Puerto Rico was one of the many islands Christopher Columbus stumbled upon when searching for riches in the New World. Gold was found on the island, but less than a century later the mines were depleted, and Spain had an island that was a target of hurricanes, disease, and periodic conflicts with other countries looking for territories in the Americas. It was not until the 18th century that the true treasure of Puerto Rico was discovered: agriculture. The island began to produce sugar, coffee, and tobacco at astounding rates. All were cash crops putting money in Spain’s pocket until the last days of the 19th century, when they were forced to give it to the United States after the Spanish American War. The beginning of the 20th century saw Puerto Rico make great strides in taking control of their own island, cumulating when they became a commonwealth in 1952. During this time they started to export tropical fruits to the United States, including coconuts, pineapples, and citrus fruits. They also began to distill their own rum in the island’s first continuous still. It was funded by Uncle Sam, and the discoveries they made for the improvement of rum quality were available to the public. It was also in the 1950s that Coco Lopez, a creamy coconut syrup, was invented. The whole history of the island was building up to one major event in cocktail history: the creation of their national drink, the Piña Colada.
While that may be something of an exaggeration, the cocktail (“strained pineapple” in Spanish) has deep roots in the culture and cuisine of this small island. It even has its own holiday in Puerto Rico on July 10th of every year. The creator of the cocktail is a hotly contested topic in Puerto Rico, but there is evidence that something similar had been created over a century before the invention of Coco Lopez and blenders.
Spain and the new American government dealt with the problem of pirates up to the beginning of the 1800’s. One of the last pirates they were hunting was Roberto Cofresí, also known as El Pirata Cofresí. He came from a wealthy background, but became a pirate (as one story goes) after he was repeatedly mistreated by Spanish and British merchants. The pirate was a Caribbean Robin Hood, stealing from merchants and delivering the goods to the poor of Puerto Rico. To combat the stresses of being out at sea for so long, he was said to have concocted a drink for his crew made up of coconut, pineapple juice, and rum. The recipe was lost when El Pirata was caught and executed in 1825.
It was not until the 1950s that the cocktail was rediscovered. There were some mentions of a “Piña Colada” in the 1920s, but no recipes were found. What everyone can agree on is that the Piña Colada was created some time in the mid-1950s or early 1960s with the popularity of Coco Lopez. The government had a hand in this as well, as it provided Don Ramón López Irizarry, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Puerto Rico, a stipend to work on a problem that had stymied chefs in Puerto Rico: The richest coconut cream is difficult to extract from the pulp. He worked on finding an easier way to remove that sweet nectar from the coconut, but instead found the right proportion of cane syrup to add to the coconut milk to replicate the consistency. This hit the culinary scene like a bomb, inspiring cooks and bartenders to experiment with this new ingredient.
There are three different places in Puerto Rico that claim to have invented the Piña Colada. The most popular tale is that Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez was tasked to create a signature drink for the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. He experimented with many flavors, shaking and blending away until he fell upon the combination of native rum, pineapple, condensed milk and coconut cream. The cocktail did not get the name until later, but the flavors were born there. That is, unless you asked Ricardo Garcia, who also worked at the Caribe Hilton at the time. Garcia had developed a cocktail that included the Coco Lopez and rum, but he used coconut juice and served it in a sliced coconut. When they had run out of coconuts, and he was forced to use what he had on hand at the time: pineapples. He served the drink in a hollowed out pineapple, and thus the Piña Colada was created. There is even a plaque at the Caribe Hilton to say they invented it. The Barrachina also has a plaque stating they are the official birthplace of the cocktail. Ramón Portas Mingot was hired to be the head bartender there, and also experimented with Coco Lopez and rum mixtures. He hit upon a similar recipe to Ramón Marrero, and thus they created the Piña Colada! Even the dates claimed vary. Marrero’s cocktail has been dated anywhere from 1952 to 1957, with 1954 being the most common year. Mingot’s recipe is dated to 1963. It is possible that he was the first to call the drink a Piña Colada, but the recipe came from Marrero. Whatever the true origin, Puerto Rico adopted it as its national cocktail in 1978.
