Shaken and served over ice.
You don’t need a blender to make a Piña Colada. While serving them frozen may be traditional, and my preference, they’re perfectly delightful shaken and served over crushed ice as well. Simply reduce the Coco López and pineapple juice to ¾ oz (or 3-4 pineapple chunks), keep the lime and white rum the same and I wouldn't use any more than ¼ oz Jamaican rum, if you use any at all.
Recipe - Classic in a Blender
2 oz white rum - chilled in the freezer, if possible.
¼-½ oz overproof Jamaican rum - optional
1 oz pineapple juice - or 5-6 fresh pineapple chunks
1 oz Coco López - or another Cream of Coconut
¼ oz lime juice
1½ cups ice
Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend on high for about 10 seconds, or until ice is thoroughly blended. Pour into a collins or wine glass. Garnish with a pineapple wedge and cherry if you like, plus whatever else you want to throw on there. Serve with a wide-mouth straw.
Going by name recognition alone, you could argue that the Piña Colada is one of the most popular cocktails of all-time. Though it's also one of the most infamous. Like the Daiquiri, it is often dismissed as an overly sweet, tropical drink that might be fit for spring breakers, but not grown-ups who are serious about their cocktails.
The difference is, a Daiquiri is just misunderstood. The traditional version is balanced, tart, and dignified. But a Piña Colada actually is pretty much what people imagine, a sweet, slushy, blend of rum, coconut and tropical juice (pineapple to be exact). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t totally delicious. In the sweltering heat, if made with proper balance (including the ice) and a bit of citrus juice to counter the sweetness, a Piña Colada is everything you hope it would be: a Caribbean vacation in a glass. Nothing hits the spot quite like it.
If you make a Piña Colada, let me see! Tag a photo with #socialhourcocktails on Instagram.
Dark rum can be used as well, though I prefer white. In addition to being traditional, I think it allows the coconut and pineapple flavors to pop more. Because those are really what the drink is about. In all honesty, if you use, say, vodka as the base you’ll get a pretty similar result. Any spirit you plug in there will also work pretty darn well - bourbon and tequila in particular. Sherry too.
Getting back to the rum, as I suggest in the recipe, adding a bit of high-proof Jamaican rum to a Piña Colada is, in a word, awesome. The higher ester content carries a lot of ripe banana flavor that brings the drink to life, giving it a bit more, shall we say, sophistication (as well as alcohol content). Smith and Cross is the natural choice, though others like Wray & Nephew or Rum Fire are great too. On their own, they can be pretty rough around the edges, but that harshness is tamed by the Coco López and shredded ice. This isn't a requirement by any means, just damn tasty. If you don’t have any Jamaican rum, other options that will have a similar impact are Batavia Arrack or Agricole rhum.
Coco López is sweetened and stabilized coconut cream, which is fairly labor intensive to make from scratch (I imagine, I’ve never tried. If you’re game, here’s a recipe, let me know how it goes). and it comes in a can. It was invented in Puerto Rico, which is why the bartenders at the Caribe Hilton got their hands on it first (see below).
But despite its processed origins, don’t think that using it is compromising or a lowering of standards. Coco Lopez is a great product that yields fantastic results in mixed drinks, and all you have to do is break out the can opener (plus stir it a little to mix the cream and oil, similar to natural peanut butter). Sure, it may not meet my typical cocktails' standards of only using fresh ingredients. But this is a vacation drink, I’m happy to let that slide (he justified shamelessly).
You can buy it online, but you’ll likely find it on the shelf of your nearest supermarket. Coco Lopez is better circulated than Angostura bitters (not sure how I feel about that). There are other similar products on the market that I imagine sure work similarly well. Some now are offering it in a squeeze bottle - which seems like it would be far more convenient and easier to measure than the can. I’d get that if you see it.
In some cocktails, fresh pineapple juice is worlds better - like a Pineapple Daiquiri - but here canned pineapple is perfectly fine, some may even prefer it because its flavors are a bit more concentrated, allowing the pineapple flavors to come through more. Of course, if you’re using a blender you can simply use fresh pineapple chunks - the riper the better - which I think makes the best Piña Colada. The only thing about fresh pineapple is the balance can be a bit tougher to gauge because the sweetness will vary (riper = sweeter) whereas canned juice will be more predictable. If you buy a whole pineapple, the yellower the outside is - as opposed to green - the riper, and sweeter, it’ll be.
If you’re looking to stretch out your Piña Colada and make it taste less boozy, pineapple is the ingredient to do it with. You can add 1-2 ounces more juice - or 3-4 cubes - to the above recipe and it’ll still taste delicious. The original Piña Colada recipe calls for 6 (!) ounces of pineapple juice, (plus 1 ounce of heavy cream). Which, while it’s not my absolute favorite, I gotta say is still pretty darn good, and you’d never know there was any booze in there.
