Janelle Hernandez calls herself the Coquito Queen of Philadelphia.
The 31-year-old West Philly resident began selling the flavored coconut Christmas beverage, which is a staple in Puerto Rican and Dominican homes, in 2016 to pay for her younger brother’s high school graduation trip. Now she’s selling her family’s recipe in celebratory bottles for $30 a pop via Instagram and has made about $1,600 in sales so far this year.
“I grew up watching my mom make coquito every year,” Hernandez said. “Now I see myself as Philly’s Coquito Connect.”
Hernandez isn’t the only one selling coquito-filled bottles of wine and rum through social media. Like clockwork from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, Facebook groups are flooding Philadelphia’s neighborhood with requests for the drink — and vendors bundling it in tribute to their families.
Coquito — which means “little coconut” in Spanish — is a decadent Puerto Rican drink typically made with coconut cream, a cinnamon-spiced tea, and rum. Some believe the drink originated sometime in the 1950s, after condensed milk made its way to the island, and families like to shroud their recipes in secrecy, making batches from Thanksgiving to Epiphany in January.
Everyone makes coquito a little differently: Hernandez sells a vegan version with evaporated coconut milk, while Fishtown’s Tesa Maldonado adds vanilla bean paste and cardamom to the spice blend. Meanwhile, Jolanda Ramos-Torres from Bridesburg sells her coquito with a selection of mix-ins such as pistachios, Nutella and peppermint.
But the consensus is to splurge and pour from the heart with Don Q rum imported from Puerto Rico.
Patito Martinez began shopping at “Coquito Queen” Hernandez in 2019 when they needed a gift to give a Dominican friend’s family in the Bronx for Thanksgiving. It was a perfect gesture, they thought, until learning the family were Seventh-day Adventists — who aren’t supposed to drink alcohol, though Martinez said the family sipped Hernandez’s recipe.
“My friend’s mother said ‘S—that’s good!’ So she made an exception and kept drinking,” Martinez said. Now they buy at least 14 bottles a year: two for personal use, six for Friendsgiving and Thanksgiving, and another six for Christmas parties.
Philadelphia has the second-largest Puerto Rican population in the US among US cities, so the ritual of making the drink keeps the tradition alive as Puerto Ricans move away from the Tías, Tíos, and Abuelos, who used to give them sips in the kitchen instilled.
Maldonado, the Fishtown-based coquito purveyor, began making it in 2018 after her grandfather died — he was family famous for neurotically stacking his coquito a year before winter vacation. When he died, she said, no one had taken the mantle, so she began experimenting with her family’s recipe.
The catch: Before Maldonado could start selling, she needed her grandmother’s approval.
“I would send her glasses while she looked at her novels,” said Maldonado, 29. “It took a few tries, but her approval made me feel more confident.” She’s sold 42 bottles so far this holiday season via a Google Sold a form her friends posted on Facebook.
Ramos Torres from Bridesburg started making coquito when he was a teenager. Now in her 30s, she first introduced her recipe to the public while watching the Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys matchup on Oct. 16. word of mouth and some Facebook advertising.
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 on Puerto Rican culture, believes in Philly’s thriving network of ad hoc -Coquito-sellers is an outgrowth of Culture emphasis on grit and endurance.
“The idea that you find a way to make things work for you when you need them too… That’s as much a part of Puerto Rican culture as coquito is,” he said Otaño-Gracia, who used to live in West Philly.
Each supplier said most of their customers are from outside the Latino community. Maldonado said that might have to do with the exoticization of ethnic cuisines, where food influencers paint things as mundane as agua frescas and coquito as new, exciting, and never-before-discovered.
That’s not entirely bad, although it’s changing the way some of Philadelphia’s coquito vendors prepare the drink. Maldonado and Hernandez said they’ve received requests to make their recipes “boozier” so people can taste the rum, which defeats the purpose of Coquito.
“It’s a sip drink,” Hernandez said.
Coquito’s sweetness trickles into the mainstream. Yards Brewing released a seasonal stout inspired by the beverage last year, while Bacardi sells a lukewarm bottled version.
Even so, Maldonado believes Philly’s local vendors have nothing to fear.
“It just has something to do with getting it from someone who made it with their hands,” she said. “You get warmth and community.”