The Lore, the Legend, The Piña Colada
By Richard Boccato and Giuseppe Gonzalez of Painkiller, NYC
Like all great drinks, there are stories regarding the origins of the Piña Colada that are as rich and complex as its consistency. The thousands of myths and legends that are culled from the pantheon of cocktail folklore invariably fall somewhere between fact and fiction. With that in mind, we humbly submit the following thesis for your consideration.
Before we begin, we would like to acknowledge George Sinclair at www.thinkingbartender.com for his exhaustive research on the subject of the Piña Colada. We are fortunate to have access to this information and we could not justify our hypothesis without referencing Mr. Sinclair’s contributions.
By many accounts, the earliest mention of this cocktail dates back to the 1800‘s, when a Puerto Rican pirate by the name of Roberto Cofresi favored a drink with white rum, coconut milk and pineapple. It is almost futile to debate what his white rum may or may not have tasted like, the difficulties of juicing fresh pineapples in the 1800’s, or the fact that there is no written recipe for his “cocktail”. Cofresi died in 1825, and for all intents and purposes so did the story of his prototype for what we now call the Piña Colada. For the sake of argument, we will agree that a Piña Colada is simply rum, some form of coconut (we will explain why this matters later), and pineapple.
There are references to a drink called the “Piña Fria” (cold pineapple) in 1910. In an excerpt from “IN CUBA AND JAMAICA” by H. G. de Lisser, the author states that:
“You ask for “Piña Fria, and he takes a pineapple and peels it and cuts it into large chunks and pounds it up with white sugar and ice and water, and hands the concoction to you in a huge, thick tumbler, and you find it delicious.”
In essence, this appears to be a pineapple Daiquiri of sorts but the fruit is muddled, Caipirinha style. The argument could clearly be made that this is indeed the predecessor to the Piña Colada; however we believe that such an argument literally does not hold enough (coconut) water to be plausible. Furthermore, this cocktail is not “blended” or “frozen”. Commercial blenders were not highly prevalent in bars during the early 20th century since the device was invented in 1922 (the famous Waring blender did not arrive on the market until 1935). More importantly, a Piña Colada when translated into English means “strained pineapple.” This is not a reference to the juice itself but instead an indication of how the drink is supposed to be served. In Spanish, a more enlightening translation would be “strained/cored-out pineapple.” Therefore, a Piña Colada served in anything other than a cored pineapple is (technically) not a Piña Colada. Recipe references would do best not to omit such an obvious fact as the vessel that a drink should be served in when that information is specifically stated in the cocktail’s name.
In 1922, TRAVEL magazine mentions a cocktail of Cuban origin called the Piña Colada:
“But best of all is a Piña colada, the juice of a perfectly ripe pineapple — a delicious drink in itself — rapidly shaken up with ice, sugar, lime and Bacardi rum in delicate proportions. What could be more luscious, more mellow and more fragrant?”
Like the earlier “Piña Fria”, once again here we find no mention of coconut in any form. This is also a pineapple “Daiquiri”, and it was quite possibly served in a pineapple. It is around this time that the roots take shape for what we now consider to be the true forefather of the modern Piña Colada.
In 1926, there is mention of a cocktail called the “Pineapple Crush” in “Terry’s Guide to Cuba” by T.P. Terry:
“PINEAPPLE CRUSH made by squeezing the juice from half a Piña into an ice-filled shaker and sweetened with a little sugar.”
Once again, for reasons previously stated with regard to the aforementioned 1910 Piña Fria and the 1922 “Piña Colada”, this is not even close to resembling both the flavor and the vehicle of presentation of the modern Piña Colada. We push forward to 1937 where we finally see the addition of coconut to a pineapple, and sugar concoction. The Middletown Times Herald reports: “They also sold a cocoanut[sic] and pineapple mixture called Piñacolada[sic]
The omission of rum is obvious. Was this a cocktail most likely prepared with rum? We would argue in the affirmative given the fact that a drink by the same name and country of origin had been in existence since 1922 with rum as its base spirit. All you have to do is add “coconut” to the 1922 incarnation and you have a drink that is not altogether dissimilar from our modern Piña Colada.
In 1950, The New York Times writes:
“Drinks in the West Indies range from Martinique’s famous rum Punch to Cuba’s Piña Colada (rum, pineapple and coconut milk).”
THE BIRTHPLACE OF REFRESHMENT AND WHO DO WE HAVE TO THANK?
So there we have it. Incontrovertible evidence that the Piña Colada was invented in Cuba? Maybe not. Let’s return to Puerto Rico. There are alternating stories on who invented the Piña Colada here. We begin with what we like to call “The Story of the Ramons”. These Ramons are not to be confused with the New York City punk rock band with whom their name is synonymous, but their contribution to society is worthy nonetheless.
