It’s difficult for me to recall when I first heard about the Pina Colada. The drink has lived on the edges of my memory for many years. I would hazard to guess that the first encounter was at one of those suburban food zoos in the mid-west. I went to a few of them growing up in Indiana, and I have a vague childhood memory of sipping a virgin Pina Colada alongside mozzarella poppers or chicken zingers or whatever. When I started bartending and the Pina Colada entered conversation again, it was viewed primarily as a laughable drink accepted neither by tiki canon nor the craft movement. However, my own romance with this pineapple potion was just beginning.
If a curious imbiber looks for information on the Pina Colada, they will find a number of stories that relate it to a time and place near where Coco Lopez was invented: the University of Puerto Rico, 1948. There are conflicting accounts from the years following the tinned ingredient’s creation. Several bars–including The Caribe and a restaurant, Barraachina–claiming the drink for their own. But this is one of those concoctions whose provenance is so natural that it should be as simple as the three ingredient drink itself. The components are all abundant in the Caribbean; all are regarded individually as delicious; and the ingredients have ostensibly been around for centuries.
However, if you go just on the translation of the name alone—“strained pineapple”— the drink has been around since Columbus’s second trip to the New World. Pineapple juice and rum were often drank as a digestive aid after meat, probably due in part to Bromelain content in the juice. (Bromelain is a compound used now in meat tenderizer.) In the December 1922 issue of Travel Magazine, the Pina Colada is listed as being a “the juice of a perfectly ripe pineapple—a delicious drink in itself—rapidly shaken up with ice, sugar, lime, and Bacardi rum in delicate proportions.” No mention of coconut. Plus, the addition of lime and sugar should stymy some of the Pina Colada’s modern detractors who decry it as an imbalanced drink.
But is a Pina Colada, if the proper and fresh ingredients are used, an imbalanced drink? Acidic environments make it difficult for sugars and proteins to react with one another, whereas in an alkaline environment – such as the Pina Colada – this interaction is made much easier.
So let us compare the Pina Colada and the Daiquiri, for example.
The Daiquiri is comprised of rum, lime, and sugar – all ingredients with relatively low pH levels. White rum has on average a pH of 4 or 5, lime’s pH of 2 to 2.5 and sugar syrup being 4 to 5. The cocktail altogether has a pH of 4. The Pina Colada, (based on the Caribe Hilton recipe of four parts pineapple juice (3-3.5), one part white rum (4-5) and two parts coconut cream (8),) winds up with a more alkaline drink with a pH level of around 5.
So, the energy produced in the process of vigorous shaking—or blending—creates a greater cascade of chemical reactions, which in turn creates a multitude of new (and generally alkaline) molecules. Most of these molecules are small and flavorful, and thus create a cocktail with greater depth and complexity. Use aged rum to raise the alkalinity even further for an even richer and more robust drink.
The Pina Colada is a drink that shouldn’t be relegated to “island” themed restaurants and cruise ships. It is a viable and interesting expression of rum in a very Caribbean format, and an excellent partner to classics like a Daiquiri or Rum Old-Fashioned when determining the depth of flavor of a particular rum.
If I’m mixing it, I like mine with equal measures of an aged Guyanan rum, fresh coconut puree (though canned works for me in a pinch), and fresh pineapple juice – finely strained.
And a beach. That always helps, too.
Nick Detrich is a founder and partner at New Orleans’ Cane & Table as well as a F&B consultant. In his his spare time, he enjoys jet skis, comic books, and evil.