The Piña Colada is a situational cocktail. When you picture yourself ordering one, you probably envision doing so at a warm-weather resort, at the beach or beside the pool.
“It’s an outdoor drink,” said bartender Joaquín Simó. “You’re using it basically like air conditioning. Having it indoors doesn’t feel quite right.” Fellow bartender Jelani Johnson agreed. “It’s air conditioning in a glass,” he said.
That truth notwithstanding, the PUNCH staff, in order to find the best rendition of the Piña Colada, recently gathered far from any waterfront, in a darkened, second-floor space in the East Village—better known during operating hours as Pouring Ribbons. Joining me on the judging panel were Simó, the owner of Pouring Ribbons; tiki master Johnson, of Clover Club in Brooklyn; and Ivy Mix, an owner of Leyenda, a Brooklyn bar known for its creative use of Caribbean, Central American and South American spirits. Pouring Ribbons bartender Devin Kennedy prepared the drinks.
All these bartenders have served their share of Piña Coladas over the years. “The No. 1 off-menu drinks at Leyenda are the Margarita, Daiquiri and Piña Colada,” said Mix.
Despite belonging to a different category of cocktail, the Piña Colada has enjoyed the same robust name recognition as the Margarita and the Daiquiri, among other top-tier classics, since its advent in 1954. It was then that a bartender at the Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan first hatched the idea to add the newly created Puerto Rican product Coco Lopez, a sweetened “cream of coconut,” to the traditional tropical mixture of pineapple juice, rum and sugar. There’s been no stopping the dessert-like drink since (and the deathless 1979 Rupert Holmes anthem “Escape (the Piña Colada Song)” certainly didn’t hit the brakes).
Because of the cocktail’s easygoing, live-and-let-live reputation, the judges seemed to hold the Piña Colada to a less exacting standard than they might have for other cocktails with as famous a rep. “It’s the corner slice of cocktails,” argued Simó. “Everyone has had it. You’ve had very crappy versions and very elevated versions. But how much better is that elevated version?”
“Some of the best ones are at the shittiest places,” added Johnson. (Johnson, playing the provocateur, went so far as to half-seriously suggest that the best recipe for a Piña Colada was the coconut-heavy version on the back of the Coco Lopez can.)
Still, as always, the PUNCH judges revealed certain make-or-break measures of acceptability. The use of fresh pineapple juice seemed very little to ask of the competitors. (However, the panel didn’t rule out the idea that a good drink could be made from canned juice.) And fine-straining that juice was considered a mistake. “Why would you strain out all that flavor?” asked Simó. Judges were not opposed to the addition of a little lime juice, a common trick used to bump up the acidity of a drink that desperately needs it.
Coco Lopez was an expected, and historically accurate, choice for the coconut element. (It was used in nine of the 10 recipes tested.) Regarding rum, the judges were liberal minded. They liked the idea of layering multiple rums, but weren’t against using only a single brand, either. Breaking out high-end rums for the drink seemed pointless, but neither was the group opposed to the idea. The only rum sin punishable by expulsion was when the spirit in question couldn’t be detected in the mix at all.
Texture was as important, if not more, to the panel. The first two drinks in the competition were served on cobbled ice. These were judged with an even hand. But when the third contender arrived in blended form, the truth came out.
“It’s a blended drink,” the judges declared, almost simultaneously. Simó, for his part, understood why a bar might opt to not keep a blender on hand—they make too much noise, they take up too much room, etc. Still, the panel expected a silky uniformity of mouthfeel that one can only get from ice that’s been through a blender.
“There’s something about cobbled drinks,” complained Mix. “I don’t want to slurp.” PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette further pointed out that a cobbled drink will tend to disappear after a few sips. Blending, meanwhile, transforms a Piña Colada into a lengthy drinking experience. And, said Johnson, that’s what you’re after, since “you aren’t going to want a second one.”
Drinks that hit the right balance between rum, pineapple and coconut proved elusive. Frequently, one flavor dominated. Most often, evidence of the rum was scant. (Later, when the recipes for the cocktails were revealed, a confounding stinginess in rum measurements was discovered nearly across the board.) Textures, too, varied wildly among the blended versions. There were drinks that were thin and watery, and drinks so thick you could barely coax them through a straw.
The winning drink came from Fanny Chu, of Brooklyn’s tropical-minded cocktail bar, Donna. The recipe called for 1 ounce El Dorado 5 Year rum, 1 ounce Pedro Mandinga Panama silver rum (unable to secure a bottle prior to the tasting, PUNCH used Plantation 3 Stars), 1 ½ ounces pineapple juice, 1 ounce “Coco mix” (a blend of three parts Coco Lopez and one part coconut milk), ½ ounce lime juice, and ½ ounce demerara syrup. The judges found the balance of flavors to be nearly perfect. Their only quibble was that the drink was served on cobbled ice. (The judges enjoyed the recipe so much, after the competition was over, they ordered a blended version. It was good, too.)
Second place went to Erick Castro, of Polite Provisions in San Diego. Unlike many other contestants, Castro did not skimp on the rum flavor. The recipe called for a half ounce each of Plantation 3 Stars, Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, Plantation Original Dark and Clément Première Canne Rhum Agricole. To this was added 1 ½ ounces pineapple juice, 1 ½ ounces Coco Lopez and ½ ounce of lime juice. Again, it was served on cobbled ice, which irked the testers. But the formula was the most rum-forward of the drinks, and that strength of flavor went a long way with the panel.
Third place went to Will Pasternak from the Cuba-themed bar BlackTail in New York. There, the drink is served directly from a slushy machine, but his scaled-down rendition consists of 1 ¼ ounces Bacardi Havana Club Añejo Blanco, 1 ½ ounces Coco Lopez, 1 ¾ ounces pineapple juice and ¼ ounce lime juice, blended. Aside from wishing the rum quotient had been increased a bit, the judges felt the drink correctly answered the questionnaire all Piña Coladas must complete.
“Is this cold?” said Johnson. “Is this refreshing? Is this decadent?” And, it might be added, are you outdoors?