Original Piña Colada Recipe (according to the Caribe Hilton)
2 oz/60 mL White Rum (we suggest a Puerto Rican brand such as Don Q Cristal)
1 oz./30 mL Coconut cream (Coco Lopez to be authentic)
1 oz/30 mL Heavy cream
6 oz/180 mL Fresh pineapple juice
5 cup/120 mL Crushed ice
Pour ingredients into a blender. Blend until smooth and serve in a tall glass. Garnish with fresh pineapple and a cherry.
If 1978 was a high point for the cocktail, 1979 became a low point. It was that year, in late September, that Rupert Holmes released the song “Escape”. It was going to be the last number one song of the 1970s, and established Holmes in the musical landscape. However, he ended up hating the song that he felt detracted from his more serious work. To give the song more visibility, he ended up renaming the song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” to include the refrain that became wildly popular – “If you like Piña Coladas/And getting caught in the rain…” He was not pleased by that decision, or by the cocktail itself, which he once stated tasted “like Kaopectate.” (Editor’s note: though no comment on his true feelings about Champagne or making love after midnight.) Considering the time frame he was drinking them in, he may have been right. The 1980s treated the Piña Colada like it treated all other drinks; filling it with artificial, foul tasting syrups and average liquor. That cocktail became one of the poster children for all that was wrong with drinking in the era before fresh came back to the scene.
It still has a party reputation, but there are some bartenders exploring more elevated versions of the classic. No Passport Required by Debbi Peek was a winner at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail Piña Colada Competition.
No Passport Required
2 oz/60 mL Smoked Añejo Rum (cold smoked in a container over cherry wood for 45 minutes)
2 oz/60 mL Coconut milk
1 oz/30 mL Roasted pineapple purée
.5 oz/15 mL Brown sugar syrup (1:1 ratio brown sugar and water)
.5 oz/15 mL Ginger purée (equal parts ginger, water, and sugar, blended)
Dip an Old Fashioned or large coupe glass or tiki mug into the honey and rim with the toasted coconut. Pour the remaining ingredients into a mixing tin with ice and shake. Strain into the prepared glass over ice.
More modern variations are being rolled out across the country, staying very true to the original flavor profile but improving the flavor with fresh ingredients and little touches that make each one unique. The Rum House in New York City is just one of the many well respected cocktail bars that have brought new life to the Piña Colada. Their less sugary creation is called The Escape, which we are sure even Rupert Holmes would appreciate.
Combine all ingredients except vermouth in a mixing tin and shake. Strain over ice in a brandy snifter or similar glass, then using a barspoon, gently float the vermouth over the drink. Garnish with pineapple wheel and brandied cherry.
The Piña Colada is evolving, but it still has a long way to go to escape, no pun intended, its troubled past. This cocktail has hidden riches in it waiting to be explored by intrepid bartenders. Many have begun the search, but they are few and far between. With tiki drinks and the trend of reviving 1980s cocktails with better ingredients, isn’t it time we see more Piña Coladas on cocktail menus? Or perhaps we should head to Puerto Rico to be inspired by warm sandy beaches with cool breezes to do some research? Get back to the cocktail’s roots by immersing ourselves in the culture. Cheers!
Brian Petro, a native of the great state of Ohio, found himself in the town of Dayton after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art. His path has wound through the design, education, and restaurant industries, all of them adding a little something to the overall flavor of his creative endeavors. The first time he stepped behind a bar, it felt like home. Ever since, he has absorbed all of the liquor knowledge he can find, from culture to history to recipes, and done his best to share what he knows with the world. Or, at least the readers of Dayton Most Metro, where he is the writer about all things cocktail. He also likes the word “Brilliant” too much and appreciates the beauty of winter more than most. Follow him @SmartGuyInATie.