One of the world’s most favorite mixed drinks, the piña colada, was born in Puerto Rico, but the identity of the bartender who first mixed up the iconic rum-based cocktail remains a point of contention. The Caribe Hilton, one of the premier luxury hotels in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, claims the piña colada was first served up in its Beachcombers Bar in 1954 by bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero. Asked by hotel management to create a signature drink that captured the flavors of the island, Marrero reportedly spent three months experimenting with hundreds of combinations before perfecting his sweet, frothy concoction of rum, cream of coconut and pineapple juice. After tasting one of the hotel’s piña coladas, Hollywood legend Joan Crawford reportedly declared it was “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.” According to the Caribe Hilton, Marrero mixed up and served his creation at the hotel for 35 years until his retirement in 1989.

Another barman who served up drinks at the Caribe Hilton, however, has claimed that he invented the cool, creamy cocktail. Spaniard Ricardo Gracia told Coastal Living magazine in 2005 that a strike by a coconut-cutters union in 1954 prevented him from serving up the popular mixed drink of rum, cream of coconut and crushed ice in its traditional sliced coconut. Forced to improvise, Gracia poured the drink into a hollowed-out pineapple instead. When the fruit’s added flavor proved popular, Gracia said he added freshly pressed and strained pineapple juice to the rum and cream of coconut combination to create the piña colada, which means “strained pineapple” in Spanish.

pina colada
Ramon “Monchito” Marrero (Credit: Caribe Hilton)

Two miles west of the Caribe Hilton in the capital’s Old City, another San Juan hotspot stakes its claim as the piña colada’s birthplace. Restaurant Barrachina opened in the late 1950s and quickly gained renown for its paella. On a trip to South America, Spanish chef and owner Pepe Barrachina convinced Ramon Portas Mingot, a Spanish mixologist who wrote cocktail books and worked in the top bars of Buenos Aires, to leave Argentina and become head bartender at his Puerto Rican restaurant. As attested to by a marble plaque outside the eatery’s entrance, Restaurant Barrachina claims Mingot concocted the first piña colada inside its doors in 1963.

Some tie the development of the piña colada to the 19th-century Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresi, who was said to have boosted the morale of his men by giving them a pick-me-up drink of white rum, pineapple juice and coconut milk. However, the development of the modern-day beach cocktail would not have been possible until the 1954 invention of a key ingredient—Coco Lopez, a pre-made cream of coconut. Developed by University of Puerto Rico agriculture professor Ramon Lopez-Irizarry, who blended cream from the hearts of Caribbean coconuts with natural cane sugar, Coco Lopez quickly became an integral part of the island’s piña coladas. According to the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” Coco Lopez even supplied the Caribe Hilton with blenders and hired a piano player to perform while bartenders served up complimentary piña coladas to hotel guests.

Visitors to Puerto Rico returned home raving about the cocktail, and the “refreshing new rum grog,” as one Polynesian restaurant in New Orleans called the piña colada in 1968, began to appear at bars far beyond the island’s shores. The proliferation of electric blenders and tiki bar chains such as Trader Vic’s and Don The Beachcomber helped to spread the mixed drink around the world during the 1970s.

In 1978 the piña colada was declared the national drink of Puerto Rico, and the next year it was cemented into pop culture by a relatively unknown singer. Written and sung by Rupert Holmes, “Escape” became a number-one song in the United States in December 1979—making it the last tune to top the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1970s—and is best known for its iconic chorus: “If you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.” In fact, the lyric became so memorable that the record company added a parenthetical tagline to the song title—“The Piña Colada Song.”

CARIBE HILTON’S PIÑA COLADA RECIPE

2 ounces rum
1 ounce cream of coconut
1 ounce heavy cream
6 ounces fresh pineapple juice
1/2 cup crushed ice

Mix rum, cream of coconut, heavy cream and pineapple juice in a blender. Add ice and mix for 15 seconds. Serve in a 12-ounce glass and garnish with fresh pineapple and a cherry.