How did you start selling your coquito?
regino: I have been a bartender for a long time and mixology has always been 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 everywhere—in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and across the border to Massachusetts—just to sell it. Then I thought, maybe we have something here.
How many bottles did you sell during that time?
From October to February we sold about 10,000 bottles.
How did you do that kind of volume before you started a brand?
It was really word of mouth, going out to friends and family to say I had it whenever they wanted. The startup was slow, 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 little bit about the drink.
So a lot of this was about educating people about the drink itself?
I started telling people it looked like a rum cream liqueur that looks like RumChata (a cream liqueur that uses Caribbean rum, Wisconsin dairy cream, and Mexican spices). They would try and just keep ordering. Before long I was sold out every time a shipment of bottles came in. We had to start pre-ordering.
Demand got so high that in 2019 I brought in Olmo (who is a budget analyst and accountant for the City of East Providence) to help me with the numbers. We engaged Escobar (a community manager at Fidelity Investments and founder and chairman of Millennial Rhode Island) in 2020 to assist with operations and management.
What are the tasting notes for Papi’s Coquito?
It is a Caribbean rum distilled from sugar cane molasses with sweet and spicy flavors mixed with a sweet non-dairy coconut cream. We use vanilla and cinnamon, and some other proprietary spices.
Do you still make the coquito in your kitchen?
Rhode Island is a three-tier state of the beverage industry: manufacturer, distributor, and retailer. We didn’t have the seed money to actually open a distillery. We are out of the minority millennials with debt. So we had to find an innovative way to sell our brand without spending too much money. The way around that was to be our own brand, but have someone else blend our product according to our own recipe.
So we have a blender and bottler in Kentucky. They signed a nondisclosure agreement not to share our recipe. We source the products and send them to their warehouse where they do 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 wholesale license, so we are 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 would have to apply for a specific license, which costs a $1 million bail, and earn $250,000 of your own money before you even have any income. Instead, we pay a $4,000 annual fee to the state, project it all on the same recipe, and sell it ourselves. For me it’s better this way than through a distributor. At that point, they’re actually just buyers.
Are you planning to expand flavors or offerings?
I think in general we don’t just have to be a ‘coquito brand’. There are many different drinks and products that are especially lacking in the market here. How we’ve brought this online is almost “hood-inspired.”
What do you mean?
Escobar: Victor and many colored people have to sell this kind of black market when it comes to liqueur. There’s a reason we lack diversity in the beverage industry here in Rhode Island. Many people want to make their own product, but there are [many obstacles] go the traditional route first. And it’s not just the liquor business either.
We all hope that by launching this brand and making it “legitimate”, we can show other entrepreneurs of color that you can have a legit business in this industry.
Where can people try Papi’s Coquito, or buy their own bottle?
Escobar: brass monkey† Black sheepand brew revival makes 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 overcast†
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A featuring Rhode Island innovators starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at [email protected]†