Tiki Research

Piña Colada

by admin
June 14th, 2010 | Tiki Research
Introduction

At Painkiller, the Piña Colada is a drink that we hold very close to our hearts for myriad reasons. Suffice to say that we cannot hide our reverence, our lack of objectivity, and quite honestly–our unalloyed affinity for this cocktail. Our love affair with the Piña Colada began long before we began our respective journeys behind the bar, but we can say with confidence that we were inspired to rediscover this frozen treasure when Giuseppe was invited to participate in the Grand Marnier/Navan “On the Fly” competition at the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.

The rules were simple: present the judges with a cocktail using the ingredients provided. Each contestant was presented with a secret grab bag of sorts, whose contents were hand picked by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. To most experienced bartenders this competition would have been a walk in the park had their grab bag contained the familiar lineup of ingredients that they work with on a daily basis at their respective bars.

Giuseppe reached into his bag and found that he didn’t have much to work with at all. He held in his hand a container of Funkin Piña Colada mix. That’s right, Piña Colada mix. This was going to be an arduous task to say the least–and the clock was ticking. He realized that if he was going to make an impression on the judges, he would have to go back to his roots. Cutty Sark and coconut water is a beloved combination on the island of Puerto Rico, where Giuseppe was raised. With his inspiration in mind, he prepared what would become the winning cocktail, a Scotch Piña Colada. Dale Degroff smiled when Giuseppe told him, “If I didn’t use the Piña Colada mix, my grandfather would have been very disappointed.”

Despite Herculean efforts by the champions of our industry to herald and preserve the classic cocktail, many of us have grown weary of seeing these drinks made poorly by those who would take shortcuts by using inferior ingredients and mediocre techniques. The rediscovery and advancement of some of the methods used to master the service of pre and post-Prohibition era classics have opened our eyes to the fact that it is imperative that we revisit the past in order to improve our collective future behind the bar. That having been said, it would appear that we are now respectfully looking beyond the punch bowls and coupes of the saloons and speakeasies, where we cut our teeth, and looking towards the sandy shores of a forgotten cocktail paradise. A renaissance of the Tiki/Tropical cocktail movement is clearly upon us, and Painkiller is eager to participate and contribute.

Over the past 30 years, the Piña Colada has been relegated to a dismal life of careless preparation using pre-packaged artificial mixes and low quality spirits. Many establishments have settled for simply churning out frozen “cocktails” en masse from poorly calibrated machines. For the majority of the cocktail world, the art of frozen drink making has been rendered moot—hence the modern bartender’s reluctance to embrace the blender as a valuable tool behind their bar. This is clearly not the case at Painkiller, and we hope to open the eyes of our peers to the infinite possibilities inherent in the use of blenders in our cocktail program.

The pairing of rum, pineapple, and cream of coconut in a cocktail has proven to be a formidable marriage. During our initial research into the world of Tiki and frozen cocktails, we chose to embark on a trip that would take us to many of the most venerated outposts of tropical bar culture around the world. Our first stop was not a place that is particularly known for its strong ties to Tiki.  However San Juan, Puerto Rico was an obvious destination for anyone with the intention of understanding the origins of the frozen cocktail.  At Dutch Kills, we do not make frozen cocktails. We only use our blender (a Waring two-speed model 702 from the 1950’s) during the preparation of our house-made orgeat, and it does not have a home on the back bar. Due to our lack of familiarity and experience with frozen drinks, we considered purchasing commercial grade frozen margarita machines and instant blenders. Those ideas were immediately abandoned at the airport in Puerto Rico when it became apparent to us that we would not be respecting our pedigree should we have opted to take the easy way out with the devices that we saw in use there.