If there’s one complaint about the Piña Colada it’s that it’s just too sweet. Which is justified, all you’ve got in there are rum, sweetened coconut cream, and pineapple juice. There’s nothing standing in the sugar’s way. Some recipes navigate this by adding heavy cream to counter the sugar. But while that does work, I find it muffles the booze and adds considerable weight to the drink that it doesn’t need. So that’s why I, along with many other modern recipes, add a bit of citrus juice. Lime is the natural choice with rum, but lemon will work too. Just enough to take the edge off of the sugar and brighten things up a bit. ¼ oz per drink does the trick.
The Story of the Piña Colada
Let me say right off the bat, Jeff Berry - who I’ve referenced when talking Tiki/Tropical cocktails and certainly will again - lays out the origin story of the Piña Colada in his “Potions of the Caribbean” in as comprehensive detail as one could ever hope for. Many of the facts I offer here were obtained through his work. All the credit to him.
The nice thing about cocktails that were invented more recently, as in after World War II, is their history is much simpler to track and origins easier to pin down. Still, when drinks become world renowned you’re going to have multiple claims vouching for credit.
One fun story that is probably more folklore than truth dates back to the 1800s and involves the Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresí, aka El Pirata Cofresí - a Robin Hood of his day who stole from Merchant ships to enrich the poor. In addition to being charitable, he apparently also had a knack for cocktails and was said to have devised a drink of rum, pineapple, and coconut to ease the stress of his crew. But before the recipe could be copied down he was executed in 1825.
There are other claims to the title of Piña Colada inventor, but the debate seems to be more or less settled that it was created by bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero Perezin in 1954 (or thereabouts) at the Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Though honorable mention should also go to Puerto Rico's political and economic climate at the time, which made some indirect contributions. They had just become a Commonwealth in 1952 and were in the process of trying to jumpstart and diversify their economy. One area they were targeting was tourism and incentives were offered to lure hotels to be built there. The Caribe Hilton was the crown jewel of this project.
With the Piña Colada's luscious palatability undeniable, it was soon named the welcome drink given to all the hotel's visitors (the former welcome cocktail was the “Caribe Welcome” a similar drink which contained rum, coconut water, lime juice and apricot brandy, but no pineapple - it's not bad). This exposure during Puerto Rico’s rise as a tourist destination was a major contributing element to the Piña Colada’s success. The celebrities and journalists it attracted helped to spread the fantasy of the Caribbean vacation - of which the Piña Colada was an integral cog. The timing was right and the Piña Colada took off.
Additionally, the key development that led to the Piña Colada's creation was the creation of Coco Lopez, which hit the market in the early 1950s. Its inventor, agricultural professor Ramón López Irizarry, was working with government issued funds, which were also part of the effort to stimulate the economy. I'm sure creating an iconic vacation cocktail wasn't what they had in mind when they issued these funds. But it worked out in the end.
The convenience of coconut cream in a can made a lot of things possible, like coconut cocktails en masse. Marrero Perez no doubt took the path of least resistance when coming up with the Piña Colada. It appears to be a simple modification to an already popular Caribbean drink called the Piña Fria (Cold Pineapple), which was simply pineapple, rum, and maybe a little sugar. Add to that some sweet, creamy coconut goodness and presto: vacation cocktails would never be the same again.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 1979 Rupert Holmes song “Escape” - whose catchy hook cemented the Piña Colada’s public image as an emblem of just that. The drink has never looked back (I apologize now for putting that song in your head for the next 2 hours).
Other Piña Colada References
There are a few recorded mentions of drinks called the Piña Colada before the 1950s. Piña Colada translates literally to strained pineapple - meaning without pulp - which was served over ice and had been a standard beverage in the Caribbean for decades. In a 1922 issue of TRAVEL magazine a Piña Colada is described as pineapple “shaken up with ice, sugar, lime and Bacardi rum”. Bacardi was a catch-all at the time for light rum, so this is basically a Pineapple Daiquiri (yum). As to why Piña Colada was the chosen name for a drink consisting of rum, pineapple and coconut still lives on in mystery. Probably just because it sounded good and the tourists didn’t know the difference. Regardless, at this point, the die is most certainly cast.
How to Slice up a Pineapple
Step 1: Start by taking the ends off - save the top if you want to use any of the fronds as garnishes - which is a very nice touch.
Step 2: Stand the pineapple on one end and cut the husk off by slicing down the side, leaving as much flesh as possible.
Step 3: With the husk removed, you can slice off chunks as you please. Only cut around and discard the tough, fibrous center. It doesn’t contain any juice.