It's Competition Season For Coquito, Puerto Rico's Boozy Holiday Treat

Hot chocolate, spiced cider, mulled wine — chances are you've probably had one of these to warm up around the holidays.

For many Puerto Ricans, coquito is the go-to holiday favorite. It's a creamy, boozy rum punch that Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world mix up to sip and to share this time of year.

Think eggnog, but better — with coconut milk and lots of rum.

And home cooks can get pretty protective — and competitive — about their coquito recipes, especially at the Coquito Masters. Each year, participants bring their best coquito recipes to compete in a blind taste test for the Coquito Master title.

"It's always interesting when you have first-timers that come in and are very nervous about competing, because you know more than anyone that this represents the family and represents our ancestors and our heritage. And it seems like there's a lot of pressure to come through and do it right," says Debbie Quinones, the self-titled "Coquito Contessa."

For the past 16 years, Quinones has organized the Coquito Masters in New York. She spoke with NPR's guest host Ray Suarez about the traditional drink's origins, the competition and what it means for Puerto Ricans in the wake of recovery on the island after Hurricane Maria.


Interview Highlights

On how the judging happens

So you know, I think that after doing this for some time we've learned some lessons. And one of the things that we do is we have pitchers that have ice chambers that keep the coquito cold. Because when contestants give us their entry they're very nervous. They're like, "You have to keep it cold. Make sure you shake it." That's what we do. We keep the coquito cold, we make sure that we shake it before we put it into the pitchers.

And it's a blind taste test where the pitchers have letters and then people vote with the letter. And what we tell them is basically you're looking for a coquito that is blended, that has flavor, that has body and that has not too much alcohol.

On what makes good coquito

Sometimes people think that they have to hit you with a hammer of alcohol, and I don't think that's what coquito is. Coquito is a blend of all the ingredients that have come to the island via different countries, so to speak, right, because they all landed on our island and they brought different ingredients and we transformed it into this beautiful ambrosia. So it shouldn't be something that knocks you out. And on the other side, it shouldn't be something so light that it's a milkshake, right. And you don't want it too chunky that you're eating ice cream.

On what the competition means for Puerto Ricans post-Maria

Now more than ever I'm reflecting on what this contest means. I want to do more work around culinary preservation. There's so much of a larger burden and a responsibility and challenge that now — I've been doing this going on 16, 17 years — and now there's kind of like, "OK, you can do more." And I plan to do more.

What I want to do is look at more of preservation efforts for Puerto Rican cuisine and looking at maybe doing workshops on like "here's how to make a pastel or a coquito or sofrito," or the things that we would go to Puerto Rico looking for. Because now we have the responsibility to carry on that culinary legacy.

Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

It's Competition Season For Coquito, Puerto Rico's Boozy Holiday Treat

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

What's your favorite drink to get in the holiday spirit - hot chocolate, spiced cider, mulled wine maybe? For me, no contest - it's coquito. It's a creamy, slightly boozy Christmas punch that Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world mix up to sip and to share this time of year. Think eggnog but better with coconut milk, cinnamon and lots of rum. And home cooks can get pretty protective and competitive about their coquito recipe, especially at the Coquito Masters competition.

For the past 16 years, the self-titled Coquito Contessa, Debbie Quinones, has organized the Coquito Masters, Naturalmente, en Nueva York. And she joins me now, unfortunately down the line at NPR's New York bureau, so I can't get a sample to kick off the interview. Debbie Quinones, thanks for joining us.

DEBBIE QUINONES: Thank you for having me.

SUAREZ: Last week - last weekend was the Coquito Masters competition. What I don't understand is how you judge once you've got a big table covered with entries and each one is delicious. You take a sip, you say, wow, that's delicious. Then you move down the table and you take another one, and you think that's delicious. I don't know how you get a winner out of that.

QUINONES: So, you know, I think that after doing this for some time, we've learned some lessons. And one of the things that we do is we have pitchers that have ice chambers that keep the coquito cold. Because, you know, when contestants give us their entry, they're very nervous. They're like, you have to keep it cold. Make sure you shake it, you know. And that's what we do. We keep the coquito cold. We make sure that we shake it before we put it into the pitchers. And it's a blind taste test, where the pitchers have letters and then people vote with the letter.

And what we tell them is basically you're looking for a coquito that is blended, that has flavor, that has body and that has not too much alcohol because sometimes people think that, you know, they have to hit you with a hammer of alcohol. And I don't think that that's what coquito is. Coquito is a blend of all the ingredients that have come to the island via different countries, so to speak - right? - because they all landed on our island. And they brought different ingredients. And we transformed it into this beautiful ambrosia. So it shouldn't be something that knocks you out. Well, and on the other side, it shouldn't be something so light that it's a milkshake, right? And you don't want it too chunky that you are eating ice cream. So, you know, we've gotten very serious about this.

SUAREZ: Now, this is a tough time for Puerto Rico. Many residents are still without power. Some are facing their first holiday season away from home or without family members. A lot of people are moving up to the mainland. Obviously, a coquito competition is meant to be lighthearted fun, but is it a little bit happening in the shadow of bigger events, almost with a sad undertone to it?

QUINONES: Absolutely. There's so much of a larger burden of responsibility and challenge that now, yeah, I've been doing this 16, going on 17 years, and now there's kind of like, OK, you can do more. And I plan to do more. What I want to do is look at more of preservation efforts for Puerto Rican cuisine and looking at maybe doing workshops on, you know, like here's how to make a pastelon or coquito or sofrito or, you know, the things that we would go to Puerto Rico looking for because now we have the responsibility to carry on that culinary legacy.

SUAREZ: If you've been intrigued at all by the conversation, you can find coquito recipes online. It is worth your while to try it this Christmas. Debbie Quinones, the Coquito Contessa, Feliz Navidad and salud.

QUINONES: (Speaking Spanish) and thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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