The Origins Of The Piña Colada.
The famous origin story for the Piña Colada states it was invented in Puerto Rico in the 1950s or 1960s. Three bartenders claim to have invented it. Ramon Marrero in 1952, Ricardo Garcia a couple of years later, and Ramon Mingot in 1963. Chances are they all made some variation of the same drink. Perhaps just using different amounts of each ingredient. It’s only three ingredients. I’m willing to bet they were not the first to mix rum with coconut and pineapple. The Piña Colada is the official cocktail of Puerto Rico and the national Piña Colada Day is July 10th in the United States.
The oldest reference to the Pina Colada I can find is from a 1964 menu from Senor Pico in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. Not every menu has it, though. Some of the earlier Senor Pico Menus do not have the Pina Colada, so it must have been added to the menu around then. Senor Pico was a concept restaurant by Victor Bergeron and part of the trader Vic’s tiki empire. Victor Bergeron wanted to experiment with a Mexican/Southern Californian-themed restaurant. The menu describes the pina colada as a mix of coconut milk, pineapple juice, and rum.
Interestingly the 1972 Trader Vic’s Cocktail Guide has a different pina colada recipe. His 1972 book does not have coconut milk in it, and before this book, I am not able to find a pina colada recipe. His 1947 edition does not have a Piña Colada, and I could not find any 1950s or 1960s reference to it other than his 1964 Senor Pico restaurant menu, but no exact recipe is given. Victor Bergeron’s 1972 recipe is:
- 2 oz (60 mLs) Gold Rum
- 3 oz (90 mLs) Pineapple Juice
- Blend with shaved ice and pour over ice in a tall glass with a straw.
The word Piña Colada is translated to “strained pineapple.” I always found it a weird name since it’s only referring to the pineapple juice in the cocktail. But That name makes sense for this recipe since it does not have any coconut. In 1978 Warren Zevon released his hit song “Werewolves of London.” One of the lyrics is, “I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s. His hair was perfect.” The exact piña colada Warren references would have been the pineapple and rum only recipe. A year later, in 1979, the song “Escape” by Rupert Holmes was released. The main chorus from that song is “If you like piña coladas, And gettin’ caught in the rain”. I remember seeing an interview with Rupert Holmes when I was a child where he stated he didn’t like piña colada because he did not like the taste of coconut. So the version Rupert Holmes is referring to is the coconut and pineapple version. The first printed piña colada with coconut I could find is from the 1980 book “Manual Del Bar” by The Barmen Association of Argentina. The recipe from that book is:
- 50 gramos de ron (1.5 oz rum)
- 25 gramos de leche de coco (almost 1 oz coconut milk)
- 75 gramos de jugo de ananá (2.5 oz pineapple juice)
Most cocktail recipes I am familiar with that use cream of coconut are from South America. It is much less common in North American or European cocktails. Also, I found the overwhelming majority of piña colada recipes are from 1980 to 1987. As if that was its spike in popularity after those songs came out. Every one of those 1980s recipes is a combination of rum, pineapple juice, and coconut cream/milk. Trader Vic’s recipe is the only one without coconut.
Perhaps it was invented in Puerto Rico, but the first reference I can find to it is from Trader Vic. His recipe also matches the cocktail’s odd name and makes sense. Victor Bergeron was pretty good about citing a recipe that wasn’t his own. Not for every drink, usually just the popular ones, but the Piña Colada is famous enough. He would mention Donn Beach for any recipes in his book inspired by Donn or if he learned of a cocktail while on some particular island. His Piña Colada recipe does not have a citation, so either he left it out or invented it. This reminds me of the Margarita. Most believe it is a Mexican cocktail, but the first record is from the British 1937 Cafe Royal Cocktail Book, and it is not referred to as a Mexican cocktail until 1953. It could also be that these are two unrelated recipes with the same name. Who knows.
The Best Rum To Use And Substitutions For a Piña Colada.
The best rum to use is either a white unaged rum or a very lightly aged rum. The primary cocktail flavors are pineapple and coconut, so the rum should disappear. An aged rum would muddy up the flavor and take away from the drink’s bright tropical taste. That being said, Vodka makes a great Piña Colada. Vodka is an excellent substitute for rum. Another great substitute is silver tequila. Silver tequila makes a great Piña Colada too. Almost any clear dry spirit makes a good Piña Colada. Pisco, and cachaca all work well. Again, the point is to have the spirit disappear into the drink.
Should You Just Buy Piña Colada Mix, Cream Of Coconut, Or Just Make Them From Scratch?
The Piña Colada is just three ingredeints. Equal parts rum, cream of coconut, and pineapple juice. There is no need to buy a premade mix. Don’t get me wrong, most premade Piña Colada mixes are good, but they taste artificial. Like how grape soda is good, but it doesn’t taste like actual grapes. My advice is to skip the mix and make the drink yourself.
A better question is whether to buy cream of coconut or make it from scratch. Cream of coconut is coconut simple syrup. It is both cost-effective to make your own and makes a much better product with little effort. I have a recipe for it here that I believe is the best, but premade cream of coconuts like Coco Lopez or Coco Real are great. Homemade is preferred, but most store-bought cream of coconuts are still quality products.