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Mastering the Piña Colada With Erick Castro

In "Masters of X," we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Erick Castro takes on the Piña Colada.

The Piña Colada—a drink consisting of rum, coconut, lime and pineapple juice—has for too long been considered a symbol of low-brow cocktail culture, says Erick Castro, the owner of San Diego’s Polite Provisions and co-founder of Simple Serve.

It’s likely because over the years, the proliferation of Piña Coladas made with poor quality rum and sour mix all but knocked the drink from its rightful place among the respected classics. “And it’s a shame,” he adds, “because it’s such a proud, beautiful cocktail.”

Like so many drinks that come with a storied past, the original Piña Colada recipe is hard to nail down. One theory pays tribute to Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresí, who supposedly served his crew a cocktail of rum, pineapple juice and coconut to boost morale prior to his capture in 1825, at which point, his secret recipe was lost. A more convincing account of the modern Piña Colada recipe credits Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Perez for inventing the drink in 1954—or somewhere between ‘52 and ‘57 anyway—while tending bar at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Then, there’s the Ramón Portas Mingot story that reports he created the modern Piña Colada in 1963 at the Barrachina Restaurant in Old San Juan.

In addition to its plethora of origin stories, the Piña Colada is likewise a drink with a long list of recipe variations—not unlike the Daiquiri. Castro has tried a variety of different rums, compared both fresh and canned pineapple juices and put a countless number of house-made coconut creams to the test. “You have to use Coco Lopez. Nothing I’ve found has the creaminess and texture,” he says, noting that it’s an essential part of his recipe, which gets added depth from a blend of four rums—a nod to tiki tradition.

“Tiki guys have figured out that blending rums is the way to go,” says Castro. “They’ve known that since the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

Erick Castro's Piña Colada

Though most people make their Piña Coladas with white rum alone, Castro uses it primarily as a base: “We use Plantation 3 Stars white rum because it keeps the rum blend in harmony,” he says. To that, he adds a measure of Smith & Cross Navy Strength, a Jamaican overproof rum: “It has a little funk and heat that let’s you know why you’re drinking rum in the first place.” From there, Plantation Original Dark, which has a molasses base, offers sweetness, and tames the final addition of Clément Rhum Agricole Première Canne or Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc. That’s added “because we want something grassy for the mid-palate,” Castro explains.

Along with a half ounce of lime juice—“the fresher the better”—one and a half ounces of pineapple juice and one and a half ounces of Coco Lopez, Castro also adds a three-quarter ounce or so of pebble ice to the shaking tin. The unorthodox move, he says, provides a very controlled amount of dilution and better integrates the ingredients, which have varying degrees of viscosity, into a cohesive solution. From there, he shakes the drink until the pebble ice has melted (though a blender, he says, works, too).

Coupled with Castro’s infectious enthusiasm for this oft-maligned drink, it’s hard to think of it as anything but regal, especially when served in a pebble ice-filled Hurricane glass, and garnished elegantly with an orange slice, a brandied cherry and a pineapple frond.

Low brow, it is not. And that’s sort of the point. “I wish more people out there would give the Piña Colada another chance,” says Castro. “Because it’s every bit as dignified as the Tom Collins, the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan.”

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