Whether it's Coquito, Pitorro, Chichaito, Bilí, Caña, Beer, or good old-fashioned Rum, Puerto Rico drinks like it's a party every day. It has it's own share of unique adult and soft beverages, and they keep 'em flowing throughout the year. I think it's because it's so hot, you just have to keep drinking to stay hydrated. That's what I'm going with.
Let's start with the easy one: cerveza = beer, and the beer of Puerto Rico is Medalla Light. No, there is no "Medalla Regular", although they did start brewing Magna Beer which is a more premium version. It comes in bottles, but the standard issue is a gold can - it's the gold medal beer of Puerto Rico. It's a standard crisp, light lager that you find often in the tropics.
In the States you have Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, even Sam Adams Light. In the tropics light beer is like oxygen - it's a necessity of life. There's Kalik in the Bahamas, Salva Vida in Honduras, Belikin in Belize, and Presidente in the Dominican Republic, and Medalla is the big dog in PR. I actually like it better than all those others except the Sam Adams, and a Presidente can be pretty good from time to time.
You can buy Medalla in Vieques for less than 20 bucks a case, but keep in mind those are 10 oz. cans and 4.2% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is apparently common for light beers (I didn't know this coming from Colorado). Medalla goes to all the parties, to the beach, to the front or back porch, and is the standard "roadie" in PR.
(Drinking+Driving in PR isn't legal, but it is very, very common - don't shoot the messenger!)
There are also lots of imported beers from Europe, like Guinness, Shöfferhofer, and Heineken. There's even a Heineken Light at 3.3% ABV and a 0% Heineken as well (which is surprisingly good). From the western hemisphere, you'll find Modelo, Corona, and even Coors Banquet Beer from Colorado (notably flavorful in comparison to many of these others). Coors Lite is probably the biggest rival to Medalla, it's slightly sweeter and very popular as well. And there's Miller Lite: Gran Sabor, Llena Menos! (Great Taste, Less Filling!)
Speaking of Colorado, our friends there would probably say Puerto Rico is a craft beer wasteland, and maybe that's true in comparison with CO. But most places are a craft beer wasteland compared to Colorado. PR's not a wasteland though, craft beer is just a little (a lot) harder to find, especially in the hinterlands of Vieques and Culebra.
We are able to get FOK (Fresh Off the Keg) beer in bottles and it's pretty good to my taste, although not particularly exciting. I admit that only a couple of styles are delivered to the small islands; they may have more interesting ones closer to the brewery on the big island (in Caguas).
Draft beer would be better, but for the longest time we couldn't find a single working tap on Vieques. That has changed with time passing since the hurricane, and now there are two, yes I said TWO places that have draft on a semi-regular basis. In both places, the beer is from Old Harbor Brewery in Carolina, near San Juan. The beers are quite tasty - I've had their pale ale, a golden ale, a fest beer, and a nice IPA. Deb loves their Melon Ale, which is like a refreshing mouthful of Jolly Rancher watermelon!
But our favorite around these parts is Ocean Lab Brewery. Everything about them says "these guys are pros", from their full line-up of beer styles, their web presence, marketing, and beautiful bottle design. The beers have all impressed us, from more than one excellent IPA, a blueberry and a grapefruit ale, an American wheat, a blood orange blonde with a slight tang, a rich amber, and a classic pale ale. They even had a couple of "pop-up" draft beer parties at one of our larger hotels, El Blok, so we were very happy then!
The only one that didn't hit me just right was a recent release which was a collaboration with a local homebrewer, but my guess is they'll tweak it and it'll be wonderful. One fair complaint I have is that they sell it almost always in bottles, often very expensive bottles. In a warehouse store on the main island, at least one of their IPAs runs $3 per bottle. Not too bad except that there is no six-pack or even case discount! So do the math and that's an $18 six pack, or a $72 case, and that's before the 11.5% sales tax! To be fair most of their beers are closer to $2 a bottle, so the cost doesn't add up so quickly.
