Nothing can turn a family holiday into a group challenge like the sweet blended flavor of coquito. Sleeves get rolled up as bottles of rum fill the kitchen for the prized title of coquito connoisseur. Usually abuela or madrina grab the win but with the advent of the Coquito Master’s Contest in the New York Tri-State Area it’s now anyone’s game. Coquito may look like an ordinary eggnog recipe from the outside, but it’s the ingredients and style of the traditional Puerto Rican drink that make each batch unique. The annual event is where the “best of the best” set up shop and anxiously wait to be named the best. There are as many “Best Coquito Ever” labels as there are “Original Rays Pizza” joints in New York City, but there can only be one master.
The New York born and bred event has morphed many times since Debbie Quiñones, organizer and founder of the International Coquito Federation, started the friendly battle from her apartment in 2001. The night usually ended with the winner taking a Miss America-style walk around the room and offered major bragging rights. “Why not have coquito recognized as something to have on the stage? Why not culinary preservation?” Quiñones thought. With a degree in nutrition and restaurant management and recipes from her Puerto Rican family, she took to a local community center with the idea.
By 2008, what started with a dozen competitors grew to nearly 50 contenders claiming to be the best in the city while 700 attendees watched on. To accommodate the many participants, Quiñones implemented a “qualifiers round” that let locals compete against each other and two winners representing their community. Two semi-finalists from six qualifiers, determined by the crowd, then compete in the finals. The rules are strict: contestants can’t taste (therefore judge) other peoples’ drinks or lobby for themselves, all pitchers are uniform, tasting cups have gotten smaller and tasting time was capped. A fusion flavor category was recently added to recognize remixes like chocolate, ice cream flavor and pistachio coquitos. All the changes have been part of Quiñones vision to broaden what coquito represents. “It’s really evolved into something that is much more than just a tasting,” Quiñones says. “It’s about the approach to tasting and challenging the public to look at coquito with a different eye.”