We are firm believers that the capabilities of certain bars can be measured solely by the quality of one or two drinks from their repertoire. In other words, if a Cuban themed bar produces a lousy Mojito or a pre-Prohibition style bar makes a horrible Sazerac, you can rest assured that said bars might then be justifiably placed under suspicion for such acts of cocktail malpractice. Certain drinks are standards. Great examples of this rule are the Daiquiri, the Old Fashioned, and the Manhattan. All of these cocktails have just three ingredients and require very little preparation. However, to prepare these properly requires a great deal of experience. A Daiquiri in Havana can be as much of a barometer for indicating excellence in service as can be a Manhattan in Manhattan. At Painkiller, the standard frozen drink is the Piña Colada. If you can master the execution of this drink, then you can properly make all of the frozen drinks on the menu with little variation.

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.

History/Discussion

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 pinapple, 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).”

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 a 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, that 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.

Presently, we would argue that the most popular incarnation of the Piña Colada usually is made with cream of coconut.  Out of the combination of sheer boredom and a quest for personal enlightenment, we have personally tried to replicate every recipe that we have found for the Piña Colada. All of our efforts to recreate these “classic” drinks were made with silver rum and freshly extracted pineapple juice. We prepared them in blenders and served them frozen (although this detail is never specified in writing in the “classic” recipes). As stated earlier, the main difference (and the only one that ultimately matters) in the preparation of the Cuban variation of these rum and pineapple cocktails versus the Puerto Rican style is the use of coconut.

Through years of previous experience making cocktails we have discovered that drinks that have higher water content also need to be sweeter than a drink that is prepared with less dilution and without the assistance of ice in the vessel it is served in. Therefore, Frozen cocktails like the Piña Colada have a relatively large amount of water with respect to a Daiquiri that is shaken and served up.  From our experience thus far at Painkiller, we are fairly certain that it is safe to say that our frozen drinks have unusually high water content.

We will also say that it was concluded definitively in our opinion that due to the sweetness in cream of coconut that the “Puerto Rican” or “1954” Pina Colada is most likely the version of the drink that we all consider the prototype.  All Cuban-style Pina Coladas that we prepared with coconut milk and/or coconut water were either too diluted or too bland.

Consumed on its own, cream of coconut is horribly sweet and difficult to work with in shaken drinks due to the density it adds (even more so in stirred cocktails).  In frozen cocktails, qualities that are detrimental to shaken drinks like viscosity and sweetness become beneficial. The higher water content in Piña Coladas are brought into balance by the richness and sweetness of the cream of coconut. The addition of fresh pineapple and its high starch content bring the lighter alcohol and the highly dense cream of coconut into harmony within the cocktail.  Let us continue on to the preparation of our own Piña Colada.

Preparation

At Painkiller, we prepare our Piña Colada by combining the following ingredients in a blender:

1 1/2 oz. Aged Puerto Rican Rum

(The original may have called for silver or white rum, but we favor the depth of flavor that aged rum lends to the cocktail)

1 1/2 oz. Cream of Coconut

(If you do not want to make your own cream of coconut using the technique mentioned in this essay, a simple recipe for the home is 3 parts cream of coconut to 1 part coconut cream. This lightens the sweetness without diminishing the body).

1 1/2 oz. freshly extracted pineapple juice

(Sadly, there is no substitute for this. With very few exceptions, we do not serve anything that we do not juice fresh in-house. One could certainly use unsweetened pineapple juice from a can and the results would be potable. HOWEVER, the canned alternative will NEVER yield a cocktail that compares to one that features freshly squeezed juice.)

Add four large chunks of pineapple.  Add approximately 8 ounces of crushed ice.  Blend for 45 seconds.  Strain into a cored out pineapple.  Garnish with shredded coconut, an orange slice, and a cherry.

Conclusion

The Piña Colada may have been invented in Cuba in 1910, in Puerto Rico in 1954, or it may have been pioneered by a visionary pirate in the Caribbean sometime in the 1800’s.  It goes without saying that in our opinion, the version made popular by Donn Beach is the only Piña Colada worth preparing.  It brings nostalgia to all those who consume it and it is globally recognized as a staple in the realm of frozen cocktails.  This drink should no longer be a guilty pleasure to be consumed on luxury cruises and in beach cabanas. Every bar should have a blender to make this drink alone, if nothing else.  We may be getting ahead of ourselves but who knows what the future holds.

Mahalo,

Giuseppe and Richard