Piña coladas are disgusting.
That’s what I think before I board a plane to Puerto Rico. Until now, I’ve ingested piña coladas only at cheap poolside bars in mainland United States. Served in flimsy plastic cups and consisting of a pasty white mix tasting like sunblock drizzled over chopped ice and garnished with Reagan-era maraschino cherries, the piña coladas of my younger years are what you order when sun and booze have warped your brain.
In San Juan, palm trees rustle, squawking tropical green birds tussle in the trees, giant lizards bake in the sun and my tongue feels heavy and dry. Given my history with the drink, you might think me an unlikely candidate to be airlifted to the birthplace of the piña colada to referee the hotly contested battle of which bar invented the mix.
Valiantly, I volunteer anyway.
I sidle up to the bar at the Piña Colada Club at the Caribe Hilton, one of San Juan’s oldest hotels and a gleaming empire partly built on the claim that the drink was first concocted here. Tabletop pamphlets honor Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, the Caribe Hilton bartender who in 1954 “set out to capture the sunny, tropical flavor of Puerto Rico in a glass,” toiling and tasting hundreds of combinations until he hit on just the right blend of rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice, striking white gold with the piña colada.
A tourist is snoring with his head on the bar, so I feel confident that this establishment is not too stingy with the rum.
I place my order and, shortly, a tall glass of frothy whiteness adorned with skewered fruit and toasted coconut is thrust before me. I have a sip and my mind is boggled: It’s an alcoholic milkshake!
With a mix including real, heavy cream, it’s thick, rich and immensely drinkable, imparting a sort of dreamy buzz. My brain wanders to beautiful places. I first assume I’m hallucinating when I notice in the bar mirror that sitting beside me is the character actor who played the noble newspaper city editor Augustus “Gus” Haynes on The Wire, only the greatest piece of art ever to be beamed into living rooms.
The actor’s name is Clark Johnson, I learn, and he’s here on location — enjoying his piña colada as much as I am mine.
Piña coladas are magical.
That night, I’m in the hilly and labyrinthian Old San Juan at a venerable restaurant called Barrachina. It’s far from a dive, but after Caribe Hilton it feels like an enemy guerrilla outpost. The gregarious, nattily clad bartender Ricardo displays a practiced disdain for the Caribe Hilton’s lore involving the piña colada.
In the 1950s, Ricardo tells me with supreme confidence as he tilts a rum bottle into a glass, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico named Ramón López Irizarry invented Coco López, the sweet coconut cream that pairs deliciously with alcohol. That’s the sort of research I wish I had done in college. In 1963, a Barrachina bartender named Ramón Portas Mingot transformed this breakthrough into a new drink he called the piña colada.
I’m listening intently as he slides into my open palm Barrachina’s version of the drink. Here, the cocktail is served soupy with Puerto Rican rum and tastes strongly of pineapple. This is a late-night piña colada, the kind that has you blabbering on your bar stool, scrawling epiphanies on napkins.
I try to wrap my addled brain around the riddle. Three Ramóns. Two plaques — one at each establishment — each touting its invention of the drink.
Ricardo — a native Floridian with his own murky story of going for a swim and washing up on the San Juan shores — eventually allows that the piña colada’s true history may be lost to the rum-soaked decades. “It’s a bar,” he says, sagely. “A bar is all about stories.”
Piña coladas are — hic — elusive. But my quest to discover their origin has required the two of us to get closer, and I admit that I have been swayed. Never again will I judge this wondrous drink by its cheap poolside iterations. The piña colada is an enigmatic creation, equal parts local pride and flavor and topped with toasted coconut that gets caught in your teeth. In its creamy majesty, it’s practically a bald eagle in a glass.
After tumbling into a cab, I ask the driver his theory of the cocktail’s origins. “Jose or Miguel Something invented it,” he says. “One thing is for sure. It was invented in Puerto Rico.”