The Rise of “Instagram Coquito” and Why I’m Ordering It on Repeat This Holiday Season

published Dec 12, 2023
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Credit: Photos:Jordi Foster, Erick Castro, Coquito NYC; Design: The Kitchn

Obtaining coquito has traditionally been a personal affair. It’s not something you grabbed from your local supermarket shelf, and you couldn’t just walk into a bodega and ask for it. Coquito, which holds a cherished place in Latino culture, especially during the holiday season, was often sourced from neighbors, friends, or family members who meticulously crafted their recipes and poured their personal touch. One year, it was my neighbor’s second cousin; another, my aunt’s hairdresser. However, as families and friends dispersed geographically, my annual quest for coquito during the holidays became increasingly challenging.

In a world dominated by digital connections, the emergence of Instagram coquito sellers has allowed me to continue my tradition with just a DM. And it’s all led by Coquito NYC and The Coquito Plug, two Latina-owned coquito companies that are not only making the creamy, coconut-based beverage more accessible than ever, but they’re also playing a crucial role in preserving and spreading cultural traditions.

Credit: Carlos Matias

Coquito NYC founder Gabriela Annacone remembers walking into her best friend’s house as a young teenager and hearing “a million blenders going off at once.” She’d watch her best friend’s family make coquito while she helped with the Christmas decorations. It’s a tradition she took back to her house, along with her friend’s mom’s recipe. “I would tell my sisters I’m gonna make coquito. That’s like telling them to go get the tree and the ornaments ready,” recalls Gabriela. She now shares that tradition every single year with her own family.

Credit: Carlos Matias

“My mom would get it from a family friend, but I wasn’t allowed to try it because it had liquor,” recalls Penelope Rodriguez of The Coquito Plug. “I smelled the alcohol on her, and when she went to shower, I ran into the kitchen, opened the bottle, and drank some.” When it came time to build her coquito, she thought back to that day and created the recipe from memory.

Gabriela and Penelope never set out to create coquito businesses, but the clear demand, coupled with the go-getter mentality they both credit to living in New York City and being Latina, pushed them to bottle the beverage and sell it. What started as a humble side hustle quickly evolved into full-fledged businesses operating out of commercial kitchens — Coquito NYC, in Harlem, and The Coquito Plug, in Long Island City. 

Gabriela’s journey began with a desire to share a piece of her culture with her then-marketing agency colleagues during the holiday season in 2016. “I’m one of those people who wants to give everybody a really good gift. I want to make you cry. I wanted to share my culture with my colleagues, so I made Coquito,” she says. 

Penelope, much like Gabriela, had totally different plans for her career. Her entrepreneurial path began with an online bakery in 2017, but she wasn’t fulfilled. She took time to rethink her business, and in 2018, a thirst for coquito one day led to her experimenting with different recipes. “I made a recipe and wasn’t too in love with it, so I tried another recipe the next day. And the day after that. After about two weeks, I found one I liked,” she says. The experimentation paid off. “I gave it to my family and friends first, and they kept asking for more. Eventually, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to sell this.’”

Credit: Carlos Matias

Coquito NYC makes ready-to-drink versions, but the shining star is the coquito kit, complete with (almost) everything you’ll need to experience making it at home: individual ingredients, branded bottles, and straws. “It’s about bringing it back to the kitchen where it all began. I want people to experience that joy. You bring the coquito kit, have your friends bring the rum, and make a day of it,” says Gabriela about what inspired the DIY version. The kit is a hit with her friends and family, and a long list of corporate clients such as Meta, Peloton, and Univision that call on her when it’s time for employee holiday gifts. 

The traditional coquito boasts a base of coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk to form its velvety texture, while spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg give it its rich aroma. Rum is used for an added kick, but due to shipping regulations, both brands can only offer their boozy versions via local delivery or pickup. (If you decide to add rum, Gabriela recommends Coconut Cartel, a family-owned Latinx brand that cuts its añejo rum with fresh coconut water. It adds a hint of coconut without making it overly sweet, like other coconut rums.)

Every family has a coquito recipe they swear by, from the choice of rum to the ratios of coconut cream and spices to the addition of non-traditional ingredients, like pumpkin, strawberry, and dulce de leche. “I’m a purist,” explains Gabriela about her approach. She likes to leave the experimenting up to her customers. “The great thing about coquito is if you want a different variety, you can use our recipe as the base and put whatever you want in there. People DM us and say, ‘Hey, this is great, but I want to make a chocolate version. How much would you recommend?’” She suggests adding a tablespoon of any flavor ingredients (chocolate, Nutella, etc.) to a single bottle of her coquito.

Credit: Carlos Matias

Experimentation is what helped Penelope launch her business and what drives it today. “I like to play around with the flavors and pairing. It’s important to me to highlight the Caribbean culture of the drink, and I do that with the names and the recipes.” Her ¡Azúcar! version, a limited-edition flavor only available a week before Christmas, shares its name with Cuban performer and salsa queen Celia Cruz’s iconic catchphrase. “[Celia’s] confidence, sweetness, and perseverance is what we strive for daily,” reads the product description on the site.

Although both Penelope and Gabriela have different traditions, beliefs, and business models, when it comes to making and selling coquito, the goal remains the same: “One of the reasons I created Coquito NYC was to bring more awareness to Latin traditions. There are so many things we make that are so delicious, so wholesome, so heartwarming, and I think being able to spread that more widely is important,” says Gabriela.

This sentiment is echoed by Penelope, who emphasizes the opportunity coquito provides to bridge cultural gaps. “When people buy from us who are not Latino, we get a chance to explain what the drink is, where it comes from, and the importance of its richness — not just in taste, but in what the drink represents to us as a [part of] Latin culture.”