With the holidays approaching, it’s never too early to consider the important questions: What will I get my aunt? How many days off from work can I get away with? Which of my friends are getting actual cards this year? But more immediate, more long-lasting, dare I say, more important: What will we be drinking?
There is no right answer, of course, and the possibilities are nearly endless, but there are two traditional answers that– for both popularity and deliciousness– make a case for being the top picks. Eggnog is the stable tradition of the US, and Coquito is the somewhat younger but more rousing alternative from Puerto Rico.
EGGNOG – THAT OL’ CHESTNUT
Eggnog is … well, it’s different things to different people. For some, it’s a long-held Christmas tradition that receives the care given to any other part of the holiday season. For some craft bartenders, it’s a welcome callback to earlier times when proportions and ingredients mattered.
For many – too many – it’s an overly-sweet, store-bought concoction in a carton, to which you can add cheap booze, likely improving neither. It turns out, though, that it’s a drink with a long history.
THE PRE-EGG ERA: HISTORY OF EGGNOG
Eggnog is derived from the old – a few hundred years old, at least — English drink Posset, a warm spiced drink of cream with beer or wine. It crossed the ocean with colonists and took on eggs, plus the stronger kick of full-proof liquor.
In the soon-to-be-States, it gained wide popularity among the settlers, who took a mercenary attitude towards the base spirit. At first, rum was the popular favorite in the colonies due to its cheapness.
Then the Revolution started, and the US became cut off from other British colonies – making rum suddenly very expensive. So the new choice became locally-made whiskey.
LONG ISLAND HOLIDAY-TEA: WHAT SPIRIT GOES IN EGGNOG
Since at least the late-1800s, the base spirit has been a matter of general ambivalence. Brandy is a common enough choice, but many cocktail books over the years simply offer a laundry list of every kind of liquor the author seems to be aware of as a possibility to fortify the drink. As you’ll see below, though, the best choice is probably a combination.
YER BASIC HOMEMADE EGGNOG RECIPE
Let’s avoid the lacklustre commercial eggnog and make our own. In order to make a basic homemade eggnog, you’ll need the following:
- 8 Eggs (whole– including both egg whites and egg yolks)
- 4 Cups Milk (whole– 1 quart milk)
- 4 Cups Heavy Cream (1 quart cream)
- 2/3 Cup of Sugar*
- 1 ½ Cup Aged Grape Brandy
- Freshly Ground Nutmeg (whole nutmeg) for garnish
*Note: A lot of recipes specifically call for granulated sugar.
- In a large bowl, combine the eggs with yolk, whole milk, cream, and sugar.
- Whisk together until smooth.
- Add the alcohol while continuing to gently whisk.
- Chill the eggnog mixture in the fridge.
- When you’re ready to serve, top each cup with freshly grated nutmeg.
If you’re serving this homemade recipe at a holiday party, you can present this in a punch bowl for some fun holiday cheer. And while we certainly love and appreciate alcoholic eggnog, you can also make a kid-friendly eggnog base (“virgin eggnog”) by omitting the booze.
You can see that the alcohol content in this traditional eggnog recipe isn’t too extreme, but you can always adjust the amount in your own spiked eggnog according to taste.
GUSSY UP THE NOG!
There are a few easy ways to add some extra flavor to your traditional eggnog:
Spirits: A great way to add some variety to your eggnog is to take advantage of its variable base spirit. One classic example from the 1800s, the Baltimore Eggnog, calls for a mix of brandy (such as cognac), Jamaican rum, and a small portion of Madeira. Goes to show that the type of alcohol added is really a matter of personal preference.
What makes this work is that each of the spirits has a flavor that is strong and distinct. Consider which spirits will work together in terms of flavor as well – applejack and a touch of scotch, anyone?
- Spices: You can also add optional ingredients to the mix. If you want to try this out, gently warm the milk with whole spices, and let them steep for a few minutes before straining them out.
A cinnamon stick is very traditional, but other warming spices such as clove will also work well.
Temperature: Lastly, if you’re greeting your folks with a slug of eggnog as they come in from the cold, it can also be made hot!
For this version, simply use hot milk. Heat it up very slowly in a pot on medium-low heat and stir regularly so as not to scorch it. Add the milk slowly to the rest of your hot mixture (not the other way around), stirring regularly again, so as to not cook the eggs.
AN INTRO TO COQUITO
Many (non-Puerto Rican) people say that Coquito is merely Puerto Rican eggnog. That is a difficult cup to swallow given that the only overlap is some form of dairy and (sometimes) rum.
Much like saying that any drink that has tequila and lime in it is basically a margarita– or that we are all related to Charlemagne— whatever spirit of truth is in that glass, it is far too watered down by generality and implication.
A LITTLE COCONUT
Coquito, or “little coconut” in Spanish, is a holiday drink from Puerto Rico that has recently been gaining popularity far beyond.
“More than a beverage, it’s a celebration of our culture during Christmas,” says Josue Echevarria, a bartender at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
ALWAYS A PARTY: THE CULTURE OF COQUITO
The mention of it to a group of Puerto Ricans will likely bring forth an eruption of joyous contention. Debates about who makes the best version will lead to knowing demands for evidence.
Carlos Santiago, another San Juan bartender, remembers family holiday parties growing up:
“We would always have everyone taste for bragging rights.”
Thus, there will be no losers, as everyone will get to drink plenty of Coquito! Favorites will be had, but each version will be understood to have been made with the love that comes from family traditions.
