While patrolling a narrow cobblestone street in old San Juan, Puerto Rico I uncover the first bit of evidence that all is not what it seems.
Up to now my wife and I have been making like tourists in this colonial gem but when we turn on to Calle de la Fortaleza I leap into (metaphorically, at least) action, motivated by my observation of a marble plaque affixed to a wall outside the Barrachina restaurant claiming that Don Ramon Portas Mingot invented the Piña Colada on this very spot in 1953.
I have been hitherto fore led to understand that this delectable drink was invented at the Caribe Hilton down the street. Something’s wrong somewhere.
Whether tawdry tale, sordid saga or mere misunderstanding, I determine to get to the bottom of this, if I have to sample this cocktail in every bar from Fajardo to Aguadilla.
Such is my commitment to you, Faithful Reader. I will unravel the Great Piña Colada brouhaha.
Two days later I begin my investigation in earnest. With my wife and our friends Bob and Becca along to avoid suspicion, I proceed immediately to Barrachina’s.
At a courtyard surrounded by wrought iron a crowd lines up to order a drink comprised of coconut cream, pineapple, rum and crushed ice. They’ve supposedly been doing it for nigh on half a century.
Upstairs in an elegant arched dining room, staff seems determined to distract me from my investigation. They regale me with cream-colored ice concoctions served in sundae glasses replete with maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge garnishes, decorated by whimsical rainbow-colored paper umbrellas. One, two. I lose count.
They further seek to deceive with an offering of seafood paella (almost as famous as Barrachina’s Piña Coladas) followed by a floor show featuring beautiful women in swirling emerald skirts, the heart-thumping rat-a-tat-tat of Flamenco rhythms hampering my concentration.
Needless to say, I draw no closer to a verdict. Needless to say, I may in fact have to investigate further at this humble establishment with ambiance that could hold its own in seventeenth-century Madrid.
I determine to avoid further distraction next day when my enquiries take me to the Caribe Hilton’s Barelito bar.
Here at the Caribe Hilton they have affixed, on plastic panels, a compelling body of evidence: a drink recipe, a copy of some sort of proclamation (real or counterfeit?), a claim about the origins of the Piña Colada. Supposedly Ramon Marrero invented it here in 1954.
A white marble bar adjacent to glass walls reclines under a surreal sculpture mobile suspended from a sky-reaching ceiling decorated with freeform shapes reminiscent of the waves that lash the nearby shore in full view of the bar itself. Tables and chairs are strategically placed through this airy room, punctuated by great pots sprouting greenery.
Agreeable these surroundings may be, I will not be distracted. I plunk myself down at the bar and fix a steely gaze on the bartender, a pleasant woman named Diane.
“I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
She scans the bar nervously.
“First, could I get a round of Piña Coladas?”
Her relief is palpable, though I am not finished with her yet. When she brings the drinks I sip mine meditatively, pondering what we know and what we don’t know.
In spite of a veritable web of deceit and prevarication, some Piña Colada facts are unassailable:
- Exhibit A: Given the English name for the drink (very loosely translated as “smushed pineapple), its inventor wisely went with the original Spanish and infinitely more palatable “Piña Colada” (replete with that voluptuous accent over the “n”.)
- Exhibit B: Whoever claims mixological honors, there seems to be consensus that the drink was devised with the goal of evoking the flavors and allure of Puerto Rico – a concoction as appetizing as the island itself. No mere coincidence that in 1978 the Piña Colada was officially declared the island’s national drink.
- Exhibit C: In addition to that singular honor, Piña Coladas are sufficiently iconic that they have their own special day. (Don’t forget to mark July 10 – National Piña Colada Day – on your calendar.)
- Exhibit D: After sampling the Caribe Hilton version, Hollywood celebrity Joan Crawford declared it “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.”
But confusion still abounds.
Christopher Klein reports on History.com that another bartender at the Caribe, Ricardo Gracia, claims he invented the drink in 1954.
Wikipedia further muddies the waters with a claim that a local pirate came up with the original recipe in the 19th century.
Whether it’s the reams of conflicting testimony or the influence of that second Piña Colada, my mind whirls in discombobulation.
Then the breakthrough.
“Way I heard it,” says Diane, “both places deserve credit.”
“You mean -?”
“Yes,” she says, “he supposedly worked part-time here and part-time at Barrachina.”
Mystery solved, though questions remain, one of which still haunts me, a question I pose to Diane in a voice cold and sharp as a conquistador’s sword.
“Please ma’am, could I have another?”
Should you seek other Puerto Rico attractions in addition to the best Piña Coladas in the Caribbean, go to www.discoverpuertorico.com
So… What’s in a Pina Colada?
CARIBE HILTON’S PIÑA COLADA RECIPE
2 ounces rum
1 ounce cream of coconut
1 ounce heavy cream
6 ounces fresh pineapple juice
½ cup crushed ice
Mix rum, cream of coconut, heavy cream and pineapple in a blender. Add ice and blend further for 15-20 seconds. Serve with pineapple wedge and maraschino cherry for garnish.