There is a story that dates back to August 15, 1954 when a man named Ramon “Monchito” Marrero claimed to have introduced the Piña Colada at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar in Puerto Rico. The Caribe Hilton was and still is recognized as one of the island’s most famous and luxurious resorts. Located in the capital city of San Juan, Beachcomber’s was the place to be in its heyday. Monchito claims to have worked tirelessly for three months in an attempt to perfect his Piña Colada. To this day, there is a plaque hanging on the wall that states that the Caribe Hilton is the true birthplace of the frozen classic. Regardless of whomever invented the Piña Colada, few can argue that Donn Beach is responsible for popularizing it. A perusal of various Beachcomber’s menus from the era clearly indicate that Beachcomber’s franchises around the world started making this drink in 1954. The Piña Colada would heretofore be adopted into the Tiki fold, where it would remain forevermore a tropical vice for the masses.
Yet another bartender by the name of Ramon (Portas Mingot, from Buenos Aires) was instrumental in recording his efforts behind the bar for posterity. This “Don Ramon” mixed pineapple juice, coconut cream, condensed milk and ice in a blender, creating a similar recipe to the Piña Colada that we follow today. At Barrachina in San Juan, the restaurant where he plied his trade, a plaque commemorates the occasion:
“The House where in 1963 the Piña Colada was created by Don Ramon Portas Mingot.”
A trip to Barrachina today will reveal a delicious tasting but less than impressive display of frozen cocktail service. Sadly, we went there eager to sample the Piña Colada of the infamous Ramon #2–only to see our bartender pour approximately 45 ml of rum into a glass and top it off with a frozen Piña Colada mix.
There is a third story about a bartender named Ricardo Garcia who is also said to have invented the Piña Colada at the Caribe Hilton in 1954. However, his name isn’t “Ramon”, and we want to continue on this tangent until we arrive at the story of the most important “Ramon” of them all. Ramon Lopez Irrizary.
He was born in Puerto Rico and was a recognized professor of agricultural sciences. In 1949 he was given a grant to assist in industrial development on the island. Dr. Lopez discovered an easier, commercially viable way of extracting the “cream” from coconuts (a process which if done manually is both labor intensive and costly). Patented in 1954, his product was introduced to the world as Coco Lopez.
Piña Colada recipes printed prior to 1954 that mention coconut are not specific as to what “kind” of coconut. Why is this important? We contend that there are two versions of this drink; Cuban AND Puerto Rican. We have at our disposal today several coconut-derived products that were not readily available to bartenders in the early half of the 20th century.
Coconut water, coconut milk, coconut cream, and cream of coconut are all vastly different from each other. Coconut water is obtained by boring a hole into a raw coconut and extracting the liquid therein. It is light, clear, and refreshing. It requires no labor aside from opening the coconut. Coconut milk and coconut cream require a more intensive method of preparation.
Coconut milk is made by simmering shredded coconut with water or milk until it develops a frothy texture. This liquid is then strained through cheesecloth. When the milk is cooled off and allowed to set, coconut cream (a much richer and mildly sweeter product with a more syrup-like consistency) rises to the top and must be skimmed off in order to extract it. Cream of coconut is simply coconut cream that has been subsequently sweetened. The difference in these coconut products with respect to preparation, viscosity, sweetness, and flavor are quite apparent. A sampling of each will clearly illustrate their differences.
Given that cream of coconut wasn’t commercially available until 1954, we believe that all Cuban-style Piña Coladas at this time called for either coconut water or coconut milk as their coconut component. Based on the historical records gathered throughout the Caribbean with respect to the advent of the Piña Colada, it is very unlikely that someone living on the island of Cuba invented cream of coconut for use in cocktails, or otherwise. An ingredient so unique and vital to the success of the Piña Colada would certainly have been documented had it been a part of their culinary culture prior to 1954.
The Cubans had an established bartender guild, the Club de Cantineros, which printed cocktail recipes books as far back as 1924–and possibly earlier. Historically, we have recognized that there was and still are Cuban bartenders with a fastidious and meticulous acumen for making cocktails. Despite our efforts to comb the records for evidence that supports the argument for a Cuban birth of the Piña Colada, we cannot find a printed recipe hailing from the island of Cuba named Piña Colada that contains rum, pineapple and coconut.
Next, Part Three. Where you learn how to make your own perfect Piña Colada. http://insidefandb.com/2010/06/if-you-like-pina-coladas-the-end/