Much like “getting caught in the rain” (which is usually irritating) or “making love at midnight in the dunes of the Cape” (which is usually a misdemeanor), the piña colada is a drink that sounds better in theory — or in cheesy song lyrics — than it usually turns out to be.

For a less-sweet take on an iconic drink, try the Piña con Lima. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

My favorite cocktail is the Negroni, and to wax Seuss-esque, I would drink one in a boat; I would drink one with a goat; I would drink one anywhere. But the appeal of the piña colada is bound to climate, geography, mood; it’s a drink made to be sipped by googly-eyed newlyweds at Sandals resorts. Ordering one often leaves me disappointed and twitchy from the sugar. (Rupert Holmes — writer of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” the 1979 earworm quoted above — feels even more strongly; in 2004, he told New York magazine that he hates the drink, comparing it to Kaopectate.)

Icon though it may be, it’s hard to figure out what the piña colada really is. It’s been the national drink of Puerto Rico since 1978, and if you find yourself in San Juan, as I did recently, you can visit Barrachina. The restaurant has been in the old city since the 1950s, and on its exterior, a marble plaque announces it as “the house where in 1963 the piña colada was created by Don Ramon Portas Mingot.” You can sit in a sun-dappled courtyard and sip the restaurant’s piña colada, rum added to a pour from a frozen-drink machine.

Then, as the day darkens, you can drive down Avenida Juan Ponce de León for a piña colada at the Caribe Hilton. The hotel sticks to its own creation story, to wit: The drink was invented at the hotel in 1954 by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, who used a recent Puerto Rican invention — Coco Lopez cream of coconut — in its creation. (The new Caribar at the hotel has seized upon the history with a menu focused on the “evolution” of the piña colada, highlighting such cocktail cousins as a “clear colada” made with coconut oil-infused white rum and clarified pineapple juice.)

A plaque at Barrachina in San Juan, Puerto Rico, lays claim to the invention of the piña colada. (M. Carrie Allan)

In 2004, Puerto Rico’s then-governor Sila María Calderón sided with the Hilton when she acknowledged the drink’s 50-year anniversary and credited Marrero. Regardless, you can sit in either establishment drinking your piña colada, awash in origin myths (and rum), feeling the tropical breezes (and rum), remembering that there are references to “piña coladas” that go back further than either claim.

Well, maybe you can remember. See “rum,” ibid.

May 2, 1937, a New York Times classified ad: “Piña-colada and coconut, the fastest selling drink on Broadway; tremendous profits; we supply complete equipment.” A 1947 society column from The Washington Post refers glowingly to a drink at “Oriental” restaurant Ruby Foo’s: The piña colada is “a tall drink that can be enjoyed alike by wets and white ribboners.” (“Wets” were imbibers of alcohol; white ribbons were a symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.)

References to “piña colada” go back to the 1920s. Some versions have booze, some don’t. “Piña colada” just means “strained pineapple”; the coconut that has come to dominate many PCs was probably not even part of the earliest versions.

The Caribe Hilton’s claim to today’s version is probably the most credible, although given how bartenders play with ingredients, arguments about “Who invented X drink first?” sometimes seem a little cuckoo. Imagine if two women each gave birth to a boy, and each named her son Dave. Surely if those women encountered each other and found they both had sons named Dave, it would not cause a vicious maternal throwdown. They would realize they were simply referring to different Daves.

That’s what I thought, tasting the claimants’ drinks: two different Daves.

San Juan’s Caribe Hilton, which claims to be the originator of the piña colada, serves a version that’s as thick as a milkshake. (M. Carrie Allan)

Barrachina’s drink was intensely sweet and pineapple-forward, thinner and less frothy than Caribar’s; the waiter confirmed it contained only pineapple juice, cream of coconut and rum. Caribar’s recreation of Marrero’s contains an ounce of heavy cream as well as coconut cream; it’s paler, coconuttier, thicker, like a milkshake.

Both were tasty drinks. Neither was transporting.

Which made me wonder: What makes a cocktail iconic? Why has the piña colada lasted so long?

The drinks world is full of comeback kids, drinks that used to be cool, faded, yet reemerged post-craft-cocktail revival for drink writers to dust off and advocate. But the piña colada presents no such cliché: I don’t see it creeping through the back door of bars that are laden with complex whiskeys and amari, buttoning a too-tight guayabera over its chest hair, grinning a disco grin.

The piña colada has had its day in the sun. Today’s cocktailers want bitter, herbal flavors; freshness; local ingredients — not the weird delicious goo that is Coco Lopez, full of multisyllabic chemical thickeners. Today’s cocktail lovers want drinks in which the base spirit is a talented lead, not a shrill vaudevillian who needs to be smothered under a frippery of sweet juice and coconut.

We’ve moved past the piña colada, left it sweating by the pool, its fat red maraschino heart broken at the bottom of the glass. Maybe it was never that great a drink.

And yet: Years back, in a town on the northern coast of Puerto Rico where my husband and I honeymooned, we stopped at the side of a highway to buy a ripe pineapple from a man who hacked it up with a rusty machete. We picked up Coco Lopez, rum and limes (to cut the sugar) and made drinks that I still feel happy thinking about.

I’ve tried to recapture them with the recipe here, but you’ll probably prefer one you had on a different beach, back on a sun-gilded afternoon you’ll never revisit.

The fact that the piña colada is never immune from circumstance might be what makes it iconic. It’s about where you drink it and with whom, in a way that truly great cocktails transcend — and therefore rarely achieve.

It’s about sitting on a strange beach at dusk with horrible sunburns, barely able to touch each other, holding cool drinks against your skin as you look out at the rolling breakers and the still-unknown contours of a life together.

The piña colada is dead. Long live the piña colada.

Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.