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The Piña Colada Grows Up

Why the Piña Colada is more than a poolside drink.

Dallas bar Midnight Rambler's take on the Piña Colada.
Dallas bar Midnight Rambler's take on the Piña Colada.
Midnight Rambler

The Piña Colada needs no introduction. It lives beside resort pools, inside dive bars slushie machines, and even graces Chinese-American restaurant menus alongside Kung Pao Chicken. Yet, the coconut-pineapple-rum drink is also the most beloved cocktail to emerge from the tiki era during the 1960s. And it's one that has withstood time and trend. However, as the domestic tiki resurgence rages on, and following the wave of craft cocktails made with quality ingredients, bartenders from coast to coast are reimagining this classic tropical intoxicant with new flair.

... the Piña Colada ... translates from Spanish to "strained pineapple" drink ...

"The earliest documentation of rum-based tropical cocktails was punches made with rums, specifically Jamaican Rums, for their big, bold flavors," explains Willy Shine, beverage consultant and brand ambassador for Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum. Most of the rum punch recipes in the early years called for only four basic ingredients, explained in a Jamaican rhyme, "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak." The "sour" ingredient was commonly lemon or lime (used for combating scurvy), white cane sugar served as the "sweet," navy-strength rum (54.5% ABV)  was the "strong" and water represented the "weak."

Arguably the most famous rum drink ever created might be Planter's Punch, also the first recoded cocktail recipe, according to Shine, with roots in 1700s Barbados. But it wasn't until the 1930s, following Prohibition, that rum drinks really caught on in the U.S., thanks in part to the country's first tiki bars, Don The Beachcomber, which hit Hollywood, California in 1934, and Trader Vic's, which originally opened as Hinky Dinks in Oakland, California the same year.

Perhaps the original Piña Colada from Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico. Photo: Facebook/Caribe Hilton.

The tiki era spawned sweet and fruity drinks like the Mai Tai, Zombie and Piña Colada, which incorporated tropical ingredients from warm regions.

And as America entered World War II, tiki offered an exotic escape from everyday life. Yet once the war was over, the Red Scare continued to frighten the country, creating an environment for tiki to continue to thrive. According to Jeff  "Beach Bum" Berry, tiki expert and owner of Latitude 29 in New Orleans, " ... the South Pacific provided a fantasy life. No one was going to judge you for going to a tiki bar for a couple of hours to escape."

While several lay claim to the Piña Colada, which translates from Spanish to "strained pineapple" drink, as one story goes, bartender Ramon "Monchito" Marrero invented the cocktail on August 15, 1954 at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar in San Juan Puerto Rico. Supposedly, hotel management had requested that their bartenders create a new, unique, signature drink for the hotel that was worthy of the increasingly demanding palates of its star-studded clientele. "He accepted the challenge, and after three intense months of blending, shaking, and experimenting, the first Piña Colada was born," says Shine.

But, like the stories behind many classic cocktails, this one has been disputed at times. "Ricardo Garcia, in the same year and from the same bar, claims to have also created the national drink of Puerto Rico," says Ian Burrell, the world's only global ambassador for the entire category of rum. He believes that the Piña Colada originated in Puerto Rico because one its primary ingredients, coconut cream, hails from the area: "The cream of coconut pioneer ‘Coco López’ was invented in 1954 in the University of Puerto Rico by Dr. Ramón López Irizarry," Burrell adds.

Shine's Redux

Shine's Piña Colada Redux with pineapple juice, coconut cream, Campari, and rum.

"...if you don’t take a picture with a Piña Colada on vacation, were you even really there?"

During the 1980s, the Piña Colada, like many drinks, had begun to lose its luster due to America's changing palate, however it never disappeared completely. As Jeffrey Morgenthaler, author of The Bar Book and bartender at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon sees it, "I think that possibly the Piña Colada, and other blended drinks, were derided by a small yet vocal group of ‘mixologists,’ but I don’t think the average person ever stopped drinking them."

"Piña Coladas have always been especially popular for those traveling on vacation to the beach because we all know if you don’t take a picture with a Piña Colada on vacation, were you even really there?" says Juan Coronado, rum ambassador for Bacardi.

To make a great Piña Colada, the recipe is important, but there’s always some leeway. "What really matters the most to me is the consistency," says Morgenthaler. "If the ratio of ice to the rest of the ingredients is off, it’s going to separate and not be enjoyable."

Over the years, the Piña Colada has inspired many modern interpretations, including the Miami Vice, which is also one of Shine’s guilty pleasures. "A combination of a Piña Colada and a frozen strawberry daiquiri, the two drinks are made separately and then poured together to create vertical layers of colors," he explains.

"Bartenders and consumers alike can kick up the Piña Colada with Maraschino liqueur for a more aromatic cocktail, or a dash of cinnamon and spice that can offset the sweet, creamy juice and rum to add some flair to the classic recipe," says Coronado. "For a skinny colada, simply replace coconut cream with coconut water."

BOA's Vida de Playa cocktail. Photo courtesy of BOA.

While endless Piña Colada variations exist, most have a hard time standing up to the original. "One of my favorite variants was introduced to me by two legends, [bartender] John Lermayer of Miami and Ian Burrell, the global rum ambassador, a couple years back," says Shine. "They used Appleton Estate Signature Blend as a base and floated Campari on top. It adds a beautiful layer of bitter to all the fresh sweetness."

Even restaurants unconnected to tiki are getting into the tropical drinks game. BOA Steakhouse in Los Angeles serves its own take on the Piña Colada, subbing in pisco for rum. The Vida De Playa blends pisco with coconut, mango, citrus and bitters to create a playful Peruvian take on the classic drink. Not too far away, new Southeast Asian addition Cassia in Santa Monica serves a drink called the Lava Flow Piña Colada that incorporates lemongrass and pandan leaf.

No matter how it's made, the Piña Colada remains one of the most popular rum drinks of all time. And with just three basic ingredients, it serves as a strong base from which bartenders can riff. But there's nothing like the original. And one thing's for sure, the Piña Colada is here to stay.

Midnight Rambler

1530 Main Street, , TX 75201 (214) 261-4601 Visit Website

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