To Make Coquito My Own, I Had to Ditch the Dairy

Photograph by Isa Zapata, Food Styling by Mieko Takahashi, Prop Styling by Alex Massillon

When winter’s embrace begins to unfurl, there’s a certain elixir that I simply must make—coquito. I was introduced to the drink by my dear friends Noelia and Abe, who are from San Juan, the vibrant heart of Puerto Rico where this drink’s tradition blossoms. Literally translating to “little coconut,” coquito features its namesake fruit, plus sweetened condensed milk, a touch of rum, and a symphony of aromatic spices, each note humming in harmony.

It was Christmas of 2016 when Noelia and Abe gifted me a 64-ounce mason jar full of coquito, lovingly adorned with a scarlet bow. It still feels like yesterday, and I still hold on to the photo I took of it in my camera roll. It was more than just a present. It was an embrace of time and care, an embodiment of their rich cultural heritage.

You see, my upbringing, steeped in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, never held holidays in the spotlight. For my parents, every day was a celebration, and festive occasions took a back seat. But as I stood at the threshold of adulthood, I found myself yearning for those threads that connect us—moments shared, gifts exchanged, the joy of togetherness. From that day forward, I would be taking holidays into my own hands.

Coquito became the bridge between longing and belonging. Though they didn’t know it, Noelia and Abe became the architects of my own traditions. For me, the essence of giving lay not in materialistic things, like another piece of jewelry or the latest Apple watch, but in the act of sharing a meal or drink with loved ones.

I am one of seven children with nine nieces and nephews, so having my siblings and their families over for the holidays is a real treat. A couple years ago, my cozy log cabin in the woods of northwest Connecticut transformed into a haven for kin and kindred spirits alike. We converged, we feasted, we belly laughed, and we savored the magic of coquito while staying warm by the fireplace.

Abe, who kindly shared his cherished recipe with me, posed a playful challenge—create your own version. By the time I took on the task, I was newly diagnosed with IBD and as lactose intolerant, so I’d have to cut the dairy. I’d have to improvise.

I experimented with oat milk, almond milk, cashew milk, and coconut milk—and it became evident that a higher fat content was essential. A combination of full-fat coconut milk and coconut cream offered the ideal foundation, both creamy and easily sippable. And swapping the evaporated milk was easier than I thought thanks to evaporated coconut milk.

For the right sweetener, I explored nondairy sweetened condensed milk options, such as oat and coconut, aiming to match the traditional flavor. I also experimented with dates, maple syrup, and brown sugar simple syrup. In the end, sweetened condensed oat milk came out on top.

The new recipe bloomed with its own charm. Tweaking the dairy still let the coconut flavor shine bright. And I adopted a secret twist from Abe: adding brewed chai to deepen the warm spices. Inspired by Jamaican culinary traditions, I also added a dash of allspice berries—paired with the iconic Jamaican Wray & Nephew rum, the drink feels velvety and nostalgic.

As I recall that moment when I got my own coquito just right, Noelia and Abe’s voices reverberate: “Our only request is that you share it with family and friends, in the true spirit of the holidays.” And so I share my own recipe with you. Take it. This holiday season, let coquito’s embrace flow from your hands, a warm gesture that celebrates tradition, even if it’s new.

Vegan Coquito

Chrissy Tracey

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit

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