Will the Real Piña Colada Please Stand Up?

Over time, the Piña Colada has fallen into the same disrepair as many tropical-at-heart cocktails, but it needn't be so. Derek Brown visits Puerto Rico to search for an authentic version of the frozen drink he can't help but adore.

Pina Colada Recipe

“I hate to tell this story,” chirped the young barkeep from Barrachina—one of the two bars that claim ownership of the Piña Colada—before he launched into what constitutes one of the drink’s many origin myths I heard while traveling in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Upon announcing his disdain, he released a large sigh, bordering on performance.

His story concerned a contest conducted by the cream of coconut brand Coco Lopez to select Puerto Rico’s national drink. I was unable to determine whether this contest actually took place (Coco Lopez’s website makes no mention), but the Piña Colada was declared Puerto Rico’s national drink in 1978, over 20 years after the drink’s more recited origin tales. The story seemed to be dubious at best. (Other, even more suspect lore points to late-19th-century pirates—namely one swashbuckling Roberto Cofresí—as the inventors of the tropical concoction, but nevermind that.)

From what I managed to research—which, admittedly, involved drinking a lot of Piña Coladas—the island’s two most believable stories suggest that it was created either at the Beachcomber Bar in the Caribe Hilton Hotel (by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez in 1952 or Ricardo García in 1954) or at Barrachina by Ramon Portas Mingot in 1963. Plaques claiming the drink’s invention adorn both bars.

At Barrachina the young bartender poured a heavy-handed three ounces of rum before walking over to the swirling beverage machine and topping the glass off with frozen Piña Colada mix. When I asked him what was in the mix, he named the drink’s two other principal ingredients: cream of coconut and pineapple. (Piña Colada translates to “strained pineapple.”) “But is there a secret?” I asked. “No ice.” I prodded and he insisted. “That’s it. No ice.”

When I emailed Barrachina for the recipe, I received instructions that were, more or less, the same as the bartender recounted: canned pineapple juice, canned cream of coconut, water and rum. No ice.

The Piña Colada is one of those rare drinks whose gulpable sum is greater than its inferior parts. The trick has never been to make something we can drink and enjoy alongside blissful breezes, toes buried in the warm sand. That’s easy. Even Gatorade has its charm on the beach.

On the same trip I visited the Caribe Hilton Hotel as well, where the bartender was a little more self-conscious than Barrachina’s. “We use Piña Colada mix. But they used to make it with Coco Lopez, pineapple and rum, and shake it by hand.”

He stood beside an etched glass wall dated 2004, heralding the 50th anniversary of the Piña Colada. But the cocktail menu contained no mention of the drink. It did, however, list several equally resort-y drinks: the Sex on the Beach and Mai Tai, both of which are rendered pink in their vacation iterations. (Note: The Mai Tai should never be pink.)

Though it’s been saved from becoming pink, over time the Piña Colada has fallen into the same disrepair as other tropical-at-heart cocktails, like the Mai Tai or Daiquiri. What was once a drink of some character and thoughtful construction is now pure confection. When that happened is hard to tell, but my best guess is during the ’60s and ’70s when canned products replaced fresh juice.

At my request, the bartender at the Caribe Hilton attempted to make a hand-shaken version of the drink for me. Though the flavor was good, it fell short of being more than a sweet, pleasant drink—more on par with candy dots and sugary cereal than bright pineapple and coconut. But I can’t blame him or the bartender at Barrachina for serving something sweet and easy. They work in tourist-filled bars that are intended primarily as simulacra. My sun-singed forehead and casual clothing place me front-and-center among the throngs of cash-fisted barbarians demanding service from bartenders who tell fake stories to half-interested tourists, who will then retell those stories to their equally-uninterested friends until someone finally says, “Hey, wasn’t the Mai Tai or Piña Colada invented in Puerto Rico?”

The filmmaker Guy Debord best expressed the vapidity of this exchange when he wrote: “Tourism is the chance to go and see what has been made trite.” Hackneyed cultural foodways aside, what can we recover from a drink so maligned?

Despite my critiques, I might add that I think the idea of the drink is faultless. When mixing rum, pineapple and cream of coconut you can do no wrong. Every version I tried in San Juan, including one at the touristy beach spot near my hotel (which also offered garlic bread and Italian specialties like Eggplant Parmesan) tasted delicious.

The Piña Colada is one of those rare drinks whose gulpable sum is greater than its inferior parts. But the trick has never been to make something we can drink and enjoy alongside blissful breezes, toes buried in the warm sand. That’s easy. Even Gatorade has its charm on the beach. The trick is to make something so delicious and artful that it transports its drinker to paradise with each sip, no matter where in the world one is. Tropical drinks can do that; they belong to another plane of existence where relaxation is the rule. But for a drink to accomplish this amidst the daily grind requires more than a swirling slushy machine and a few cans of Coco Lopez. Pineapple, coconut and rum—the devil is in the details. For me, the key is fresh ingredients and more than a modicum of care, authenticity be damned.  (See Adam Bernbach’s recipe below.)

However, should you find yourself in San Juan, it couldn’t hurt to stop by the Caribe Hilton or Barrachina for a Piña Colada—paradise is already included.

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Derek Brown has one of those dream jobs that your high school counselor never tells you about. He drinks for a living. He's a cocktail and spirits writer, spirits judge and owner of acclaimed bars Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, Southern Efficiency, The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington D.C. He travels around the world learning and teaching about how drinking is an integral part of our culture and values.

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