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Cocktails

In Puerto Rico, the Piña Colada Is Always Evolving

Cocktails

In Puerto Rico, the Piña Colada Is Always Evolving

For bartenders in the birthplace of the iconic cocktail, the familiar template is the perfect canvas for experimentation.

In 1954, Ramón “Monchito” Marrero was working at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when his boss tasked him with creating a drink that no one had ever tried before. To make his original cocktail, Monchito shook pineapple juice, coconut cream and rum together and served it over ice. What he came up with was an instant classic: the Piña Colada.

Two decades later, the Caribe Hilton had sold 3 million Piña Coladas, and the tropical drink had grown a reputation around the world. On July 10, 1978, the local government declared it Puerto Rico’s national cocktail. Shortly after, throughout the 1980s, whenever planes landed on the runway of San Juan International Airport, tourists were offered a Piña Colada as a welcome treat. And to this day, on every second weekend of July, locals celebrate the Piña Colada Festival, during which local bars serve their versions of the classic cocktail.

In present-day San Juan, bartenders are following in Monchito’s footsteps, creating modern variations of the drink that are true to the spirit and flavors of the classic with a focus on using modern techniques to balance out the drink’s inherent sweetness. Monchito, who is seen as the godfather of Puerto Rican bartending, is paid tribute with each glass.

At La Factoría in the city of Viejo San Juan, for example, the drink doesn’t come blended and is instead shaken and served in a Collins glass. Though the frozen version has become the de facto way to serve the drink, it’s not how it was first made. “I found out during the research that the blender came after Monchito did the recipe, and serving it frozen makes it too diluted,” says Roberto Berdecia, one of the bar’s owners. 

The Factoría Piña Colada keeps it simple, with the addition of a cream made from toasted coconuts and Angostura bitters. “We respect the original recipe of Monchito,” says Berdecia. Soon, he and his associates will be opening a new bar called Chin Chin, with a cocktail menu centered around the drink.

Nicky Fas, an award-winning local bartender and brand ambassador for local distributor Prestige Spirits, also showcases toasted coconut flavor. Her take, the Sexy Colada, is served at Bambina in Caguas, Puerto Rico, as a sorbet made with toasted coconut and rum, drizzled with a homemade pineapple-infused caramel.

Other variations tend toward the funkier end of the flavor spectrum. James Minier, owner of Bar Clandestino, a mobile cocktail company, serves what he calls the Funky Colada.

“This cocktail is a journey,” says Minier. The drink mixes Artesano Pot Still rum, which comes from a local distiller and offers a funky, grassy profile. He makes the creamy part of the cocktail with locally sourced mamey sapote purée and a housemade coconut cream sweetened with piloncillo (a form of raw cane sugar). Finally, it’s bolstered with cream sherry. Like Factoría’s version, the cocktail is also shaken, rather than blended, but “with a lot of ice,” says Minier, who also likes to add a few drops of Angostura bitters as a float. 

At Antiguo 26 in Viejo San Juan, meanwhile, owner and bartender Juan Montes serves the Monchito 2020. He describes his version as the answer to the question: “If Monchito were alive in 2020 with the techniques that we have today and the modern equipment that we have today, what would he have done?” With the drink, Montes aims to “encompass the essence of Puerto Rico with three simple ingredients: coconut, pineapple and rum.” To modernize the classic, he transforms it into a clarified milk punch made with coconut fat-washed rum and a nutmeg tincture. Unlike the versions you’ll find around town that are served out of blenders into a plastic cup or regular Collins or highball glasses, his is stirred, served in a coupe glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry. 

In every variation, local bartenders are playing with expectations: Everyone knows what a Piña Colada tastes like, and the modern versions can’t rest on familiarity alone. Now, bartenders say, it’s important to offer something balanced and not too sweet for the modern palate. Playing up acidity, bitterness and the depth of flavor offered by toasted coconut and fortified wines allows for these spins to be recognizable without being dull or cloying. These spins on the Piña Colada welcome you to order more than one.

There’s always, however, room for the classic, which is still served at the Caribe Hilton and many bars across Puerto Rico. This July marks the 70th anniversary of the Piña Colada, and whether it’s the everyday versions you can find around town or the updated drinks served at local craft cocktail bars, the Piña Colada continues to be an homage to Monchito, who defined the flavors of the archipelago into one iconic drink. “For us, the Piña Colada is very important,” says Berdecia. “It is the cocktail that represents us as Puerto Ricans.”

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