Fri. Jun 9th, 2023

The beverage is a holiday staple for Puerto Rico households, but you can likely find family recipes for sale in neighborhood Facebook groups.
Janelle Hernandez calls herself the Coquito Queen of Philadelphia.
The 31-year-old West Philly resident started selling the spiced coconut holiday drink that’s a staple in Puerto Rican and Dominican households in 2016 to pay for her younger brother’s high school graduation trip. Now she sells her family’s recipe in festive bottles for $30 a pop each holiday season via Instagram, totaling around $1,600 in sales this year so far.
“I grew up watching my mom make coquito every year,” Hernandez said. “Now, I think of myself as Philly’s coquito connect.”
Hernandez isn’t the only one selling wine and rum bottles filled with coquito over social media. Like clockwork from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, Philadelphia’s neighborhood Facebook groups flood with requests for the beverage — and sellers who batch them in tribute to their families.
Coquito — which translates to “little coconut” in Spanish — is a decadent drink from Puerto Rico typically made with coconut cream, a cinnamon-forward spiced tea, and rum. Some believe the beverage came to be sometime in the 1950s after condensed milk came to the island, and families like to shroud their recipes in secrecy, making batches from Thanksgiving through Three Kings Day in January.
Everyone makes coquito a little differently: Hernandez sells a vegan version with evaporated coconut milk, while Tesa Maldonado, of Fishtown, adds vanilla bean paste and cardamom to the spice mix. Meanwhile Jolanda Ramos Torres, of Bridesburg, sells her coquito with a menu of mix-ins, like pistachio, Nutella, and peppermint.
But the consensus is to splurge on Don Q rum imported from Puerto Rico and pour from the heart.
Patito Martinez started buying from “Coquito Queen” Hernandez in 2019 when they needed a gift to bring to Thanksgiving with a Dominican friend’s family in the Bronx. It was a perfect gesture, they thought, until they learned the family were Seventh Day Adventists — who aren’t supposed to drink alcohol, though Martinez said the family slurped up Hernandez’s recipe.
“My friend’s mom … made an exception and kept drinking it,” Martinez said. Now, they buy at least 14 bottles a year: two for personal use, six for friendsgiving and Thanksgiving, and six more for Christmas festivities.
Philadelphia has the second-largest stateside Puerto Rican population among U.S. cities, so the ritual of making the drink keeps tradition alive as Puerto Ricans move away from the tías, tíos, and abuelos who used to sneak them sips in the kitchen.
Maldonado, the coquito purveyor from Fishtown, started making it in 2018 after her grandfather died — he was family-wide famous for neurotically batching his coquito a year in advance of the winter holidays. When he died, she said, nobody had taken up the mantle, so she started experimenting with her family’s recipe.
The hitch: Before Maldonado could start selling, she needed her grandmother’s approval.
“I would send over glasses while she watched her novellas,” Maldonado, 29, said. “It took a couple of tries, but her approval made me more confident.” She’s sold 42 bottles so far this holiday season via a Google form her friends posted on Facebook.
Ramos Torres, from Bridesburg, started making coquito as a teenager. Now in her 30s, she premiered her recipe to the public while tailgating the Eagles’ matchup against Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 16. “Everyone wanted to buy it off me,” she said, and has since started selling bottles for $20 through word-of-mouth advertising and some Facebook solicitation.
Ramos Torres said she was “shocked by the demand,” but Nahir Otaño-Gracia, a Puerto Rican professor of medieval literature at the University of New Mexico who has written extensively about Puerto Rican culture, believes Philly’s thriving network of ad-hoc coquito sellers is an outgrowth of the culture’s value on grit and perseverance.
“The idea that you find a way to make things work for you when you need them to … That’s as much a part of Puerto Rican culture as coquito,” said Otaño-Gracia, who used to live in West Philly.
Each purveyor said most of their clients come from beyond the Latino community. Maldonado said that might have to do with the exotification of ethnic cuisines, where food influencers paint things as commonplace as agua frescas and coquito as new, exciting, and never-before-discovered.
That’s not entirely a bad thing, though it is changing how some of Philadelphia’s coquito sellers make the drink. Maldonado and Hernandez said they have received requests to make their recipes “boozier” so people can taste the rum, which cuts against coquito’s purpose.
“It’s a sipping drink,” Hernandez said.
Coquito’s sweetness is trickling into the mainstream. Yards Brewing released a seasonal stout inspired by the beverage last year while Bacardi sells a lukewarm bottled version.
Despite this, Maldonado believes Philly’s local sellers have nothing to worry about.
“There’s just something about getting it from someone that it made with their hands,” she said. “You get warmth and community.”
Otaño-Gracia learned how to make coquito by watching her aunts, uncles, and cousin make it. Now, she makes a big batch (stirred in the same pot as her sancocho), and hopes you will do the same.
Spice mix:
Drink mix:


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