What it lacks in complexity, the Piña Colada makes up for in popularity. Naren Young takes a look at one of the world’s most ubiquitous cocktails, and discovers there’s more to it than meets the eye
The Piña Colada shouldn’t really be a drink that one thinks about too much. It’s not a contemplative libation in anyone’s language. Not in the way that, say, a finely stirred Sazerac or Rob Roy is. Throw its three ingredients into a blender and out pops something that is altogether sweet, refreshing, comforting, familiar and hopefully more often than not, rather delicious. As is now common vernacular amongst the cool kids: ‘It is what it is.’
So when the editor of this very magazine asked me to go deep into the history of the Piña Colada, I didn’t think there would be much to say. I was very wrong.
The Clearer Colada
Alastair Kesley – ex-Punch Room at the London Edition
Glass: Nick & Nora
Garnish: Lime twist
Method: Stir on ice and strain.
60ml coconut oil fat-washed
Havana Club 3yo
15ml pineapple cordialTo make the cordial:
Add 1kg cubed fresh pineapple,
1kg white sugar, 1l water and 10g each of malic and citric acid to a vacuum pack. Place in a water bath at 60°C for two hours. Then open and carefully take the cubes out without breaking them. Strain and refrigerate until use.
Thing is, I’d never looked at it as a drink that would (or should) ever be bastardised to the extent I discovered while researching this article. I mean, why would you? Its simple mix of rum, pineapple and coconut cream seemed about as perfect as this – the most tropical of tropical drinks – could get.
It is the beach holiday drink after all; the one we associate with being by the pool, by the sea, on a cruise ship, on an island, or just mentally somewhere else.
But now the Piña Colada is no longer reserved for the occasions mentioned above. Nor is it only served in swim-up bars or tiki dens. It has become a democratic drink for the people.
Its flavour profile has become so familiar that it has now transcended the drink itself. Its aroma alone is both so polarising and yet so recognisable that we’ve seen it in so many forms other than in its namesake drink.
Somewhat dubiously perhaps, it now lends its nuances to the likes of chocolate bars, lip balms, condoms, candles. I could go on...
For the sake of this article, let’s focus on the drinks, shall we? Recently I’ve had Piña Colada interpretations that have left me floored with excitement; some real doozies – especially when I never considered this to be a versatile cocktail.
Twisting It Up?
Undoubtably the most memorable of these is the Absinthe Colada from Maison Premiere, a wonderful bar in Williamsburg, New York. This ambrosial version keeps in line with the bar’s New Orleans feel and its obsession with absinthe (it carries over 30 varieties), and has become one of those must-have cocktails when visiting the Big Apple. It’s annoyingly good.
Jeremy Oertel – Donna, New York
Glass: Double rocks
Garnish: Mint sprig and orange wedge
Method: Shake and strain over crushed ice.
30ml Appleton V/X
30ml Branca Menta
45ml pineapple juice
20ml coconut cream
(3 parts Coco López
to 1 part coconut milk)
7ml orange juice
Only a few blocks away in the same ‘hood is Donna, a great local cocktail bar that has perhaps become known for its Brancolada; its slight bitter edge owing to a few dashes of, you guessed it, Fernet-Branca. If that sounds somewhat avant-garde, the adventurous bar folks at London’s Nightjar have been serving up their barrel-aged Piña Colada for several years now (with bamboo charcoal salt, of course). I’ll try anything once but even this might test my curious nature.
I reached out to global rum ambassador Ian Burrell, as he knows a thing or two about rum and has probably tried more Piña Coladas in his travels than anyone I know. As his favourite, he points to the version that was served (from a slightly out-of-place-looking slushie machine) by Alex Kratena and his crew at Artesian at The Langham up until their recent departure.
‘The Artesian’s Piña Colada was memorable for many reasons,’ Burrell told me. ‘Firstly, it came from a slushie machine, which is an alien idea to most five-star hotel bars. Secondly, it was the first cocktail that the ‘world’s best bar’ served in a plastic takeaway cup for customers that were leaving.
‘At £20 including service, it was the most expensive Piña Colada I’ve ever seen. And finally, it tasted amazing. Although that could have been the fact that it was served by an insanely talented bar team.
Like any iconic drink, there are always several theories as to its origin. While no one has proved beyond any doubt where it was actually created and when, it does make for some interesting research and discussion. All roads eventually lead to the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan (see below). But we should back it up a little first, at least to see what other hypotheses are out there.
