This year, I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas. I’m dreaming of pink sand, pastel-colored houses, fiery sunsets, a so-blue-it-hurts ocean that I can dip my toes into morning, noon, and night, and spending the day with a flock of flamingos. TL;DR: I am dreaming of the Caribbean, where across many diverse countries and cultures, Christmas festivities look a little bit different. Rather than mulled wine and eggnog, there’s coquito, fresh ginger beer, sorrel, and guavaberry. When it comes to festive holiday cocktails and mocktails, you really can’t beat Caribbean Christmas drinks.
Across Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and the ABC islands (a.k.a. Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), to name just a few, you’ll find an array of holiday-inspired cocktails that make use of local ingredients and brighten your spirits. The main booze here is rum (To misquote Jack Sparrow, it’s the Caribbean, love! Of course there’s rum.) Rum is made from molasses and sugarcane juice. Many countries, from Jamaica to Barbados to Fiji to Peru, have their own takes on the traditional method, but these two ingredients are key to making rum.
And rum is delicious! But you can’t go into the history of rum without talking about the fact that it was once a product of slavery in the West Indies. Though there is a very real link between plantation labor, sugarcane, and the production of rum, the spirit is generally not associated with its dark history. Rather, it’s now a product Caribbean distillers innovate and celebrate.
“Distillation, and imbibing of the product of this activity, was one of the few activities slaves were allowed to engage in independently: the spirit was included in their pay or rations, and again, was not necessarily the same spirit that sits on the shelves in retail stores today,” explains Shannon Mustipher, rum expert and author of the book Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails.
“In the Caribbean, rum is a source of pride and viewed as a way to show hospitality to form bonds with friends and visitors alike. Its link to slavery is not a source of contention of shame,” says Mustipher. These seven festive cocktails pair rum with traditional island liqueurs and flavors (so much coconut!) for a Christmas celebration.
Many Puerto Rican Christmas festivities kick off on Christmas Eve with a feast of pork, rice, beans, and coquito. “Recently, I have seen bartenders gravitate toward the Coquito as a more aromatic or delicate alternative to eggnog, and some have even gone so far as to age their versions in barrels,” says Mustipher.
To make it, combine all of the ingredients (except the rum)—unsweetened coconut milk, evaporated milk, coconut cream, condensed milk, ground cinnamon, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla extract—in a large pot and slowly bring it to a simmer. Once it’s heated, let it cool to room temperature and add the booze. Chill it and serve cold in a shot glass with cinnamon sticks. You could make Coquito as much as a month in advance and let it “age” a bit, as some households tend to do.
On the island of St. Maarten, residents go caroling with but instead of eggnog, they drink rum. Guavaberry, now a legendary liquor on the island, was once considered to be a holiday drink in the same way that Americans associate eggnog with Christmas. Nowadays, the oak-aged rum has received a modern iteration in the form of a fruity, frozen beverage—the Guavaberry Colada.
This Caribbean Christmas cocktail is made by blending Sint Maarten Guavaberry, coconut cream, pineapple juice, and ice. It’s poured into a glass (naturally, I’d reach for my most fun tiki glass) and is topped with pineapple pieces, toasted coconut, and fresh nutmeg.
Ponche Aruba or Ponce Crema
Christmas in Aruba means a feast of glazed ham known as “ham di pasco,” a style of glazed ham that is popular throughout the islands in the West Indies; Ayaca, which is a cornmeal wrap stuffed with finely chopped meat, spices, and nuts; Cashupete, a traditional Dutch Caribbean Cashew Nut Cake; and Pan de Jamon, a Venezulan ham bread that has been absorbed by the country’s northern neighbors.
But the real treat is Aruba’s signature holiday drink known as Ponche Aruba or Ponche Crema, which is similar to eggnog but thicker, creamier, and not as sweet. Like traditional eggnog, the recipe for Ponche Aruba varies from family to family but it’s generally made with sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, eggs, spiced rum, amaretto, and a garnish of fresh nutmeg.
Ponche Krema de Pistacho
Tucked beside the coast of Venezuela, Curacao is perhaps most famous stateside for the blue liqueur that bears its name. But the island is so much more than that: Its duality of rugged landscape and beautiful beaches—not to mention its blend of 55 different cultures and religions—makes it one of the most interesting islands to visit.
A traditional Curaçaoan Christmas dinner will always include a big batch of Ponche Krema de Pistacho, a locally-made pistachio eggnog that is spiked with rum. Most American eggnog recipes call for brandy, but it wouldn’t be a tropical Caribbean cocktail without the use of local rum. It’s made with Royal Flan mix, milk, instant pistachio pudding pie filling, sweetened condensed milk, rum, and artificial vanilla flavor.
When you think of a Christmas cocktail, a bright red drink that’s the same hue as Santa’s suit probably comes to mind, right? Sorrel is the answer to your Christmas wish. This spiced Jamaican cocktail is made with dried sorrel, which are hibiscus flower petals native to the Caribbean. To make the cocktail, cook the sorrel flowers, fresh ginger root, brown sugar, and whole spices such as cinnamon, star anise, or cloves in a saucepan. Bring it to a boil and then cool. Divide the mixture into glasses, top with as much rum as you want (the more, the merrier obviously).
Ginger beer is an integral part of Jamaican Christmas celebrations and many families choose to make their own (Vaughn Stafford Gray argues that his grandmother’s is the spiciest on the island). Making it is a project and is one that’s best done at least a week in advance; then come Christmas, the big batch (we’re talking about 15 one-liter bottles in Gray’s household) will be ready to serve or gift on Christmas.
Hot Buttered Rum
This drink has deeper ties to Colonial America than to the Caribbean, but we’re still including it here, as it’s one of the most popular rum-based drinks for Christmas. You’ll need rum, of course, plus butter, honey, brown sugar, and lots of spices (think: cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) to make it. Keep cinnamon sticks on hand because that’s the most important garnish.
What are your favorite Caribbean food and drink traditions? Let us know in the comments below!