I Searched for the Last Great Piña Colada in Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico is the birthplace of the beloved coconutty, rummy creation known as the piña colada. But what's less clear is who came up with it—or if any locals still drink it.
"So you're going to Barrachina?" my chef friend scoffed when I told him I was writing about piña coladas. "Did you see that episode of No Reservations, when Bourdain went? Depressing."
The image of the slushie machine and assembly line of multi-colored cocktail umbrellas on that episode was all I had to go on when it came to drinking Puerto Rico's signature cocktail in Old San Juan. Its undeniably delicious blend of cream of coconut, pineapple juice, and rum was invented in the 50s. The lore I was told is that bartender Ramon Marrero worked at Barrachina briefly, where he maybe began developing the drink, then moved on to the Caribe Hilton, where he perfected it. Both spots have taken credit for its invention ever since.
Barrachina is a tourist restaurant, through and through, with a neon sign and a large white family on their way out as I enter. I sit at the bar right next to the line of slushie machines, three out of six of which are dedicated to churning out pre-made piña colada mix, and order.
"With or without rum?"
I order rum, meaning gold Bacardi that is poured into the bottom of a milkshake glass and topped with the blend, and then garnished with a pineapple chunk and a Maraschino cherry speared by a cocktail umbrella. I'm told to mix it up myself, as "the good stuff is on the bottom." It tastes as a piña colada should taste: a fruity, rum-y, tropical milkshake.
I ask bartender Ricardo Caballero whether locals drink them: "Sure, locals love them. They make them at home." This is when a man named Matthew Featherstone down the bar whom I assumed to be on vacation chimes in, "Are you going straight from here to the Caribe Hotel? They're better and cheaper here, but they do put toasted coconut on top." Featherstone has been living in San Juan for six months and did his own self-guided piña colada tour. It was Barrachina that he made sure to visit before he was potentially getting shipped back to the States for work.
I'm looking for Carlos Irizarry but am greeted by Mario Rivera, who is the über-mixologist—sleeves, handlebar mustache. They don't make piña coladas here, but would I like something with mezcal? I would. As I sip the off-menu Beauty and the Beet, he tells me he loves piña coladas. "No, not a novelty. They're our signature drink, very emblematic, very important for Puerto Rico." Irizarry arrives wearing a shirt covered in toucans, and I pose the question to him: Are piña coladas relevant in contemporary Puerto Rico?
"Are they relevant? Of course they're relevant," he tells me.
A woman in a baseball cap interrupts, screeching that she saw me at "the last place," meaning Barrachina. "They sent us here." She and her silent boyfriend want the wine list and the wi-fi password.
When I get Irizarry's attention again, I ask him if the piña colada is relevant, and why don't they serve one at La Factoria? "The flavor combination exists, but we don't use blenders. We're working on the idea of using a slushie machine." Instead of a piña colada, he makes me a drink with white rum, pineapple shrub (juice of pineapple with vinegar), coconut water, Angostura bitters, cinnamon simple syrup, and allspice—an un-blended piña colada with herbiness, spiciness.
Rivera comes back over and echoes Cabellero's sentiment, which is that the piña colada is a cocktail to make at home. "If you find yourself at the beach in 100 degree weather, of course the piña colada is relevant. If someone gives it to me in a plastic cup, yes, I am going to drink it." Irizarry says he prefers his with dark rum. "The coconut works amazing with wood flavors." The best one he's ever had was made in New York by Giuseppe Gonzalez at the Golden Cadillac, who adds Campari.
The bar grows crowded as Monday night wears on, a mix of tourists and locals ordering as many Magna beers as cocktails. As I settle my tab, a man named J.J., whose last name I couldn't get before he disappeared, says to me, "Tell these fuckers that they did a paternity test on the piña colada and it was made with Don Q rum at the Caribe Hilton." With that in mind, I get in a cab and go there.
It's a resort hotel on the beach, a few miles away from the cobblestone streets and brightly painted colonial buildings. After a remodeling, the original Beachcombers' Bar where the drink was invented is no longer. The lobby bar is as close as you can get, and a bartender named Joel makes me a piña colada in a Vitamix—cream of coconut from a jug, a lot of ice, gold Don Q, and pineapple juice. He didn't ask whether I wanted rum, and apparently they're out of the toasted coconut I was promised. It's not as flavorful as the one at Barrachina—much icier. It's clear now why the serious mixologists are more interested in working with slushie machines than they are with blenders.
Joel tells me the original was made with a little half-and-half, but they did some testing and didn't like it. A retired fireman sitting nearby is in town to go salsa dancing and says he never orders a piña colada anywhere else, but there are no locals at this bar. It's an older crowd of people on vacation. When I try to pay, Joel tells me the fireman took care of it. I smile at him, say thank you, and run.
The piña colada is the official drink of Puerto Rico, yes, but are Puerto Ricans going to Old San Juan tourist spots for the best ones? No. They're making them at home, in blenders, and taking them to the beach. Maybe more than the official drink of Puerto Rico, it's the official drink of tropical leisure.
I had asked a native Puerto Rican drinking a cocktail at La Factoria, when was the last time you ordered one in a bar? "When I was in Punta Cana."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in June, 2015.