A Tale of Two Pina Coladas
Even if you do like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, you might not know that the iconic cocktail was invented in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1963.
At least that’s the story told at Old San Juan bar and restaurant Barrachina, which claims to be the originator of the famous rum, coconut and pineapple cocktail.
Not so, says the nearby Caribe Hilton, which boasts of inventing the piña colada almost a decade earlier in 1954 at its Beachcomber Bar, which was frequented by stars including Joan Crawford – who reportedly proclaimed it “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.”
So where’s the true birthplace of the rummy refresher Puerto Rico named its national drink in 1978? I did what any curious cocktail craver would do and jetted to San Juan to find out for myself.
Bottoms Up at Barrachina
I step off cobblestoned Fortaleza Street and into Barrachina’s breezy, palm-filled courtyard where bartender Jorge Ayala is serving up cup after cup of the creamy concoction from countertop drink dispensers.
“I promise you, this is the original pina colada,” he assures me as he pours one-and-a-half shots of 80-percent-proof Ron del Barrilito Two Star – the only rum Barrachina 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.”
Ayala tells me that Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, the bartender credited with the drink’s invention, originally worked at Barrachina and created it there, but that the Caribe Hilton poached him away. “He ended up working at the hotel for 35 years,” Ayala says, “but they didn’t even start talking about the piña colada being created there until 1992.” Apparently the owners were in financial straits at the time and thought that the colada story might attract business.
The piña colada is certainly big business here at Barrachina now, where they sell as many as 2,300 of the 10-ounce drinks in a single day for $7.85 each ($5 for the virgin version).
“The first one always comes with an umbrella,” Ayala tells me as he unfurls a paper parasol and perches it on the rim of my glass. “The second and the third … well, that’s optional.” I take my first slurp and appreciate the frozen sweetness filling my mouth. It is decadent and dessert-like, and despite the brain freeze it brings on, I can’t help but slurp again.
“There was a woman once who drank eight in a single sitting,” Ayala tells me. “On the way out she bumped into every table like a pinball but, you know, she never once fell over.”
Quaffing at the Caribe
José Lopez is the pina colada prep pro at the Caribe Hilton’s Atlantico Bar, a waterfront watering hole that replaces the original bar where the hotel says Ramon Marrero made the first colada after three months of experimentation back in 1954.
“Back then tourism in Puerto Rico was seasonal, and people worked in a lot of different places. Maybe someone at Barrachina copied the recipe or maybe he made something similar while he worked there,” Lopez theorizes. “But Marrero definitely made the pina colada here for 35 years, and he served it to John Wayne, Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin.”
Lopez makes my cocktail the way he says it should be made – individually blended to order, using one-and-a-half ounces of Bacardi Superior, one part Coco Lopez coconut cream and two parts pineapple juice – and slides it across the bar.
My first sip reveals a version that’s lighter, less sweet and more refreshing than Barrachina’s. It tastes like money well spent. (A virgin pina colada goes for $9, and if you want yours with premium rum you’ll be charged only for the price of the shots.)
As I slurp Lopez tells me how the drink was originally made with shaved ice and that it only appeared to be frozen because the finely shaved ice gave it a snowy texture. “People used to pour half-and-half on top,” he says, going on to describe a list of colada customizations using mango sorbet, amaretto and vanilla ice cream that instantly make my mouth water.
“It’s all about having the right ambience. The weather and being here by the ocean make this the perfect place for a piña colada,” Lopez crows. And as a gentle breeze wafts over my sunburnt shoulders carrying the sounds of salsa with it, I’m hard-pressed to disagree.
So which piña colada is the original? After hearing both stories – which sound equally plausible – I really can’t say which one came first (although I’m inclined to go with Barrachina’s telling of the tale). And as for which tastes better, well, that’s really a matter of personal taste. Truth be told, as long as you’re enjoying it in Puerto Rico, the best piña colada is the one in your hand right now.
This story first appeared on USA Today's website in 2015 (but has since disappeared!)