Here’s The History Of The Rivalry Between Coquito and Crème de Vie
All Latinx folks know that the holidays aren’t the holidays without those trademark winter drinks. The Navidad beverage spectrum is definitely extensive—from ponche caliente to champurrado to canelazo—but two of the most beloved holiday beverages are, sin duda, crème de vie and coquito. These two creamy concoctions are super similar (in the US, crème de vie is sometimes called “Cuban eggnog,” while coquito is known as “Puerto Rican eggnog”), but both drinks have their own fascinating (and mysterious) histories, histories that manifest in seemingly infinite variations at holiday fiestas every year.
Crème de Vie and coquito are sometimes compared to “eggnog” in modern US culture because eggnog is a quintessentially American drink (just think about how famously dairylicious the Midwest is).
Most historians believe that eggnog is a relative of a medieval drink called “posset”—a British beverage of curdled hot milk mixed with wine, ale, and spices that was brought over during the 18th century. At the time, brandy and wine were heavily taxed, so rum from the Caribbean was often imported in large, less expensive quantities. Rum, then, was popularly paired with the abundant dairy products cultivated by the colonists, and traditional US eggnog was born.
Some iteration of “eggnog”—used here as a loose term to describe cross-culturally creamy, dairy-based alcoholic winter beverages—is present in just about every Central and South American country. Mexico’s “rompope” adds cinnamon, while Peru’s “biblia con pisco” uses—you guessed it!—pisco instead of rum. But we’re here to talk about crème de vie and coquito, so let’s get to it.
Coquito got its name from its primary ingredient: the coconut.
With coconut milk and coconut cream as a base, coquito is one of the richest, most delectable tonics one could ever put to their lips. It’s made with Puerto Rican rum, sweetened condensed milk, and other spices (usually vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves). It’s definitely sweet (and is typically served after dinner as a chupito), but it’s balanced out by the warming winter spices. Altogether, it is a well-rounded and deeply indulgent chilly day treat.
The origins of coquito are a bit mysterious, though there are two main theories that propel the imagination deep into its delicious past. Many people postulate that coquito is an outcome of colonization, when the Spanish infiltrated the island back in the early 1500s and brought their traditional version of eggnog with them. Others believe that Coquito is the younger cousin of American eggnog, emerging as a clever way for Puerto Ricans to imbibe during Prohibition (the idea is that the coconut fat could somehow disguise the alcohol, though if you’ve ever smelled a strong glass of coquito, that seems pretty dubious). The most likely source of Coquito is simply Puerto Rico’s abundance of its primary ingredients: coconuts and sugar.
Sugar has been cultivated in Puerto Rico since the 16th century, and its production skyrocketed in the 19th century. Although rum was certainly drunk in Puerto Rico before the 1600s, it did not take hold as an industry on the island until sugar did (rum wouldn’t be rum without sugar, after all). Some people hypothesize that the introduction of sweetened and evaporated milk came from American soldiers, who were familiar with these products after consuming them during wartime.
While we may never know the true origins of this incredible tonic, we can continue to savor coquito at holiday parties until the end of time.
And Crème de Vie? First of all: why “crème de vie” and not “crema de vie?” The answer is just as uncertain as the drink’s history. For some reason, “crème de vie” is used more commonly written, though it’s often pronounced “crema de vie” anyway.
No matter how you shake it, the name translates to “Cream of Life,” and if you’ve ever had this luscious winter cocktail, you know how perfect this translation truly is.
Crème de Vie differs from Coquito in a very important way: it does not contain coconut, but it still carries a Caribbean flare. It’s quite a bit sweeter, with a base of evaporated and sweetened condensed milk, raw egg yolk, and rum (spiced rum tends to be a bit more festive). Like coquito, it’s also garnished with vanilla, cinnamon, and other warming spices, and usually garnished with nutmeg or a full cinnamon stick—but the truth is, it’s different in every family, so your experience might not fit this description exactly!
The history of crème de vie is also unclear, with some people believing it to be borne of either the Spanish conquest or US influence. What we do know is that it is often bottled up and given as a gift for Navidad, and like coquito, it’s generally sipped after dinner as an aperitif.
The history of these drinks may be uncertain, but their popularity in the present is growing rapidly, with competitions like the Coquito Masters drawing national attention to their cultural significance. If your family doesn’t make either one, give it a try this year—you’ll be so glad you did.