At the far southern end of the skinny, 1.5-mile-long City Island, located off the Bronx, sits Johnny’s Reef, a counter-service seafood shack that looks out onto the mouth of Long Island Sound. Though the bar has a handful of summer-ready cocktails, like the Sea Breeze and the Banana Daiquiri, over the past two decades, Johnny’s has gained notoriety for one drink in particular: the Henny Colada. That is, a frozen Piña Colada made with Hennessy Cognac.
Johnny’s is not the only bar on City Island to have adopted the drink; some will point to Seafood City, which has an entire bar dedicated to sundry Piña Coladas, as the originator of the cocktail. But Ted Karikas, the second-generation owner of the 60-year-old Johnny’s Reef, swears that’s not true.
“We’ve been out here five times longer than anyone else,” he says. “We came up with it.”
Indeed, it’s rare to find one of his restaurant’s bright blue picnic tables not in possession of a Henny Colada, served in a tall plastic cup and garnished with a cherry and orange slice pierced by an American flag toothpick.
No matter who takes the credit, bartender and Bronx native Giuseppe González explains that it’s no coincidence that the drink found a home in this little corner of the city. “When you live in the Bronx, City Island is the summer spot for hanging out,” says González. “There’s salsa music everywhere and it’s the perfect combination of black and Puerto Rican culture that exists in the Bronx.”
In its way, the drink likewise speaks to the demographics of the neighborhood. The Piña Colada is, after all, the national drink of Puerto Rico, and as for the Hennessy part, “it looks like it’s a hip hop thing, but Cognac has played a role in black culture a lot longer,” says González. Most sources attribute this to the African-American jazz musicians of the 1920s, who headed to Paris to perform without the constraints of segregation, and to the African American soldiers stationed in France during both world wars, who developed a taste for French brandy.
Though the Henny Colada might’ve originated in City Island, in recent years, it’s spread across the five boroughs (and to a lesser degree, around the country). Outside the bar, it makes an appearance in the form of nutcrackers, the iconic and technically illegal bottled slushies sold along the city’s beaches in summertime. The best vendors—for which there is a burgeoning network to be found on social media—pride themselves on abstaining from store-bought Colada mixes and using real-deal Hennessy rather than a cheap knock off.
The biggest non-City Island advocate for the Henny Colada, however, is Dallas BBQ, an 11-store, New York-area chain whose Times Square flagship opened in 1978. There, the Henny Colada comes in a mammoth chalice, with caramel swirled on the inside of the glass before the drink is pulled from the slushie machine.
“We typically sell over 5,000 Hennessy Coladas per week between all 11 of our locations,” says Paul Quinn of “BBQ’s,” as it’s affectionately known. “Last week we sold 5,469 to be exact.” Dallas BBQ director of operations, Eric Levine, says he’s certain that they buy more Hennessy than any other independent restaurant company in the country. (Hennessy also makes an appearance in the restaurant’s chicken wings, and in a hamburger sauce.)
Just before he closed his Lower East Side bar, Suffolk Arms, last winter, González put a City Island Colada on his menu, too: equal parts Hennessy VS, Coco Lopez and pineapple juice, whirred in a blender and served a hurricane glass.
“When I put it on that menu, all of my homies of color were like, ‘People won’t get this.’ But I always wanted to put the best things on the menu,” he says.
As for his version of the iconic cocktail: “It’s fucking delicious; it tastes just like a rum raisin.”