Piña Colada Nueve
Linden Pride – Rockpool Bar
& Grill, Sydney
Garnish: Toasted coconut
Method: Build over ice and top with pineapple soda.
45ml toasted coconut fat-washed Plantation Pineapple Rum*
*To make: toast coconut in a pan, add butter and melt. Pour into a container with a bottle of rum. Cover and leave in fridge overnight. When fat solidifies at the top, scrape away the solids and strain through a fine cheesecloth.
Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, the well-known drink historians, contend that the Piña Colada is actually a Cuban drink. Well, at least that its first incarnations were from that island, going as far as saying in their book Cuban Cocktail that ‘its Cuban provenance as a cocktail is undisputed’. There’s mention of a drink called Piña Colada in a 1922 edition of the now out of print US magazine Travel, though the ingredients listed – Bacardí rum, sugar, lime and pineapple – sounds more like a Pineapple Daiquiri than what we might now consider a Piña Colada.
There was a widely available concoction called Piña Fria (‘cold pineapple’), which was popular in both Cuba and Puerto Rico before the war. Piña Colada literally translates to ‘strained pineapple’ and could be used to describe several ways in which its early incarnations were prepared.
When blended with chunks of pineapple and crushed ice, this mixture would then have been strained, we can only assume, to make it easier to imbibe through a straw.
So, yes, there are associations linking the drink to Cuba (several of which present it as a non-alcoholic beverage), but if we can all agree that the drink as we know it is made of rum, pineapple and coconut, then we can probably discount that island as its birthplace and move on. Which would bring us to Puerto Rico, or more specifically, to the Caribe Hilton.
Truth be told, I don’t think many people (except perhaps a few cocktail nerds like myself or some reading this article) actually associate the Piña Colada with being specifically Puerto Rican. Moreover, it’s considered a tropical drink, or even more misleadingly, a tiki drink.
Daniele dalla Pola – Nu Lounge Bar, Bologna, Italy
Glass: Hollowed out pineapple
Method: Shake with crushed ice.
80ml Bacardí Carta Oro
60ml pineapple juice
40ml coconut water
30ml Coco Reàl
5ml ginger syrup
Juice of half a lime
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 bsp seawater (or a small pinch of salt)
In reality, it’s now a global drink that doesn’t necessarily have a place it calls home. Unless you’re a Puerto Rican native, where there is most certainly a sense of ownership and national pride associated with it. Even my taxi driver had strong opinions about it.
Another bar that calls itself the original birthplace is Barrachina, in the heart of San Juan’s old town. The same friendly taxi driver showed a palpable disdain for the place when I told him I was going there.
‘I’ll wait here,’ he giggled, suggesting that I’d probably be back outside waiting for a cab in no time. He wasn’t far off.
Outside, a large plaque reads, both in English and Spanish: ‘The house where in 1963 the Piña Colada was created by Don Ramon Portas Mingot’. We can probably dismiss this theory immediately by the timeline alone. You could say they were a little late to the party as the drink was in major circulation by then, even overseas.
Barrachina is located in a sort of Spanish-style courtyard, though the most eye-catching part of the room are six ugly slushie machines from where my Piña Colada is poured. It’s sickly sweet and dare I say it, not slushie enough. It tastes strangely of concentrated orange juice and I barely choke it down.
Let’s just say I took one for the team so you fine readers don’t have to. I should have listened to the cabbie.
The Caribe Hilton
The Puerto Rican hotel is commonly known as the place where the Piña Colada was first blended, many sunsets ago.
When the Caribe Hilton opened in 1949, it was the company’s first international venture outside the US. They were the first to offer such amenities as air conditioning and radios in every room.
Perhaps its greatest claim to fame, however, is its place amidst the cocktail pantheon as the birthplace of the Piña Colada. I recently flew down to Puerto Rico with my friend Jacob Briars solely for this article to the place where it all began.
The drink’s archetypal hero is Ramón ‘Monchito’ Marrero Pérez, who worked at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcombers Bar, which is sadly long gone. He may well have worked on his own prototype recipe for months but a supervisor of his named Ricardo Gracia has also been given credit for the drink, though he never officially claimed to be its actual inventor.
Natasha David & Maxwell Britten Maison Premiere, New York CITY
Garnish: Mint bouquet
Method: Build the drink in the glass. Add ice and swizzle.
Top up the ice and garnish.
