Héctor Santos López is making me a piña colada at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I nearly topple off my barstool making sure I don’t miss a single step as the gray-haired bartender combines Coco López, cream, pineapple juice and a splash of Don Q gold rum. It might be the most popular cocktail on the island and served hundreds of times a day, but it’s a rare treat to have it prepared by the longest-reigning bartender at Caribar, the hotel bar where the drink was created in 1954 by the late Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez (whose larger-than-life photograph is posted in the lobby).
Santos López places a cherry on top and balances a pineapple wedge on the rim as I try to keep my cool. He slides the tropical drink in front of me and I can’t resist photographing it from every angle. “The original is my favorite—it’s what everyone orders,” Santos López says as I take my first sip. “The rest are imitation.”
The jovial grandfather of six began at the Caribe in 1954 as a busboy and over the decades worked his way to bartender. Hurricane Maria shuttered the resort for more than a year, but a silver lining was the opportunity to recast its cocktail menu. “A lot of people think it’s too sweet—the gold rum and cream are so sweet it’s practically sugar,” he explains. “But the pineapple fixes everything!” Caribar’s menu is an ode to the piña colada, with surprising twists on the classic such as the sparkling colada and the Pinold Colashioned. There’s even a piña colada treatment at the hotel spa.
The Caribe Hilton celebrated its 70th anniversary in December 2019, and it’s clear that the reach of Pérez’s concoction spans throughout San Juan and the island. During the short ride to Old Town, my driver, Jimmy, says that the piña colada is the drink of choice at home, too. “My wife makes it without alcohol,” he says, “but my mom and her husband make it with. Me? I have to like both.”
From a cart overlooking the Port of San Juan, a smiling woman named Flor serves nonalcoholic piña coladas as she’s been doing for the past 32 years. She can easily make 200 on a sweltering day. “The most important thing is that you serve it very cold,” Flor says. “When you make it without rum it can be very refreshing.”
Caribar’s twists on the piña colada
A festive take on the tropical drink, this rum-based cocktail is served with orange juice, Coco López and pineapple juice, and garnished with dehydrated pineapple, cinnamon stick and shredded nutmeg.
Served in a martini glass, this elegant drink is made with two types of rum (Don Q Añejo and Coco), pineapple juice and a dash of walnut bitters, then topped with coconut lime cream and nutmeg.
If an Aperol Spritz and piña colada had a baby, this bubbling concoction made with pineapple syrup, rosemary syrup, Angostura bitters and sparkling wine would be it.
The coconut ice sphere is the star of this boozy drink made with Brugal 1888, Don Q Coco, pineapple syrup, chocolate and Angostura bitters, garnished with a burned orange peel and cinnamon stick.