It's Called 'Piña' for a Reason

Piña Colada
Piña Colada (James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Piña colada" simply means "strained pineapple" in Spanish. That being the case, it always seemed odd to me that coconut elbowed its way in to become the dominant flavor of our poolside favorite. It's an astonishing act of hubris, really, for Señor Coco Lopez and his canned Cream of Coconut to have hijacked the blender away from pineapple.

Now, I bear no ill will toward Señor Lopez. And it's true that I've been on a bit of a tear lately, ranting like a lunatic against commercial sour mixes and ready-to-serve cocktails in a box. So, look: If you happen to enjoy Coco Lopez, by all means, have at it. Certainly, the version that Isaac was blending up for Charo on the lido deck of "The Love Boat" was loaded with coconut cream, and we all still love Isaac. But perhaps I can persuade you to try a lighter, fresher and more, um, pineapple-y version of the drink.

First, I think it's important to delve into the somewhat murky history of this cocktail. It has been deemed the official drink of Puerto Rico, and during the 1950s a number of the island's hotel bartenders claimed they created it. The most oft-repeated story is that the drink was invented at the island's Caribe Hilton Hotel. As legend has it, one night in 1954 -- during a strike of coconut cutters, no less -- a bartender cut the top off a pineapple, hollowed out the fruit, dumped in Coco Lopez mix and rum, and served it with a straw. It may or may not be a coincidence that Coco Lopez came on the market around 1954.

Truth be told, all of those Puerto Rican claims are dubious. There are references to the piña colada in periodicals and books in the 1920s and '30s, and most point to Cuba as its origin and pineapple as the primary ingredient. Even Trader Vic's classic bartending guide included a piña colada recipe containing only rum and pineapple juice. Meanwhile, a Trader Vic drink called a Bahia, with coconut cream, more closely mirrors the modern-day piña colada.

Regardless, the cream-of-coconut version became the one that captured the fancy of Americans. In the 1970s and '80s, heavy cream and dark rum were added to the mix, and we had the super-sweet, milkshake-like libation that has become the standard. "The drink got bastardized in the early 1980s," says Todd Thrasher, acclaimed mixologist of PX and Restaurant Eve in Alexandria. "Everything became so cloyingly sweet."

Thrasher has a number of piña colada variations in his repertoire, including one that includes tepache, a drink made from fermented pineapple skins that originally was developed as a clandestine liquor by prisoners in Mexican jails. But when it comes to making a traditional piña colada, Thrasher preaches two things: fresh pineapple juice, and coconut water instead of coconut cream. "I have a disdain for Coco Lopez," he says.

For the purest piña colada, I favor a recipe of three parts pineapple juice, one part coconut water and one part rum. With that basic 3:1:1 ratio, you'll discover a drink that's a world away from what typically comes out of the blender.

Pineapple juice is one of my favorite cocktail mixers, and I try to use fresh pineapple whenever possible. For a piña colada, I usually don't strain the pineapple after pureeing it (making mine a "piña sin colar," I guess) since I think the drink holds together a little better. Yet in a pinch -- unlike with citrus juices -- I think a decent bottled pineapple juice (so long as it's 100 percent natural) works fine. Though, as Thrasher says, "It's not that hard to juice a frickin' pineapple."

For the coconut element, coconut water gives the drink a much lighter and more complex flavor ("nuttier," Thrasher calls it) than coconut cream or coconut milk. Coconut water has enjoyed recent popularity as a diet aid, so it's fairly easy to find brands such as Zico and Vita Coco, which contain no added sugar. I prefer those to supermarket-standard Goya, which has extra ingredients and is more cloying.

I've been making piña coladas with all types of rums, and they've been very nice with white rums from the usual suspects such as Flor de Caña and Mount Gay, as well as aged rums such as Ron Zacapa 23-year-old. But my favorite version uses rhum agricole, the Martinique rum made from pure sugar cane juice, from brands such as Rhum Clement and Neisson. The fresh cane notes mingle well with the pineapple and coconut and add a level of -- dare we say it -- sophistication.

I realize that seems improbable, considering what has been coming out of the blender for so many years. But with apologies to Señor Lopez, perhaps this is the first step toward a more subtle and tasty piña colada.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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