There are also U.S. crafts like Lagunitas, Bells, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, Sam Adams, Fat Tire, etc. for (usually) reasonable prices. I've almost given up completely on fighting the beers that are "past their date". I've sent notes to individual breweries, and have never heard anything but crickets, so they either don't care that the beer is old or can't do anything about it. Ultimately, it's the taste that counts and frankly I've been happy with that.
Those are all breweries who package their beer and sell it in stores, the so-called microbreweries (although I'm not sure how micro they really are). The brewpub scene is a little less developed but on a recent trip to mainland PR we really did enjoy Boxlab Brewing in Aguadilla. In fact, we enjoyed it immensely. They have a limited capacity to produce lots of beer (small vessels, small space) but an unlimited ability to produce great beer. My favorite was a New England style IPA with oats and lactose for a smooth yet spectacular experience all the way to the bottom of the mug. Deb loved their Kölsch, a crisp and clean, somewhat hoppy pale beer. And I was surprised when I was offered a real old-school barley wine. It was delicious, although the heat of the tropics and barley wine don't always sing in perfect harmony.
Rincón Beer Company in (yes) Rincón, is about to release their own beers but currently they operate as a good beer pub. With ~15 craft beers on tap, it's hard to go wrong. There we discovered Del Oeste Cervezas Artesenales (From the West Craft Beer). Proud to be from western PR, Oeste's beers show that pride. It was interesting that they have so many German style beers, I'll want to dig into that further. We had a pale ale and a helles, both of which were mighty fine.
Bottom line: you can get a quality light beer for the tropics in PR, and you can get a quality craft beer to tickle the taste buds, but you do have to work harder to find it and pay much more for the latter.
Puerto Rico is famous for a drink you've heard of, the Piña Colada. With the name meaning strained pineapple, the earliest stories of this concoction were of a 19th century Puerto Rican pirate who made a drink to cheer up his crew - pineapple, coconut, and rum. Beyond that, there are a couple of conflicting stories of the modern-day recipe being invented in the '50s and '60s by two different bartenders. Though it can be served on the rocks, the Piña Colada is blended, frozen (19th century pirates were out of luck). With the pineapple juice, coconut cream, white rum, and ice it is classic Caribbean. So popular, it's a summertime party staple in many, many places around the globe.
Other Puerto Rico drinks remain a bit of a hidden surprise for visitors to PR. Shots of Chichaito come to mind. This truly classic mix is simply Palo Viejo white rum and a good Anise liqueur, poured 50/50. Palo Viejo sells it now, pre-mixed in the bottle. Old-timers around here talk about carrying a hip flask of Chichaito with them wherever they went, especially on a fishing excursion. It's quite a pick-me-up!
Back to the blender, Deb and I have our own Banana Daiquiri recipe that we posted in Slow Season. Unlike the Piña Colada, the daiquiri is a drink that started off on the rocks and then found fame and fortune in the blender. When the banana trees in our back yard started to produce, we had more bananas than we could eat. But we had a freezer and a blender, and we quickly found that frozen bananas make for great frozen banana drinks! So frozen bananas, white rum, coconut milk, lime juice, honey, ice, and blend until the blender starts to overheat - that's when you know it's just right! And don't forget the dark rum floater!
We've discussed this one before, but it bears repeating: Coquito! Another simple drink, it will be in our holiday repertoire until our last holiday on Earth. Coquito is Puerto Rico's answer to England's Egg Nog and it gets bottled and handed out to friends and family alike.
It's not any healthier than egg nog, nor is it intended to be. It's simply tastier - what could be better at Christmas than coconut sweetness mixed with rum (or pitorro, see below) and vanilla/cinnamon/nutmeg? Nothing, that's what. Coquito for the win!
The best I can tell, Pitorro, Caña and Cañita are the same thing - Puerto Rican moonshine, made illegally far from the revenuers' prying eyes. Is Caña the same as Cañita (little Caña)? More research must be done, but never fear, I'm willing to risk my liver in this vital quest for knowledge.
