for the many useful products that they provided; material for clothing, fat for cooking, and milk that could be used in beverages. The first Europeans to establish themselves in these parts of Asia were the Portuguese. They recognized the importance of coconuts, and by the sixteenth century had established coconut plantations in West Africa, South America, and the West Indies. Coconuts easily float from coast to coast via ocean currents, and they thrive on sandy beaches, so the coconut palm spread across the entire Caribbean a few years after introduction.

A Coconut Plantation in the Caribbean

By this time, sugarcane and cattle were already present in the region, as both had been brought to Hispaniola by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. It is unclear exactly when sugarcane was brought to Puerto Rico, however it seems that cattle was introduced by the island’s first governor Juan Ponce de Leon with fifty cows, and four bulls in 1512. From that year,until 1516, over 150 cattle were transported to the island, resulting in a healthy breeding population.

As agriculture developed in the seventeenth century, it became possible to find dairy milk, coconut milk, spices, rum, and sugarcane syrup across many islands of the Caribbean. This naturally lead to the emergence of beverages using these ingredients all across the region. These beverages would have been the precursors to Coquito and Kremas, and would have been made using recipes that were passed down orally.

“As with much of history in cultures that pass down orally, it’s hard to track the origins of coquito, Puerto Rico’s rum punch that’s served during the holidays.” writes Illyanna Maisonet in her book Diasporican. She continues however, that “the most common story goes that the first coquito was created with pitorro”, which is a Puerto Rican term for moonshine made from sugarcane. This suggests that Coquito emerged during the prohibition era when rum consumption in Puerto Rico was banned, leading to the rise of illegally produced pitorro. Even today, pitorro production persists in Puerto Rico, and consumption is especially popular during the holiday season. Other than prohibition, the turn of the century also saw other cultural inputs from America that shaped modern Coquito.

A traditional Caribbean coconut milk beverage

The first of these was the importation of canned milk from the United States. Food historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra says that after the American occupation; “merchants began to arrive in Puerto Rico who became importers and distributors of canned products, among which were evaporated and condensed milk“. Prior to this, the use of dairy milk or coconut milk in a recipe was an indicator of social class since the former was considerably more expensive than the latter. Of the difference between dairy milk and coconut milk, Cuadra sees them as “one for the well-to-do, and one for the poor; one that pertained to more urbanized environments, the other to coastal and rural regions.” Milk packaged in cans was more affordable than fresh milk, and it also had the benefit of a longer shelf life. Another American influence on Coquito was eggnog, which was already a popular beverage during the holiday season in the United States. American control of the island did not lead to eggnog becoming widespread, but rather it resulted in eggs becoming a part of several Coquito recipes.

Coconuts are a common ingredient in Puerto Rican cuisine.

Over time, investment and industrialization in Puerto Rico lead to canned coconut products being produced locally by large companies. The 1940s saw the emergence of Coco Lopez Cream and Coconut Goya Coconut Milk. The former is a key ingredient in the Pina Colada, while the latter is used in a broad range of Puerto Rican dishes; arroz con gandules, tembleque, and more. Both are used in Coquito recipes along with condensed milk and evaporated milk.

By the end of the 1940s, a generic Caribbean coconut beverage had completed its evolution into Puerto Rican Coquito. This is supported by the first written recipe for Coquito appearing in a 1952 cookbook called Cocine A Gusto.

The history of Kremas in Haiti likely followed a similar trajectory as condensed milk and evaporated milk became popular within that country in the early twentieth century. Today, recipes for Kremas and Coquito are very similar, although the former almost always calls for lime zest and almond extract, while the latter doesn’t. The definitive difference now is in the type of rum used. Coquito calls for Puerto Rican rum, which is made from molasses, and aged for at least three years. Haitians also call for local rum to be used, and whether that rum is Barbancourt or Clairin, it’s made from sugarcane juice instead of molasses, and in the case of Clairin it’s completely unaged. These rums are dramatically different, and Coquito or Kremas using an identical recipe can vary considerably due to the character of the rum. Ultimately, the rum is the only real difference between these beverages. They have similar ingredients, similar stories, and they fulfill the same role; Helping the Caribbean diaspora to remain rooted in their traditions and culture around Christmas time.

Coquito Recipes

Classic Coquito Recipe

Adrienne Bailon’s Coquito Recipe