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A Brief History of Drinking Cocktails From Coconuts

From Mai Tais to pina coladas, how your favorite vacation drinking vessel came to be

A luscious-looking cocktail served in a coconut is a symbol of beach vacations the world over. They call to mind blended pina coladas topped with maraschino cherries and colorful straws; mai tais with delicately balanced little paper parasols. Rupert Holmes’s one-hit wonder “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” makes no mention of the coconut serving vessel, but they’ve been immortalized in another unexpected ’70s novelty song, during which Harry Nilsson extolled the virtues of putting “the lime in the coconut and drink[ing] ‘em both together.”

The vessel makes for more than just an enviable “I’m on vacation” Instagram photo. Nathan Hazard, of LA tiki pop-up the Coconut Club, argues that “there’s something about holding that hard, furry coconut in your hand — it’s another sensation, another aspect to the drink that adds a lot. It’s not just an aroma or a garnish, it’s a textural component.” And the use of coconuts — and the similarly popular pineapple — adds complexity to cocktail recipes. “Serving in a pineapple or coconut can change the taste of a drink,” Coconut Club chef Andy Windak says, especially as the rum and other components sit in the shell over time. In other words, there’s no purer a symbol of getting away from it all than holding the weight of a whole coconut or pineapple filled with alcohol in your hands.

But how did the coconut shell become a go-to cocktail vessel? Those who know the difference between a mai tai and a daiquiri probably already know the story of Don the Beachcomber — legal name Donn Beach, birth name Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. Beach was born far from paradise, in Limestone County, Texas. He moved to Hollywood in 1931, working odd jobs ranging from parking cars to bootlegging, in the months before Prohibition ended. In 1933, he opened up a bar called “Don’s Beachcomber,” decorated with pieces of wrecked boats and finds from his South Pacific travels.

Beach was drafted in World War II and his then-wife Sunny ran the bar in his absence: Her savvy turned the now-named Don the Beachcomber into a lucrative chain. The idea of a “tropical getaway” was officially a part of American pop culture.

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a leading tiki expert, says that the practice of drinking liquor out of coconuts likely began with 1700s-era sailors who would smuggle liquor aboard ships in the tropics by emptying a coconut and refilling it with alcohol. They’d sip through a hole in the nut, he says, which looked to ship officers as if they innocently drinking coconut water.

But it was Don the Beachcomber who first “began serving his ‘Coconut Rum’ punch in a hollowed-out young coconut shell,” Berry says. “Donn himself probably got the idea from his 1920s travels in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, where he would almost certainly have seen islanders hacking open coconuts and drinking the water.” According to Berry, who owns New Orleans tiki bar Latitude 29, copycat bars across the country started following Beach’s lead by 1937. One of those bars was Trader Vic’s, a tiki den opened in Oakland by Victor Bergeron, a fan of Beachcomber’s who admitted to using some of Beach’s ideas.

Kern Mattei, general manager of Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai Restaurant, says the restaurant’s Moonkist Coconut cocktail, a drink that’s been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1956, is served in a young coconut. Two of Mai-Kai’s drinks, the Pina Passion and the (non-alcoholic) Pineapple Punch, are also served in fresh pineapples.

“Our bartenders and servers always prefer to suggest the drinks with the fresh pineapple or coconut because of the reaction of the customers when serving the drinks,” Mattei says. “It also leads to more sales, as other customers that see a fresh pineapple or coconut on another table always ask about them, and a lot of times will lead to them buying one themselves.”

Meghan McCarron/Eater

The process of preparing coconuts and pineapples for cocktails is, as you might imagine, a laborious endeavor. Mattei details a methodology that starts with ordering 15 to 20 cases of pineapples, hand-trimming them, leveling off the bottom, trimming the leaves for the safety of guests, and coring the center to hold the drink. The final touch is cutting a small, straw-sized notch. Mai-Kai, he says, prefers to serve fresh medium to large green coconuts that only a few bartenders are trained to cut because of the dangerous process. For the coconuts, the bottom is first cut to stand level on a table, then the coconut is trimmed from the top down to the hard shell. The shell is cracked and emptied of coconut water, and now ready to serve drinks in.

Owen Thomson, of Washington D.C.’s tiki bar Archipelago, says the bar cores out 150 to 200 pineapples every week for its rum-filled Pineapple of Hospitality, juicing the insides and freezing the shells. “In the end, it comes down to storage and prep time,” he says. “I think everyone would choose actually serving in a pineapple over a ceramic version, but not everyone has the luxury of keeping those on hand at all times or the ability to hollow them out to order.”

At Windak and Nathan Hazard’s LA tiki pop-up the Coconut Club, the Coconut Delight cocktail is one of their signature drinks. It uses as its vessel not the smoother young Thai coconuts but the “hard, brown, dry” coconuts, Windak says. “I think the few times we haven’t done the coconuts, I’ve been the one who’s the most disappointed, even though I’m the one who’s usually responsible for doing all the prep work. I have opened over a thousand of those coconuts at this point.” It takes Windak about three to four minutes to prep a single coconut, and about two minutes to cut, core, and wrap the pineapples.

The prep work involved might be a pretty good argument for another tiki staple: the ceramic souvenir mug, very much a kitsch collector’s item. Trader Vic’s, that “Home of the Original Mai Tai,” created the concept of themed cocktail mugs in the shape of skulls or tiki bowls in the ’40s. Berry serves Latitude 29’s libations in ceramic coconut mugs, which are, he says, “less expensive and labor-intensive but still a good ‘conversation piece’ presentation.” And, he notes, the mugs don’t require throwing the coconut husks away.

The water that comes from the coconuts used at each Coconut Club event is served to guests at the beginning of their meal. Windak acknowledges that, as a pop-up that guests pre-buy tickets to, his club can plan exactly how many whole coconuts are needed ahead of time. For a full-service tiki bar, it’s more difficult to have the refrigerated space to store shipments or to predict how many fresh coconuts and pineapples will be needed each week. Mattei says that the coconuts Mai-Kai uses are more seasonal, and the restaurant sometimes has to go a few weeks without deliveries that match their specifications.

But all emphasize the obvious-but-important connotation drinking from a coconut or pineapple has, a quick escape literally in your hands. “I think these days it’s about the need for escapism, once again, blended with that love of fresh produce, that more tactile, hands-on connection,” Hazard says. “There’s something about holding on to it the whole time you’re enjoying it. It’s almost like a prayer-form of your hands. You’re holding the thing and relishing in it. It’s kind of poetic.”

Kelsey Lawrence is a writer who’s covered Cheesecake Factory interiors, Shania Twain’s best looks, and more. Find at Very Famous magazine. Kim Sielbeck is an illustrator, artist, and poke fan living in Honolulu, Hawaii after 11 years in NYC.
Fact-checked by Dawn Mobley.