But in the meantime, what is it we actually do know? Pitorro is rum. It's cane sugar that's been fermented and distilled. The difference is that one is on the right side of the law, and the alcohol content is regulated, while the other is the other, and really nothing is regulated. It's good though!
The next thing that happens to these unregulated concoctions is they get mixed with fruit and spice and everything nice. One of the best I've tasted was a coconut version that was to die for. The guy that made it offered it to us to take home, but we were too polite. Too damn polite - we should have taken it! Bilí is another great fruit, spice, and booze medley. The semi-famous drink of Vieques is pitorro plus quenepa fruit, sugar, cinnamon and other spices (we use a chunk of burnt cinnamon). It's a sweet, smooth little devil of a drink that welcomes you to Vieques with a nice long nap!
OK, let's talk a little bit about rum. A full discussion of Puerto Rican rum alone could turn into a long book, so we'll just touch briefly on it here. There are a few very large rum distilleries in Puerto Rico, starting with DonQ. First distilled in Puerto Rico in 1865, it's the old man of Puerto Rican rum. Another big boy is Bacardi which was founded in Cuba, but has been in Puerto Rico since the 1930's.
One of my favorites is Ron Del Barrilito which has been around well over a century. Palo Viejo, Ron Rico, Castillo and Ron Llave all have their followings as well. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention a Dominican rum made just to the east of PR. I was introduced to it by my Dominican friend Victor, it's called Brugal Extra Viejo. As long as we're talking about neighbors, just across the water in the opposite direction is Cruzan Rum in St. Croix.
Most Puerto Rican rum produced is either white, gold, or a flavored version of the white rum. DonQ Limón is particularly popular, but their Coco flavor is a big hit at our house. They also have Passion Fruit, Piña Colada, and Mojíto flavored rums.
Dark rums are less common and aged rums are also, because they can quickly get very expensive. Ron Del Barrilito has a 5 star rum that is aged for many years and blended, at $800 a bottle (see picture). So as much as I'd like to have tried that one, I haven't! (just imagine my sad face here) They've recently released a 4 star that is an aged blend which tries to bridge the gap between "ridiculously expensive" and "everyday sipper". I regularly drink their 3 star, a sweet, smooth nectar that is a beautiful nightcap.
In the states there are popular mixes called "wine coolers" which are usually made with grain alcohol, not wine (marketing!). Similar packaged cocktails in PR are made with white rum. Palo Viejo has one called Palo Ready that comes in a drink pouch - that's really ready!
There's even a small rum distillery in Vieques now, The Crab Island Rum Distillery! They spent years getting all the right approvals along the way (PR isn't exactly an entreprenurial haven) and plan to have rum for sale by the end of the year. The whole island is excited about that.
The Softer Side
As for soft drinks, the big players play in Puerto Rico just as you might think. Coca Cola, Sprite, etc. are all around (Coke seems to have a much bigger presence than Pepsi). There are some less common soft drinks here as well. We've seen Jarritos in Puerto Rico (pineapple soda anyone?), but that's a Mexican brand.
Coco Rico is a Puerto Rican company and coconut flavored soda that was first made in 1935. It is popular here and pretty delicious. Malta India is made by a Puerto Rican beer brewery in Mayaguez, PR. It is often described as "unfermented beer"; it is definitely a very dark sweet soda - too sweet for my taste, but that's true of a lot of sodas.
Puerto Rico Drinks
Whatever you like to drink, alcoholic or not, you can find a unique beverage in Puerto Rico. For us, it's mostly cerveza or anything with rum in it. There's rum punch, Daiquiris, rum Manhattans, rum Old-Fashioned's, Piña Coladas, Chichaito, Coquito. There's grilled rum, boiled rum, fried rum, and rum on a stick. But whatever you're drinking, don't forget our favorite Puerto Rican toast:
Arriba, Abajo, Pa' Centro, Pa' Dentro! (Up, Down, Middle, Inside!)
Also, Salud! (to your health).
TODAY'S SPECIAL: "I Can Fix a Drink", by Chris Jansen, because "I can make you feel like you're sittin' on an island." 🙂