Pineapple Excess

A guide to the piña colada, the sweetest, silliest drink of summer.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Among its many shortcomings, the piña colada, like all the silliest summertide mixed drinks, fails to gratify an honest thirst. Like the frozen strawberry margarita rotating in its machine as if spinning eternally into the abyss, the piña colada is more a sweet treat than a proper beverage. Drinks of this ilk are like popsicles liquefied on behalf of people too lazy to lick, and their primary effect is a sugar high, with the alcohol kick featuring only just enough to abet dehydration and summon an unjust hangover. Naturally, some dental hygienists are known to offer their patients piña colada-flavored fluoride: Oral gel is an apt medium for its toothache essence.

What sets the piña colada apart from its merely cloying peers is its half-milky mouthfeel. This memorably regressive texture-taste interaction must be half the point here, given that it’s a natural consequence of combining pineapple juice and cream of coconut to make a traditional piña colada mix. (The industry standard is canned Coco López cream of coconut, a heavy goo advertised by a drunken cartoon mascot, Coco the Parrot.) Whether shaken or blended, the juice and the cream combine to set a juvenile mood, intensifying the sense that the drink best suits the tastes of people under the age of 10. Weeks old. 

To make a piña colada, begin by choosing a rum and slugging some back in the hope it will help compartmentalize your shame. Many texts recommend white rum for piña coladas, others prefer dark, some bartenders use a bit of both. By no means should you bother with any rum good enough to sip on its own at your contemplative leisure. It’s probably smartest to select an overproof rum. No need to get fancy; any straightforward high-test hooch will fight back against the syrupy mix with its direct heat.

OK, you’ve got your juice (I hope it’s fresh) and your Coco López (I hope the parrot isn’t planning on flying himself home) and your rum (rarely have I seen Bacardi 151 put to nobler purposes). The goal is to combine these in whatever proportion is most likely to cause the fewest guests to gag.

You should combine the ingredients in a blender with a berg of ice, I think, for the sake of texture, and also because sometimes when you blend the mix first and try to add the rum later, it turns out the rum doesn’t want to be added. (Who can blame it?) In that instance the rum, refusing to be folded into a half-congealed mix, puddles atop or below or beside the frothy beige mix in an unincorporated blob, so use the blender, the nuisance of cleaning which is yet another strike against the piña colada.

The prominent piña colada is native to Puerto Rico and not to be confused with the “Cuban-style piña colada,” which is actually an OK drink; in the event of such a confusion, the P.R. p.c. ought to feel flattered. Some people contend that the piña colada originated at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton in the 1950s, no one more vigorously than the people at the Caribe Hilton. You can visit them by the beach in the fresh dusk, under the palms at the pool, and drink an original piña colada from a hurricane glass. Drinking, you can imagine how it might have imbued an exotic feeling of joy when sipped from a coconut shell or pineapple husk, back in the ring-a-ding day when palates were such that smothering a veal chop in heavy cream and sherry was just swell. Eye the menu to survey Hilton’s take on “the evolution of the Piña Colada,” which includes the Painkiller (a Tiki classic in its own right) and a “Clear Colada” (an artifact of an age in which coconut water is still a thing). The hotel further proposes its “Pinold Colashioned”—with an aged rum, a coconut oil-infused rum, a house-made pineapple syrup, Angostura bitters, and chocolate bitters, served with a “coconut ice ball”—as an after-dinner drink.

They’re not hearing any of this—either the Hilton’s claim to primacy or its mixological ambitions—over at the piña colada’s other alleged birthplace, Barrachina Restaurant, which is a well-regarded Old San Juan tourist trap. The straightforwardness of the Barrachina approach is in its way a marvel of industry, like an assembly line or a factory farm feed trough, and deserves a place on any piña colada pilgrimage. Do try to time your visit correctly. If you schedule things wrong, you’ll have to wait an hour for a table while folks fortify themselves to get back on their horrible cruise ships. But on the bright side, you can drink pretty much anywhere you want in San Juan, and Barrachina will prepare your order to go. Walk your cup over to the sunny side of the street to admire how its cocktail umbrella shades the pineapple wedge and candy-red cherry garnishing your piña colada while pondering the nonexistent nuances of the drink itself.

In the popular mind, the piña colada’s personality is inflected by its marquee appearance in Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” The song, which was a No. 1 Billboard hit in the very late 1970s, is lounge music for a fern bar, its narrative dependent on an O. Henry 180. The speaker, bored in his worn-out romance with his “old lady,” finds himself attracted by a personal ad and arranges a rendezvous, going into a blind date ready to run away forever, only to discover that it was the lady herself who placed the ad. Like, wow, they’ve only begun to plumb one another’s depths. The ad reads:

If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain.
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain.
If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape.
I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me, and escape.

If you’re unaware that your partner likes piña coladas, you two are doing a very poor job of communicating, such is the unmistakable character of this endearingly goofy drink. If you like getting caught in the rain, you may have been swayed by the wet winds of a cinematic rom-com commonplace. And if you have half a brain, you are lobotomized. By a piña colada, perchance? A nasal scream of frigid nerve pain can be a debilitating side effect of sucking back piña coladas too quickly. Sometime the sucker is driven to a brain-freezing pace by reckless ardor, sometimes by a strong desire to get the sipping over with promptly and to move beyond the fruity folly of this escapist frappé.