Is there a cocktail more summer-y than the piña colada? Just one taste of rum, pineapple, and coconut and you’re instantly transported to an island getaway. But how did the official drink of Puerto Rico come to be? Just who was the first to come up with this magically tropical combination anyway?
The oldest legend traces the cocktail back to the early 19th century, when Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresí mixed white rum, pineapple juice, and coconut milk and served it to his crew in an attempt to boost morale. What better way to raise spirits than with free spirits, right? When he died in 1825, his official recipe was lost to history.
While various iterations of the beverage were served over the centuries that followed, the piña colada as we know it didn’t come to fruition until the 1950s. In 1954 one of its key ingredients–Coco Lopez, a pre-made coconut cream– was invented. It quickly became popular and highly influential in the island’s culinary scene. This proved instrumental in giving rise to the modern day piña colada, as did the technological advent of blenders.
However, here’s where things get a little sticky. In the decade that followed, three bartenders claim to have created the drink. And the supporting evidence for each of them is a bit spotty. Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez insists he was the first. Pérez, a bartender at the Caribe Hilton, a luxury hotel in the heart of San Juan, was tasked with coming up with a signature drink for their Beachcomber Bar. He allegedly experimented with a variety of ingredients, including the newly available Coco Lopez, for over three months before coming up with the now-classic combination in 1954. Pérez was so dedicated to his drink that he literally served it for a lifetime. He worked as a bartender at the Caribe for 35 years until his retirement in 1989.
Fellow Caribe Hilton bartender Ricardo García, however, insists the drink was actually his brainchild. In a 2005 interview with Coastal Magazine he explained that the drink was the result of necessary improvisation. In 1954 the coconut-cutters union went on strike, which prevented him from serving up a popular drink composed of rum, coconut cream, and ice in a hollowed out coconut shell. The lack of available coconuts forced him to use hollowed out pineapple instead. As the drink got more and more popular he started adding freshly pressed and strained pineapple juice into it as well. The name piña colada loosely translates to “strained pineapple,” so this account seems entirely plausible.
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The hotel stands by Pérez’s account and the Caribe Hilton has since acquired not one, but two proclamations by Puerto Rico’s governors hailing it the official “Birthplace of the Piña Colada,” one in 2000 and the other in 2014, which marked the drinks 60th anniversary.
However, just two miles west of the Caribe Hilton is another establishment that claims they’re the true creators of the drink. Restaurant Barrachina may not have an official government proclamation to prove it, but they do have a plaque out front. The sign states that renowned Spanish mixologist Ramon Portas Mingot first concocted the drink there in 1963. The date of invention seems a little late comparatively, but hey, who knows, right?!
Regardless of its nebulous origins, the drink went on to become a worldwide sensation and quickly caught on in the United States as the drink of choice for glamorous and wealthy Americans who could afford to vacation in such tropical locales. Joan Crawford allegedly said the piña colada was “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.” It’s a statement that functions as giant praise and amazing Hollywood lore.
In 1978, the piña became the official drink of Puerto Rico. That same year, Rupert Holmes went on to release his biggest hit, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” a yacht rock classic about two equally horrible, married people who rediscover each other given the power of classified ads and coconut cocktails. It may be a cringeworthy association, but at least it’s not Margaritaville!
If you’d like to take a stab at making your own piña colada, try our classic recipe. And if you’re in the mood for something a less traditional, take look at these inspiring pineapple-based cocktails.