The Piña Colada
Do you remember the classic 1979 Rupert Holmes song Escape… you know, the one that says, “if you like strained pineapple and getting caught in the rain…”? No? Let me try this again, as it sounds so much better if you say it partially in Spanish… “Do you like piña coladas….?”The name piña colada translates into "strained pineapple," a reference to the freshly pressed and strained pineapple juice used in the drink's preparation. The national drink of Puerto Rico is a sweet concoction of rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice that is generally served blended with ice along with a wedge of pineapple and a fancy pants miniature umbrella.
The drink has a long history, especially on the island of Puerto Rico. It was first stated that the Puerto Rican pirate, Roberto Cofresí , also known as El Pirata Cofresí, created the drink for his crew as a morale booster early in the 19th century. Cofresí was born into wealth and nobility; however, his family faced poverty after the Spanish Empire created political and economic hardship on the small island. After years of mistreatment by British and Spanish merchants, Cofresí turned into the Caribbean’s version of Robin Hood. Cofresí would steal from the merchant ships and deliver the bounty to the poor people of Puerto Rico. Pirating was a significant issue in the Caribbean, especially for countries with colonies on the islands, like Spain. Spain, and other countries, including America, began wrangling up the pirates in the early 1800s. One of the last pirates they hunted was Cofresí, who would eventually be captured and executed on March 29, 1825. Sadly, the recipe for the drink he gave his crew was lost though it consisted of white rum, pineapple juice, and coconut milk.
Cofresi’s drink captured all the flavors of the Caribbean, but it would be the invention of an essential ingredient that would modernize this cocktail; the creation of Coco López, a pre-made cream of coconut. The creamy and dreamy product was developed in 1949 by a University of Puerto Rico agriculture professor, Don Ramón López-Irizarry. López was given a stipend from the government to create a way to extract the richest part of the coconut cream from the pulp, which was very difficult. López worked on different solutions but soon realized that combining coconut milk with natural cane sugar would replicate the consistency of cream extracted from the pulp. This new product exploded in the Puerto Rican culinary world and bar scene.
And now begins the “who created it first” discussion. One could credit Cofresí for the original piña colada; however, for the modern-day version, there is a group of men who all claim ownership.
On August 16, 1954, a bartender at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, named Ramón "Monchito" Marrero Pérez, claims to have whipped up the first piña colada. Unlike many food history stories that talk about meals and drinks that were made from mistakes, Marrero spent over three months, at the request of hotel management, developing his signature drink called the Coco Loco. He used hundreds of different flavor combinations to capture the island's spirit. Marrero would continue returning to the same flavors; rum, pineapple, coconut, and cream. Using the new island sensation, Coco Lopez, Marrero would create the drink the island and hotel are famous for, though it was not initially named piña colada. The drink was such a hit that Coco López supplied the Caribe Hilton with blenders and hired a piano player to perform. At the same time, bartenders served complimentary piña coladas to hotel guests. It was said that Hollywood legend Joan Crawford reportedly declared the drink at the Caribe was “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.” Well, okay then. Marrero became just as famous as his drink, serving his creation at the Caribe Hilton for 35 years until his retirement in 1989. There are tributes all over the hotel celebrating the drink and Marrero. And yes, a piña colada at the Caribe Hilton today is no different than the one you would get anywhere else; it just feels special when you drink it there. Trust me.
Theory 2. Also, at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, another bartender claimed that he invented the cool, creamy cocktail. Ricardo Gracia, from Barcelona, told Coastal Living magazine in 2005 that a strike by a coconut-cutters union in 1954 forced him to serve the popular mixed drink of rum, cream of coconut, and crushed ice into a hollowed-out pineapple. The accidental mixologist noticed that when the fruit’s added flavor proved popular, he said freshly pressed and strained pineapple juice to the rum and cream of coconut combined to create the piña colada.
The third and less probable theory is another restaurant in San Juan, Barrachina, that lays claims as the birthplace of the piña colada by Ramón Portas Mingot in 1963. The owner and chef of the restaurant, Pepe Barrachina, had created quite the buzz around his paella, and he was looking for a bartender to make his restaurant a hot spot. After a trip to South America, Pepe encouraged a Spanish mixologist (Mingot) to move from Buenos Aires to San Juan to become Barrachina’s head bartender. Mingot worked in South America's famous bars and was an author of cocktail books. Using his vast experience, Mingot whipped up a cocktail of pineapple juice, rum, coconut cream, condensed milk, and ice in a blender. Calling it the piña colada.
Whatever the origins, Americans visiting the island raved about the cocktail and demanded this stateside. In 1968, one Polynesian restaurant in New Orleans coined it the “refreshing new rum grog.” By the early 70s, the drink became a staple at Tiki Bars, like Trader Vic’s and Don The Beachcomber, and gave way to the rise in blender sales for those who wanted to whip up this concoction at home.
Back to Rupert Holmes and his feelings about piña coladas after writing the 1979 hit “Escape/The Pina Colada Song.” It is said that Holmes ended up despising the song because the popularity distracted folks from hearing his more serious work. He was also quoted saying the cocktail tasted “like Kaopectate” (the stomach medicine). I love them, especially when I am on the "dunes in the Cape."
Original Caribe Hilton Piña Colada Recipe
2 ounces white rum 1-ounce coconut cream 1-ounce heavy cream 6 ounces of fresh pineapple juice ½ cup of crushed ice
Add the rum, coconut cream, heavy cream, and pineapple juice in a blender. Add the ice and blend until smooth for about 15 seconds. Serve in a 12-ounce glass. Garnish with a fresh pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry.