The Pina Colada - a Flavorful History


It is one of the most widely known and loved tropical drinks in the Western hemisphere. And as you sit on the deck of a cruiseship sipping this wonderful concoction have you ever wondered, "Who made the first Pina Colada?"

The surprising answer is that the man responsible for it is not from the Caribbean, but from Europe! His name is Ricardo Gracia -- born in Barcelona, Spain in 1914 in a small room above his grandfather's restaurant.

Quite literally born in the business of hospitiality, Ricardo made his first drink at the age of 4 years old when he slipped behind his grandfather's bar. Even though he says he was "scolded" quite severely, he knew he had found his calling. Mr. Gracia grew up working, and it paid off. Eventually, he owned two of the finest restaurants in Barcelona where his success brought in many of the rich and famous.

His illustrious clientele included Pablo Picasso and Salvadore Dali. Ricardo's vivid memories of these two larger-than-life characters are as rich as his mixological creations.

Ricardo says that although Dali did appear to be "crazy" he could also be quite refined and cordial, and that he had a taste for the finest Brandy. Picasso on the other hand, according to Ricardo, was always dirty and unpleasant and would drink anything and everything. The last time he saw Picasso was when he gave Ricardo two of his paintings to settle his tab. Ricardo still owns these two original Picasso paintings, kept in a very safe place.

Gracia's reputation grew, and in 1951 the Hilton Corporation lured him into selling his restaurants to sign on with them as the bar manager of the Hilton Castellana -- the first Hilton International Hotel in Madrid, Spain. Ricardo was already well-known by the rich and famous, and here he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Richard Burton, Jackie Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Damaggio, Orson Wells, Tom Jones, Maurice Chevalier, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, and many many more as evidenced by his scrapbook.

But the Pina Colada, his true claim to fame, came quite by accident. By 1954, Ricardo had been moved to the San Juan, Puerto Rico, Caribe Hilton Hotel where all guests were given a complimentary drink called the "Coco-Loco." This was a mix of coconut juice, rum, and cream of coconut served in a fresh sliced coconut -- cut fresh from the trees around the hotel. One day, the coconut cutters union decided to strike the hotel and Ricardo suddenly found himself without coconuts! Not wanting to serve his creation in plain glasses he noticed a large supply of fresh pineapples at the hotel. He cut the top off a pinapple and poured the Coco-Loco mix inside and served it with a straw. This added just a hint of pineapple flavor - and the mixologist knew he had discovered something good.

To improve the taste even more he added crushed ice and strained pinapple -- and dubbed it the "Pina Colada." What does it mean? It is simply the Spanish phrase for "strained pineapple!" Soon he was making over a thousand Pina Coladas every night. As Mr Gracia was transferred throughout the Hilton Chain he took his drink with him and soon it became the most sought after and well-known tropical drink that we know of today.

One of the twists of life is that the ingredients for a mixed drink cannot be copyrighted or patented so Ricardo made no monetary gain from his "discovery." He retired in 1986 and moved to St Augustine, Fl. with his wife Ondina to live in a modest "Mediterranian" style home. Within the year Ricardo was going "stir crazy" so he took his resume to a brand new first class Marriott Hotel at the Sawgrass golf course and was immediately hired as the sommelier for the Augustine Grill. He now works at the hotel's other restaurant, the famous Cafe of the Green at the 18th hole.

At 86 years of age, Ricardo puts in more hours than most of us. His wife Ondina wasn't about to sit home so she took a job at the local bank. They continue their active lifestyle including yearly trips to Europe. And now you know the who, how and why of the Pina Colada.

Below is Ricardo's original recipe for the Pina Colada, with his own words of advice on its distinct preparation: I'm not sure I understand all of it, but I do know that he said it from his heart.

"It must be done with love. You learn the measurements, but you need not measure--use your feel, your personality! The touch is born in your heart. Any job you do with love is an art. Remember, it is not a frozen drink! It is not a sorbet! Creamy, creamy!"
Ingredients: one fresh pineapple one green coconut white rum one cup crushed ice
  • Pour the juice of the coconut into a blender
  • Add a scoop of the coconut jelly (the gooey stuff between the milk and the meat)
  • Chop off the top of the pineapple and set aside
  • Hollow out the pineapple and place contents into the blender
  • Mix pineapple and coconut well
  • Add the rum
  • Add crushed ice and blend 5 minutes until CREAMY
  • Pour pina colada into the hollowed out pineapple
  • Make a hole in the top of the pineapple for a straw, close and serve
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