Growing up, Victor Regino would watch his abuela, Juana Sanchez, make coquito for the family. Coquito, which means “little coconut” in Spanish, is a traditional rum drink that derives from Puerto Rico.
It’s usually made in a family’s home, and recipes can vary depending on traditions: Some add egg yolks, others include clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. But coquito is always enjoyed during large celebrations.
After Regino’s grandmother passed in 2017, her recipe was passed down to him. He longed to bring back the influence she had on the family: Bringing the family together. This spring, Regino, along with Luis Olmo and Travis Escobar, have officially launched Papi’s Coquito, a new alcohol brand based in Rhode Island.
How did you start selling your coquito?
Regino: I was a bartender for a long time, and mixology was always a passion of mine. (Regino now works for the City of East Providence as a city planner.) But my wife and I started making coquito in our kitchen and just selling it to people who wanted it. After a while, I realized we were driving all over — in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and over the border into Massachusetts — just to sell it. That’s when I thought, we might have something here.
How many bottles were you selling during that time?
From October to February, we sold about 10,000 bottles.
How were you doing that kind of volume before establishing a brand?
It was really word-of-mouth, reaching out to friends and family to say I had it whenever they wanted it. It was slow to start up, because a lot of people — unless they’re Puerto Rican — don’t really know what coquito is. But over time, people got to know me and learned a bit about the drink.
So a large part of this was about educating people about the drink itself?
I started telling people that it was like a rum cream liqueur that is similar to RumChata (a cream liqueur that uses Caribbean rum, Wisconsin dairy cream and Mexican spice). They would try it and just keep re-ordering. Before long, I was selling out every time I had a shipment of bottles come in. We had to start pre-ordering.
The demand just got so high that I brought in Olmo in 2019 (who is a budget analyst and accountant for the City of East Providence) to help me with the numbers. We brought Escobar (a community manager at Fidelity Investments and founder and board chair of Millennial Rhode Island) in 2020 to help with operations and management.
What are the tasting notes for Papi’s Coquito?
It’s a Caribbean rum that’s distilled from sugar cane molasses with sweet and spicy flavors that’s blended with a sweet non-dairy coconut cream. We use vanilla and cinnamon, and some other proprietary spices.
Are you still making the coquito in your kitchen?
Rhode Island is a three-tiered state in the liquor industry: Manufacturer, distributor, and retailer. We didn’t have the startup capital to actually open a distillery. We’re minority millennials with debt. So we had to find an innovative way to get our brand out there to sell without fronting so much cash. The way around that was to be our own brand, but to allow someone else blend our product using our proprietary recipe.
So we have a blender and bottler in Kentucky. They signed a non-disclosure agreement to not share our recipe. We source the products, send it to their warehouse where they conduct the blending, bottling, and labeling process. Then they send it to our offices (which are located in the Lorraine Mills in Pawtucket). We have a wholesaler’s license, so we’re basically the distributor of our own brand. That allows us to sell to retailers.
How does this compare to the ‘usual way’ of creating a liquor brand in Rhode Island?
That would require us to become a “manufacturer.” We’d have to apply for a specific license, which costs a $1 million bond, and front $250,000 of your own money before you even make any revenue. Instead, we pay an annual fee of $4,000 to the state, project manage the whole thing with the same recipe and sell it yourself. To me, it’s better this way than going through a distributor. At that point, they’re really just order takers.
Do you plan on expanding flavors or offerings?
I think that down the line, we don’t just have to be a “coquito brand.” There are a lot of different beverages and products that are missing in the market, particularly here. How we brought this online is almost “hood-inspired.”
What do you mean by that?
Escobar: Victor and a lot of people of color have to start this kind of Black market kind of selling when it comes to liqueur. There’s a reason we have a lack of diversity in the liquor industry here in Rhode Island. A lot of individuals want to make their own product, but there are [many obstacles] to go through the traditional route first. And it’s not just the liquor business either.
We’re all hoping that by launching this brand, and making it “legitimate,” we can show other entrepreneurs of colors that you can have a legitimate business in this industry.
Where can people try Papi’s Coquito, or buy their own bottle?
Escobar: Brass Monkey, Black Sheep, and Revival Brewing is making frozen drinks with Papi’s Coquito. For liquor stores we’re in: Standard Liquors, Jordan’s Liquors, Tropical Liquors, and Enos Fine Wine — all in Providence — just to name a few.(Some residents can also order delivery from Drizly)
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
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