As the palm trees sway in the colorful Caribbean sunset, the perfect piña colada served up by a cute, flirty bartender managing a coveting tropical location — the poolside bar — is the reason many of us fly south. Expertly crafted adult libations filled with topical fruity flavors punctuate a beach getaway.
I recently stayed at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and unbeknownst to me, it is where the piña colada was invented. Of course, I had to test out the original recipe. It was, hands down, the best piña colada I have sipped. Made with traditional Puerto Rican rum and tropical goodies, it was a delightful discovery.
Note: Information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
The Caribe Hilton
In 1949, the Caribe Hilton opened its doors on a quiet stretch of the Laguna Del Condado. Little did they know, in a few short years, they would be world-famous for crafting a beautiful beachy beverage — the piña colada. Fast forward more than seven decades and the piña colada graces the menu of every beach resort around the world.
More than just the home of an iconic drink, the popular Caribe Hilton welcomes visitors looking for a beautiful spot to relax and immerse themselves in the outdoor Caribbean lifestyle. From the minute you enter the open-air lobby, you are transported to luxurious island-time mode. Family-friendly and/or a getaway for two, the Caribe is a lively spot for vacationers looking to relax and rejuvenate.
During my recent visit, I enjoyed wandering the beautifully landscaped grounds — including a quiet gazebo seemingly floating on a small pond. Yo-Lates (a gentle combination of yoga and Pilates) on the beach was the perfect way to begin my San Juan, sun-soaked days. There is an ocean-front pool area, tennis courts with lessons from a pro, snuba, and other fun activities on the property.
At night, guests can be found dancing in the lounge and sipping piña coladas.
The History Of The Piña Colada
In 1954, the Caribe Hilton management team challenged their bartenders to invent a refreshing, tropical drink as a welcome beverage for guests checking into the hotel. Several bartenders took up the challenge and concocted pretty drinks reflecting the island’s laid-back and sunny vibe. For weeks the bartenders perfected their creations, getting them ready for the competition.
The winner was bartender Ramón “Monchito” Marrero. He created the piña colada for the Caribe Hilton. It was an instant success. In 1978 the piña colada was named the national drink of Puerto Rico.
Another piña colada invention claim was issued in 1963 (9 years after Marrero’s) by Barrachina, a restaurant in Old San Juan. As the story goes, Ramon Portas Mingot, Barrachina’s bartender, knew Marrero. So who knows? In any case, the Caribe Hilton is recognized worldwide as the birthplace of this fabulous drink.
Fast forward almost seven decades, and the piña colada is ordered in tropical venues around the globe. The beloved frosty beverage is almost a requirement when sitting by a pool in a sultry tropical vacation destination. Alternatively, when you are dreaming of a tropical destination and relaxing on your deck at home, a perfectly crafted piña colada can go a long way to setting the getaway mood.
Pro Tip: National Piña Colada Day is July 10. It would be a great time to have some friends over and fire up the blender to make the recipe below.
Celebrating 50 Years
In 2004, the 50th anniversary of the piña colada, Puerto Rico’s Governor Sila María Calderón presented the Caribe Hilton with a proclamation honoring the hotel’s standout beverage. An entire wall in the hotel’s lobby is dedicated to Marrero and his sweet concoction.
The mural highlighting the proclamation and the history will capture your attention. It invites you to ponder all the places you have enjoyed a piña colada. Of course, the one at the Caribe Hilton will be the yardstick to measure all the others.
More Than Just Coconut Cream And Pineapple Juice
How To Pick The Best Puerto Rican Rum
Selecting the correct rum for your piña colada is crucial to perfecting the outcome. There are two showstopping Puerto Rican rums that are perfect for the job.
The first is Ron Del Barrilito. It is the ultimate Puerto Rican rum to craft an authentic piña colada. Before sitting down at the Caribar to watch the bartender mix up this sweet and juicy adult beverage, we toured the Ron Del Barrilito distillery.
The distillery began crafting island rum in 1880 and has been producing delicious small batches ever since. You need to set aside time in your San Juan getaway to tour the distillery in Bayamón’s historic Hacienda Santa Ana facility. Taste test the five different aged rums (one, two, three, four, and five stars) and decide which one is your favorite.
Ron Del Barrilito Three Star, the original brew, is aged between 6 and 10 years in barrels used to age sherry in Spain. The Three Star is easily found across the island and in the continental U.S. The exclusive Five Star blend is aged up to 35 years. Perfect for sipping with a friend, the silky smooth liquid is meant to be savored. The Five Star is top shelf with a price tag to match. My favorite, the Ron Del Barrilito Four Star, is a delicious (and moderately affordable) sipping rum.
Another local option is Don Q. You can tour the Castillo Serrallés Museum in Ponce for a taste test and decide which Puerto Rican rum is your favorite.
Pro Tip: Our bartender at the hotel’s Caribar recommended either Don Q or Ron Del Barrilito for a sensational piña colada — he was spot on with his choice. Bacardi will work, but it originated in Cuba. Puerto Rico rum for a Puerto Rico beverage is the way to go.
How To Make The Perfect Piña Colada
You will need a blender; there is no other way to get that frosty texture and creamy consistency. Feel free to choose whatever good quality rum suits your taste buds. But for an authentic Puerto Rico-inspired piña colada, consider using a Puerto Rican rum.
Pretty curvy glasses (consider the poco grande or hurricane glasses) show off the delicate yellow tint and thick, frosty consistency. It is all about the presentation.
- 2 ounces golden rum
- 1 ounce coconut cream
- 1 ounce heavy cream
- 6 ounces fresh pineapple juice
- 1/2 cup of crushed ice
Step 1: Pour the rum, coconut cream, heavy cream, and pineapple juice to a blender. Add the ice and blend until smooth — about 15 seconds.
Step 2: Serve in a 12-ounce glass with a straw. Garnish with a fresh pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry.
Step 3: Sip on the perfect piña colada with your friends and let the party begin.
The Iconic Piña Colada
As Garth Brooks so aptly noted, “Bring me two piña coladas — I want one for each hand.”
If you can’t make it to San Juan and the Caribe Hilton for their iconic piña colada, you should gather your friends, fire up the blender, and have a beach party at home. For entertainment, you can have a Mofongo-making party where everyone can smash their own plantains. Serve with Arroz con Gandules (beans and rice), Puerto Rico’s national dish, and you have an instant island party.
I strongly suggest you plan a visit to this perfect tropical island — no shoes, no passport, no problem. Visiting foodies will love exploring the island’s famous Ruta del Lechon (Pork Route). Rent a car and head out to the mountains for an indulgent food-focused road trip.
Pro Tip: When you visit San Juan, you can enjoy tons of outdoor activities including caring for manatees. See my list of fabulous outdoor adventures in and near San Juan to find out more.