RISE OF A TRADITION: COQUITO INGREDIENTS
In terms of flavor, Coquito is absolutely defined by the presence of coconut. The development of the drink, though, is perhaps more tied to its inclusion of condensed milk, the main sweetening ingredient.
Dr. Cruz Ortiz Cuadra at the University of Puerto Rico notes that canned products, such as condensed milk, only began to be imported on a large scale after the US invasion of 1898. It would develop into its current form around the 1950s when refrigeration – necessary for its preservation due to the condensed milk – would become widespread.
YOUR BASIC COQUITO RECIPE
According to Santiago, Coquito at its most basic is rum, cream of coconut, condensed milk, and spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. He offers this recipe as a starting point:
COQUITO RECIPE INGREDIENTS:
- 6 oz Coconut Cream
- 6 oz Full Fat Coconut Milk
- 6 oz Evaporated Milk
- 3 oz Condensed Milk*
- Large Pinch of Ground Cinnamon
- ½ tsp Vanilla Extract
- 8 oz Puerto Rican Rum
*Note: I’ve seen many recipes call for condensed coconut milk, but Santiago gave me this traditional recipe with regular condensed milk.
- Whisk all ingredients together until evenly combined.*
- Chill in the refrigerator.
- Garnish each serving with a little ground cinnamon– or I’ve even seen fresh coconut used, in case you want to accentuate the coconut flavor.
Note: I see a lot of recipes– including the two below– that recommend using a blender to combine the Coquito ingredients, but this is not the traditional way that was shared with me.
Below are a couple variations on the classic Coquito recipe submitted to A Bar Above’s community group (Craft Cocktail Club).
“SMOKEY NUTS” BY HANNAH NGAIHTE:
(Note: This recipe makes 2 cocktails)
- 13.5 oz Can Coconut Milk
- 2 cups Vanilla Almond Milk
- 1/3 cup Sweetened Condensed Milk
- 1 cup Coconut Oil-washed Caribbean Spiced Rum
- 45 ml Mezcal
- 30 ml Burnt Caramel Simple Syrup
- 1/4 cup Roasted Hazelnuts
- 4 dashes Black Walnut Bitters
- 1 tsp Cinnamon
- Rim: Sweetened Condensed Milk with Crushed Hazelnuts
- Blend all ingredients in a blender.
- Chill mixture in fridge.
- Pour in garnished, chilled wine glass and sprinkle with cinnamon.
“BUTTER PECAN PUERTO RICAN” BY JORGE AGUILAR
- 1 -11.6oz Can Sweetened Condensed Coconut Milk
- 1 – 13.5oz Can Heavy Coconut Cream
- 1- 13.5oz Can Evaporated Coconut Milk
- 1 Cup Pecan Halves
- 1 Cup Butter Washed Puerto Rican Rum
- 2 Cinnamon Sticks
- Blend in blender.
- Chill in fridge and serve cold.
RESTING: PREPPING COQUITO TO LET FLAVORS SIMMER
Coquito can be served immediately after making it, but many people make it a couple days ahead of time and keep it in the fridge to allow the flavors to meld. A coworker of mine, who makes Coquito every year for friends and family, says that it’s just not the same without that time for the flavors to marry.
Eggnog drinkers take note! Giving either drink time to rest allows the flavors to better blend together and become deeper. You can also add whole spices when you make the batch and then strain them out before serving.
RUM FOR THE JOB
Unlike eggnog, Coquito is unquestionably made with one liquor: rum. Originally, the rum in question was an illicit overproof “moonshine” made in Puerto Rico called pitorro.
Nowadays, there are plenty of legal rums from Puerto Rico that are more widely available, though, such as Don Q and Ron Del Barrilito. Each is very different and lends its own unique flavor to Coquito.
VARIATIONS ON A COCONUT
In addition to using diverse rums to complement your Coquito flavor, you can also try these tweaks to your traditional Coquito recipe to get noticeably different– but still delightful– results:
Spices: The spices that season Coquito are often vanilla and cinnamon, but other warming spices can easily be added, especially if you give them time to infuse in the Coquito for at least a couple days.
Cloves are another common addition, but allspice also works well– and even the addition of some freshly brewed tea (cooled off) can add some lovely complexity. Or you can make your own tea with all the mentioned spices combined together.
Adjust the Sweetness: Any drink that falls into the holiday category can run the risk of offending modern pallets with their sugar content. Though these are often considered liquid “treats,” it’s nice to have the option of easing off some of that sweetness.
To do so, you can shift the balance of the recipe more towards evaporated milk, which is the unsweetened version of condensed milk.
- A Little Acid: Lastly, try a tip from Josue Echevarria’s family recipe and substitute in some Moscatel wine (replacing an equal amount of the condensed milk) to add a little sweetness but also a little acidity that will brighten the drink right up.
EGGNOG OR AND COQUITO: TRADITIONS OF FAMILY
So the next time you hear that Coquito is just the Puerto Rican version of eggnog or “coconut nog,” you’ll know that’s not the case!
What is most valuable when considering these two drinks is their appeal for a communal experience. Sure, either can be thrown together at the last minute or even made as a single serving, but both benefit from being given time to develop flavor and are meant to be shared.
To make these drinks with patience and care is a gift to any and all whom you bring to your table, so skip the store-bought eggnog this year and create a new tradition for you and yours.
We’d love to hear what holiday traditions you share– What is your favorite holiday drink? Leave us a comment or join us over in the Craft Cocktail Club to show off your versions of eggnog and Coquito– and any other holiday cocktail you love to make.
*Thanks to Josue Echevarria for pointing me in the direction of Dr. Cuadra’s work.