EL BARRIO — Debbie Quinones has a message for anyone planning to compete Friday in the Coquito Masters competition.
"We're searching for the unicorn in a cup. It's a culinary adventure, an opportunity to honor the culture," Quinones said. "This is not eggnog and a shot of rum. If you think it is you will come in dead last."
They don't call Quinones, who founded the International Coquito Tasting Federation more than a decade ago, the "Contessa of Coquito" for nothing.
Now entering its second decade, the contest searches for the best coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican drink served during the Christmas season up until Three Kings Day.
Made with the global ingredients of coconuts, cinnamon, condensed milk, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves and rum, the drink has a consistency similar to that of eggnog but a culture all its own. The ingredients come from around the world but were meshed into one in Puerto Rico, Quinones said. The drink represents the African, Taino Indian and European ancestry of Puerto Ricans.
"This beverage represents a core, cultural sense of home. You don't have to be on the island but it's a taste of the island," Quinones said.
Other countries have similar drinks. In Guatemala it's called rompopo; Trinidad and Tobago call it punch de crème; and in England, it's known as posset.
Michelle Cruz, owner of East Harlem Cafe, hosted one of the qualifiers that produced last year's winner.
"It's a tradition, it's about family and it's more than just a drink," Cruz, who is Puerto Rican, said.
The idea for the contest was born when the family friend who made coquito for Quinones passed away. She invited a bunch of friends over for a party and told them to bring their best homemade coquito with them.
Soon, it turned into a competition.
Some recipes are closely guarded family secrets. There are secret ingredients that have been passed down for generations. Each one is different. Some people, for example, swear by using egg yolks in the recipe, while others don't.
Protecting that legacy is a job that Quinones, who works for the state Department of Health and attended Le Cordon Bleu, takes seriously.
"I have tasted amazing coquito and I've tasted really bad coquito. It's about helping people to experience the best coquito they can," Quinones said.
Cruz said she has such a respect for the drink that she doesn't even try to make it herself.
That reverence for the beverage and its origins doesn't mean Quinones is not open to experimentation, though. She has had chocolate, pistachio and even pomegranate-flavored coquito.
"The traditionalists don't even want to taste those," she said.
There's also dairy-free coquito and coquito that incorporates elements from other cultures.
"I just ask that the interpretation not go too far off the rails," Quinones said.
Cruz said last year's winner produced the perfect, classic coquito.
"It was creamy with a little bit of cinnamon and not a lot of alcohol," said Cruz, who enjoyed just reminiscing about the drink.
Now the title of best coquito in New York City is once again up for grabs. Those who attend the qualifiers will get to taste the coquito concoctions.
"Everyone is going to taste. Everyone is a judge. It's going to be mad, mad, mad," Quinones said.
There are plans to expand the competition's reach to places such as Florida and Hawaii, which has a large Puerto Rican population that migrated there in the 19th century to work the sugar cane and pineapple fields.
Since she started the competition a decade ago, Quinones sees coquito pushing its way into mainstream culture.
"There are Puerto Ricans and people who love Puerto Rican culture all over the world. My goal is to serve them all coquito," she said.
A qualifier for the Coquito Masters will be held Friday, Dec. 7 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Gran Piatto Doro, 1429 Fifth Ave. A second qualifier will be held Saturday, Dec. 8 at from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the SoHarlem Creative Outlet at the Mink Building, 1361 Amsterdam Avenue, Suite 340 at West 126th Street. From 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, located at 1040 Grand Concourse at 165th Street, will host the finals.