30ml pineapple juice
30ml coconut syrup
15ml Rhum JM agricole blanc 80 proof
15ml lemon juice
1 tsp crème de menthe
The timing of this version coincides with the creation of what is now an indispensable ingredient in the Piña Colada. Ramón Lopéz Irizarry was a Puerto Rican professor who in 1949 was given a grant, which he used to find a way to create the product that would not only bear his name but that has helped define the recipe for the Piña Colada that most people use today: Coco López. Several other forms of coconut have been used in the Piña Colada over many decades but it is the sweetness and viscosity of this particular product that give the drink its sublime and unctuous texture.
Today, the hotel looks every bit its age from the outside, though a huge renovation before the millenium brought it more in line with modern developments on the island. Predictably, I find my way to the seaside pool bar.
After placing my order, Jose, my very helpful and jovial bartender, instinctively reaches for the bottle of Bacardí 151°. Oh dear. This may not end well. As it turns out, this is actually the house rum for this particular drink. I blame American tourists and their voracious appetite for such unnecessary evils.
It’s damn delicious however, which brings me to an important point about the Piña Colada. Even the bad ones I’ve had are still pretty good. Which is all you really want or need from a resort drink. There’s not much variation to be had with a simple mix of rum, coconut and pineapple – unless you’re one of the creative folks behind the modern recipes listed below.
If anyone had told me that I’d one day witness Fernet-Branca or absinthe go into this venerable cocktail, I would have laughed in their face. Such is the mixological world we now live in.
Afraid for my health, and knowing that I have a lot of Piña Coladas ahead of me, I request my next one with Bacardí 8, whose fuller-bodied flavour profile I think will stand up to all that crushed ice.
I’m somewhat correct, though I do miss that kick of alcohol from the overproof version. They garnish it with a wedge of fresh acidic pineapple and a superfluous neon maraschino cherry.
Piña Colada Fresca
Dante, New York City
Garnish: Pineapple spear and
Method: Build over ice and stir well.
45ml Banks 5 Island Blend
15ml Kalani coconut liqueur
120ml freshly pressed
Is this the best Piña Colada I’ve ever had? Probably not. But it is very tasty.
Would I recommend that people make a pilgrimage here to try one? Damn straight. This is an admirable version that could and does rest on its laurels. The chaps behind the bar here clearly take pride in making the drink that put them on the map.
I’ll leave it up to celebrated rum and tiki historian, Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, to sum it up perfectly in his book Potions of the Caribbean: ‘If the Piña Colada fails as a balanced cocktail, it succeeds brilliantly as a pineapple-coconut milkshake. The un-rummy taste of the Piña Colada is made to order for “what the hell, I’m on vacation” tippling, and as such has become a line item on every tropical tourist’s checklist: go sightseeing, go shopping, go the pool and order a Piña Colada.’
Most people who know and enjoy this drink associate it with an apparatus frowned upon by way too many cocktail snobs: the blender.
The Piña Colada makes a strong case that blended cocktails do have a place in the fussed up world of modern mixology. Give me a beach and some sunshine and you’ll find me drinking something blended. Probably a Piña Colada.
The electric blender was created in 1922 by Steven Poplawski, but it didn’t really gain popularity until Fred Osins improved some design flaws of the early versions and presented his upgraded ‘Miracle Mixer’ at the 1937 National Restaurant Show in Chicago. His early demonstrations were of frozen Daiquiris, which would go on to become a phenomenon and great for his business. For many people, that drink is now only known as being a blended one.
Marco Piroli – Lab, London
Garnish: Mint sprig and two monkey nuts
Method: Build in the glass over crushed ice, finishing with the rum float.
40ml peanut butter-infused white rum*
20ml Pink Pigeon float
25ml half and half (milk and cream)
25ml coconut cream
Pinch of salt and dash of lime
*Whisk 700ml white rum with 350g of smooth peanut butter until runny.
At El Floridita in Havana, where the Daiquiri was made famous, the house version is still blended to this day. And so it goes with the Piña Colada.
That said, I’ve had some delightful variations that have been shaken, which keeps the drink from becoming too insipid, something that can happen if the bartender doesn’t know their way around the science of blended drinks.
One of the best I’ve had is that made by Erik Adkins at San Francisco’s Slanted Door. He goes to the painstaking lengths of making his own coconut cream, but the results are sublime. He uses El Dorado 3yo rum, and sweetens the whole thing with a little pineapple gum syrup.
At Dante in New York, we do neither. I wanted to create a Piña Colada that was a little lighter than expected. We juice our pineapple to order through a high speed Breville blender so that it comes out with a preposterously fluffy texture.