July 10 is National Pina Colada Day, and all over the world people are seizing the opportunity to swig a frosty glass (or three) of the famous rum, coconut and pineapple cocktail.
You may know that the name literally means “strained pineapple,” but do you know where the drink originates?
Well, the yummy drink was was invented decades ago in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1963; that much we know. But exactly where and exactly when it came to be is a matter of opinion. Because depending who you ask, it was either concocted in an Old San Juan bar in the 1960s or at a beachfront San Juan resort some time in the 1950s.
We previously covered the pina colada recipe, but here we're going to dive a little deeper into the history.
“This is the original pina colada,” says the bartender as he pours one-and-a-half shots of Ron del Barrilito Two Star (the only rum this Old San Juan bar uses in its piña coladas) into a hurricane glass and then fills it to the brim with a frozen extrusion made with “a lot of pineapple juice, a little coconut cream and absolutely no ice.”
The piña colada is big business here, and they serve as many as 2,000 10-ounce cups of it in a single (very good!) day. Legend has it that Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, the bartender credited with the drink’s invention, originally worked at Barrachina and created it here. But apparently the Caribe Hilton in nearby Condado lured him away and he ended up working there for 35 years.
The Barrachina barkeep insists that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the Hilton started to include the piña colada story in their marketing, hoping that it might attract new patrons to its Beachcomber Bar. And the sweet swig has certainly drawn thirsty visitors to this palm-filled watering hole on Calle Fortaleza, where every piña colada is served with a colorful paper parasol perched on the rim. Take a slurp and you’ll appreciate the frozen sweetness. It’s like dessert in a glass and you can’t help but take another gulp, even when brain freeze warns you not to.
That must have been what happened to the woman the bartender goes on to tell me about, who downed eight of the cocktails, one after the other. “On the way out she bumped into every table like a pinball,” he recalls. “But she never once fell over.”
Bar staff at the Caribe Hilton, 10 minutes’ drive away, tell a different story. The best version includes this fact: Movie actress Joan Crawford was one of many stars who were fans of the Beachcomber Bar. And she loved the signature drink so much that she reportedly proclaimed that it was “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.”
Today the Beachcomber Bar is no more; it’s been replaced by the Atlantico Bar, a breezy waterfront watering hole overlooking the Atlantic surf. But Hilton bartenders still insist that Ramon Marrero made the first colada after three months of experimentation back in 1954.
One of them tells me how back then tourism in Puerto Rico was seasonal, and staff would work in many different hotels during any given season. He theorizes that a Hilton bartender at Barrachina could have copied the recipe or made something similar while he worked there. But he insists that Marrero prepped the piña colada here for 35 years, serving it to stars including John Wayne, Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin.
At the Hilton your piña colada is individually blended to order, using one-and-a-half ounces of Bacardi Superior, one part coconut cream and two parts pineapple juice. Sip it and you’ll immediately notice that its lighter, less sweet and more refreshing than Barrachina’s. It’s more expensive but it tastes like money well spent.
The colada was originally made with shaved ice, my bartender tells me, and it appeared to be frozen because the shaved ice gave it a snowy texture. I’m puzzled when he tells me that guests used to pour half-and-half on top (huh?!) And today you can customize your colada with sorbet, amaretto and vanilla ice cream. Yum!
The breeze, the ocean views and the sunshine definitely make the Atlantico the perfect pace to sip what has since become Puerto Rico’s national drink. Visit and see for yourself. As a gentle breeze wafts by, carrying the ring of laughter and the strains of salsa music with it, you’ll likely agree.
So which piña colada is the original? At this point, decades after the fact, it’s hard to know for sure. But as long as you’re enjoying the Caribbean cocktail in sunny Puerto Rico, who cares?