Sunday, December 31, 2017

LIBATIONS: The Pina Colada

If you like piña coladas...

Yes, it's an oldie but a goodie, that song by Rupert Holmes, the one that speaks of getting caught in the rain and having half a brain. But ol' Rupert was onto something. The piña colada is one of my all-time favorite cocktails, particularly when it's prepared correctly. And it happens to have originated in Puerto Rico, a fabulous island that's an unincorporated territory of the United States but has yet to be afforded statehood (and therefore the right to vote in U.S. elections, though I digress)...and PR is an island that happens to have been the hard-hit victim of a particularly harsh hurricane season in the autumn on 2017. 

I adored Puerto Rico when I visited right after New Year's back in 2015. My husband and I were dating at the time, and though we'd taken several trips together, both domestic and international, this was our first tropical getaway to a Caribbean island, a 5-day jaunt to a destination with reveling in sybaritic coupledom as the sole point of the trip. With poolside cocktails, natch. What better place to enjoy one of my favorite refreshing, tropical frozen drinks than in its palm tree-lined place of origin? I'd just worked hard serving up great food and beverages to clients throughout the holiday season, so I was very much looking forward to being served a little bit myself, and relaxing in the sun, when temperatures back home were sub-zero. I prefer frozen cocktails to frozen tushies!

First, a quick primer on the piña colada. The name means "strained pineapple" -- a reference to the fresh pineapple juice in the drink. It's generally served blended/frozen or shaken with ice, though my personal opinion is that you go frozen or go home. Its origin story is still up for debate: it was definitely created in Puerto Rico, but where and by whom is still somewhat unresolved. There is a legend that says a Puerto Rican pirate created the drink in the 19th century to boost his crew's morale, but the recipe for the drink seems to have gone with him to his grave in 1825. 
In the modern era, we have two stories. Story 1: Ramón "Monchito" Marrero Pérez lays claim to have made it first at San Juan's Caribe Hilton Hotel's Beachcomber Bar in '54, utilizing Don Q Gold rum and what was then a new product, Coco Lopez's crem of coconut (developed in '48 in Puerto Rico, hence to Puerto Rican lineage of the drink itself). Story 2: Bartender Ramón Portas Mingot claims to have created the pina colada in 1963 at the Barrachina Restaurant in Old San Juan -- a claim the restaurant adheres to in the present day. Many say the drink didn't get its name until the 1960s, regardless of who the actual creator was. But the piña colada has definitively been the national drink of Puerto Rico since 1978, and National Piña Colada Day is celebrated on the island on July 10th each year. Fun fact: in one of the greatest movies ever made, The Godfather Part II (1974), in the scenes that are set in Cuba in 1956, the characters are offered Piña Coladas on several occasions, even though the drink wasn't named as such until the 1960s.

Back to Puerto Rico. While I indulged in many a piña colada on our trip to PR, we discovered the most memorable version just before sunset on the evening we were flying back to frigid New York some time around 9:30 p.m. We were having dinner at a wonderful restaurant Santaella (see my review on this blog at, in the neighborhood surrounding a central mercado away from the "strip" by the beach, away from the crowds of tourists and chain restaurants. As I remember, we walked there from our hotel, as we wanted to take in some local scenes, and though the mercado was mostly closed down by the time we got there (it was about 4:00 in the afternoon, so a few fruit and veg sellers were still in the covered market, but crowds were sparse), we did see a vibrant local scene. 

There were kids playing the in plaza, and families sitting outside on patio chairs. fanning themselves from the heat. Behind the market and around the corner, we saw a grouping of tables and chairs, and several older men sitting playing cards and dominoes. Many of them were sipping...could it be...piña coladas? Yes. There was a makeshift bar set up with a single powerful blender, ice in plastic tubs, plenty of rum, and lots of coconuts and pineapples ready to be whirred together into that perfect tropical elixir. I approached the woman making them and asked in Spanish for 2 piña coladas, and asked her how much they cost. For five dollars a pop, we got about 20 ounces each of the most satisfying, delicious, boozy piña coladas we had our entire trip, served up in a large clear plastic cup. Pure heaven.

So as we wind down 2017 and look forward to 2018, let's raise a frosty glass to Puerto Rico and its signature drink, the piña colada. It takes us away to a tropical island "Escape" (the actual title of the piña colada song), even in the dreary cold of a northeastern winter. And, please give anything you can to continue U.S. support to PR, a gorgeous island full of wonderful people who need our help.

Piña Colada
1 ½ oz. aged Puerto Rican rum
1 ½ oz. cream of coconut (like Coco López)
1 ½ oz. pineapple juice
5 chunks fresh pineapple
16 oz. crushed ice
Tools: blender
Glass: hurricane
Garnish: pineapple wedge
Add all ingredients to a blender and whir for about 30-60 seconds until smooth and frothy. I always think a dark rum floater never hurt anybody, and can only improve the drink. 

To help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria, you can always give to the Red Cross, or to the organizations below...

Puerto Rico Real-Time Recovery Fund:

Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund:

Unidos Por Puerto Rico:

Happy New Year!!!

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