The pina colada’s roots are found in the sunny, tropical locale you’d expect. Bartender Ramon ‘Monchito’ Marrero mixed the first piña colada at the Caribe Hilton in 1954 in none other than San Juan, Puerto Rico, combining a handful of elements — three to be exact — four, if you count the mandatory umbrella garnish.

The cocktail went on to cement itself as a classic, so much so it was named the official drink of Puerto Rico in 2004 in celebration of the big 5-0. While escapist traits are at the crux of the piña colada, it’s a drink that’s equally enjoyable on home soil as it is abroad.

Hospitality speaks to Maybe Group’s Stefano Catino and PS40’s Michael Chiem about shaken vs slush-ified piña coladas, ageing pineapples, and why they’ll always have a spot on the menu for the tropical sipper.

Bar expert and Maybe Group Co-Founder Stefano Catino has had his fair share of piña coladas over the years. He’s a self-proclaimed “big fan”, and has a natural appreciation for the lore of the drink, relaying stories of Puerto Rican pirates knocking back a version of the cocktail in the 1800s as well as Escape, its namesake song by Rupert Holmes.

“It has a good history,” he says. “It’s not a martini of course, but we have always had it listed in the classics section of the menu and it’s in the top three rum cocktails. It’s always been there, and it’s probably bartender’s choice when we go on holiday.”

The piña coladas Catino makes now are very different to his first. “When I started making them (and I am old), we used coconut rum, but it was very bad,” he laughs. “Now, we use good coconut cream, fresh pineapple juice, rum, and an umbrella.”

As with all minimal-ingredient cocktails, quality matters, and the piña colada is no exception. Catino combines equal parts (30ml) Bacardi Carta Blanca white rum with Plantation Stiggins Fancy Pineapple rum in a shaker before adding in fresh pineapple juice and a generous pour of Coco Lopez cream of coconut.

“The Fancy Pineapple rum adds more to the drink and brings out the flavour and Coco Lopez is the best [coconut cream], it’s very thick.”

Catino “violently shakes” the mixture with normal ice cubes to ensure minimal dilution. “Crushed ice dilutes the drink too much and it’s not good with cream and pineapple juice,” he says, before pouring the drink over large cubes in a tall glass and finishing with an umbrella.

“When you think of garnish, it should reflect what’s inside the drink. You want pineapple, maybe a mint sprig, a cherry, or a piece of lime, and an umbrella — you must have a little umbrella. You need to go crazy — it’s a piña colada. I don’t think there’s a limit on it, you need to have fun.”

As for riffs, there are many. Catino mentions a piña colada Negroni made with coconut rum and pineapple liquor and a clarified milk punch, which sees bartenders extract the coconut and pineapple elements. There’s also the Miami Vice: “It has been very popular all over the world in the past five years,” he says. “You use a slushy machine and do a strawberry daquiri and a piña colada and then squirl half of each in a glass. When there are only three ingredients, there’s always another solution, it’s a very riff-able drink.”

Michael Chiem from PS40 is a superfan of the piña colada — it was even one of the drinks at his wedding. The bartender is of the belief that “even bad piña coladas can taste good. I think it’s one of those drinks that can emulate the sensation of being on holiday,” he says. “It’s the quintessential tiki holiday drink that’s all about escapism.”

The Sydney bar runs a mango Weiss Bar-inspired cocktail in summer before switching over to the original pineapple piña colada when mango season ends. “Instead of cold-pressed pineapple juice, we purée fresh mango and use vodka as the base instead of white rum,” says Chiem.

Both sit in the top-five drinks sold at the bar, but there’s always a few sad faces when the menu changes. “You can never win,” says Chiem. “Whenever the mango goes on, people are happy, but others love the original. We also keep a watermelon one on because it’s easy with the seasons and that’s made with sake, bergamot, and tequila. It allows us to do a Miami Vice which sells itself.”

When it comes to the OG piña colada, Chiem starts by selecting pineapples according to his mum’s criteria. “My background is Vietnamese and one of our favourite dishes at home is canh chua [hot and sour soup] which is made with fresh pineapple,” he says. “Mum taught me to always choose pineapples with bigger eyes and then let them ripen at room temperature until you can smell them when you walk in a room.

We leave them to ripen and then transfer them to the cool room if we have too many.” Chiem has spent many hours perfecting PS40’s piña colada, which is made with Plantation 3 Stars rum “which is the best bang-for-your-buck white rum but also your best-quality white rum for a piña colada”, he says.

“It has a nice roundness to it. Some unaged rums can be a little harsh or metallic, but 3 Stars is potentially sippable, too.” The Caribbean rum is then teamed with 15ml of fresh lime juice, cold-pressed pineapple juice, and 40ml Coco Lopez cream of coconut, which is also the sweetening agent. “But the one thing that makes our piña colada stand out is that we churn ours in a slushy machine.”

Another difference is the absence of ice, a decision Chiem made during the research phase. “I asked bartender friends who had slushy machines and they all talked about dilution,” he says. “When you shake or stir a drink, you are diluting it to a certain extent. You usually blend a piña colada, so I substituted the ice with more pineapple juice which gives it a better texture as the slushy churns. It is a little over the top, but I think you can taste the difference.”

The team monitors the machine to ensure the mixture doesn’t get too icy, with the end product resembling the texture of loose sorbet. “Sometimes we take it out and churn it through a Thermomix to get rid of any ice crystals and get it back to feeling soft and fluffy,” says Chiem.

It’s one of the more labour-intensive drinks to make even though it goes into a machine, with batches made on an almost-daily basis except for one when the machine gets a break before it’s back to work. “Ideally we run through a full tub on the day, but if not, we keep it in the tub overnight at a freezing temperature so there’s no worry about it turning bad.”

The mixture is served in 250ml glass bottles leftover from Covid cocktail deliveries, which turned out to be a fortuitous purchase. “They are quite narrow and hold the texture really well,” says Chiem. “If you were to use a wider vessel such as a martini glass, you end up with a loose, watery consistency on the outside and a thicker
consistency in the middle, so this bottle works as you don’t have that split as much.”

The drink is finished off with a paper straw and “always an umbrella”, with the team replacing straws should guests need. But the consensus is official — the piña colada should be enjoyed for what it is: “A non-serious drink — it’s always a good time.”