Remember The Love Boat? Isaac the bartender gives this Piña Colada two guns up. (Illustration: George McCalman)
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It’s appropriate that the Yachtsman, a Tiki bar in Philadelphia, uses a thumbnail of ’80s-era Isaac as its Facebook profile pic. After all, the red-jacketed, finger-guns bartender from The Love Boat represents everything that’s both right and wrong about the go-big-garnish-or-go-home Piña Colada.
The drink seems mildly goofy or, at least, not very sophisticated when thrown into the current landscape of demure Nick & Nora glasses and hand-crafted everything. But that’s why it’s good. And some bartenders have begun lifting the Piña Colada out of its skipping-45, Rupert Holmes past.
Finding the island roots of the coconut cream–laden Colada is complicated, as there’s more than one story told. Some say it was months in the making before its 1952 debut by one Ramon Marrero Perez, head barman for the Caribe Hilton in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. But the Barrachina, also in Old San Juan, disagrees, having mounted an etched plaque on the building façade that claims their man, Ramon Portas Mingot, mixed the first rum-based, heady blend in 1963.
What we do know is that sometime in the late 20th century, the drink took a quality dive. In the great book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis devotes less than 100 uncomplimentary words to it. The Piña Colada, “…I would classify as among the worst examples of the tiki cocktail….pineapple and coconut are the linebackers of the taste world, and can flatten the harshest of rums.”
“Pineapple is the butter of the cocktail world—you can make anything smashingly delicious with it,” says barman and owner of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, Toby Cecchini. “Unfortunately, the Piña Colada became a symbol of shitty ’70s super-tacky cocktails that you get in a 40-ounce cup and wander about drinking on Bourbon Street.” About a year ago, Cecchini began serving an easy-to-sip shaken version in a coupe rather than the traditional va-va-voom namesake glass, and to his surprise, the drink has become a high-demand item. “If you put your hand to it and do it with care, almost anything can be made well.”
At Philadelphia’s Yachtsman, bartender Phoebe Esman applies the blender method for her Piña Colada, which includes her own painstakingly house-made coconut cream with fresh pineapple, Don Q gold rum, and a bit of crushed ice to get the right creamy, cool consistency. “The Piña Colada at the Yachtsman is a pretty straightforward operation,” says Esman. “I think the thing that makes ours different from others is the coconut cream and, of course, fresh pineapple instead of canned or juice or flavored syrup.”
The same can be said for Portland, Oregon’s Hale Pele, which offers both a traditional rum version and one called the Chi-Chi with vodka, both of which employ fresh coconut cream and B.G. Reynolds Demerara syrup, created by owner-barman Blair Reynolds. “The extra richness in the syrup adds a more well-rounded sweetness, and using fresh pineapple gives it a nice acidic kick that really makes that coconut flavor pop.”
Amy Zavatto is the author of The Architecture of the Cocktail, contributing editor to Imbibe, and the Deputy Editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. She really, really, really likes whisk(e)y in all its lovely forms.