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Sipping Piña Coladas From the Source at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton Hotel

And how a single drink created a cocktail revolution.

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If you touched down onto San Juan’s sandy shores back in the 1950s or 60s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more glamorous resort than the Caribe Hilton. As the chain’s first hotel outside of the continental US, the Caribe single-handedly turned Conrad Hilton’s rapidly growing company into an international sensation. Hollywood starlets, glitzy musicians, storied socialites, and other high profile guests swarmed the 17-acre oceanfront property, beckoned by swanky nightclubs, a serene private beach, luxurious accommodations, and perhaps most of all by a curiously creamy elixir born at the hotel’s very own Beachcombers Bar: the Piña Colada.

It should come as no surprise then that after a 15-month, $150 million post-hurricane makeover, the Caribe would make its iconic cocktail creation the centerpiece of its May 2019 grand reopening. The drink’s timeless simplicity, playful presentation, and sweet, tangy vivacity mirrors both the 70-year-old institution’s fun, welcoming atmosphere and the breezy tropical modernist architectural style it’s so lovingly restored. And this summer you can find them everywhere, from a dedicated menu of frosty classics and inventive twists to a large colorful wall display tracing the Piña Colada back to its boozy originator, career bartender Ramón “Monchito” Marrero.

"When this hotel first opened, they used to serve a drink called Coco Loco and it was presented in a coconut,” says celebrated bartender Ariel Rosario. Rosario spent the last 13 years honing his craft behind the sticks at Caribar, the hotel’s chic lobby lounge, and most recently devised the reopening’s Piña​​​​​​​ Colada-centric cocktail list. “But the guys that brought the coconuts down, they were in a union, like a coconut workers union, and when they went on strike there were no more coconut deliveries to the hotel. Around that same time Coco Lopez came out, which is pure sugar cane mixed with coconut cream. They were sending bartenders cans of the product and asking them to create a new cocktail with it, so Ramon started mixing it with pineapple in order to make something to replace the Coco Loco. Instead of a coconut, he served it in a pineapple and after a few tries, the Piña​​​​​​​ Colada came about in 1954.”

Marrero’s icy blend of Coco Lopez, fresh pineapple juice, heavy cream, and rum was an instant hit, thanks in part to its popularity among the Caribe’s tonier clientele. Sun-kissed celebrities were often photographed sipping from their fresh-cut pineapples and according to legend, actress Joan Crawford once cheekily described the Piña​​​​​​​ Colada as "better than slapping Bette Davis in the face." In the decades that followed, the Caribe Hilton’s best-seller came to symbolize the island’s laid-back lifestyle, rich culinary heritage, and generous hospitality—so much so that the government deemed it Puerto Rico’s official cocktail in 1978.

Today, the Caribar’s recipe veers only slightly from Marrero’s mid-century vision, dropping the heavy cream and instead making good use of Coco Lopez’s inherently fluffy, cloud-like texture. Rosario’s Coladas are both silky smooth and invigorating, striking a keen balance between sweet, tart, milky, fruity, and earthy while remaining impossibly (and dangerously) easy to drink. And each component is produced right there on the island.

“All of our ingredients for the original Piña​​​​​​​ Colada come from Puerto Rico,” explains Caribe Hilton Food and Beverage Manager Michael Lopez. “The Don Q rum is distilled here, the Coco Lopez, also made here. For pineapple juice, we only use the Lotus brand, which is from Puerto Rico as well. It's the best you can get outside of pressing your own pineapples. It tastes amazing and it has a really great level of acidity.”

The rest of Rosario’s lineup is more of a spirited homage to his predecessor’s legacy than a direct interpretation, save for a delicious true-to-form Painkiller sure to delight any serious tiki enthusiast. The Espuma Colada is made with aged Don Q rum, house pineapple syrup, coconut-lime cream, nutmeg, and black walnut bitters. Served up and topped with a light and fragrant coconut-lime foam, it drinks like a velvety espresso martini broken up by layers of woodsy, tropical flare. The stirred Pinold Colashioned takes the Old Fashioned on a Caribbean tour by swapping the standard whiskey and sugar for finely-aged Brugal 1888 rum, local coconut rum, pineapple syrup, and a few hearty dashes of both chocolate and aromatic bitters served atop a slowly-melting cylinder of frozen coconut water. The Sparkling Colada, though, might be the most surprising of the bunch. Jose Cuervo 1800 Coconut tequila takes center stage, followed by a house-made rosemary and pineapple syrup, aromatic bitters, and an effervescent hit of sparkling wine. The result is strikingly complex and herbaceous, with the body of a summer spritz and the aroma of a garden in full bloom.

The Caribe Hilton champions its beloved island beyond the glass, too. Calling attention to Puerto Rico’s robust cultural, historical, and natural landscape was central to the hotel’s top-to-bottom renovation plans in the wake of 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria. It was about more than just rebuilding.

“They stuck to the heritage of the property,” notes Lopez. “They didn't modernize it, which a lot of people thought they were going to do. Because once tragedy happens, it's an opportunity to recommit, to fall in love again. That's when they decided to be different, to renovate, to have this kind of rebirth. Not a lot of places get a second chance. That's why they invested so much instead of just saying, 'Let's just fix what's broken and open up again to make money.' They wanted to revive the original concept that Conrad Hilton had, because that's what people fell in love with.”

The design flows seamlessly from indoors to out, with glossy wood paneling and slick marble tiles before giving way to a maze of sparkling swimming pools with panoramic ocean views. The 652 guest rooms are streamlined and bright, with tall windows, cool soothing tones, and sleek contemporary furnishings. And, in keeping with that hometown pride ethos, you don’t have to be an out-of-towner to take advantage of all the hotel’s hard work.

“Most of our clientele is from the States or international, but we do get a lot of locals coming to the bar for dinner and drinks or dancing on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays when we have live music,” Lopez says. “We want to make sure that, yes, we're catering to our guests from all over the world, but we're also supporting our community. I mean, we're here because of them. We have day passes for $75 where you can enjoy all the amenities, the pool, and the private beach plus a cocktail and a meal. It really promotes that community factor—we want everyone to be included in what we're doing here. The tourism industry means so much to San Juan and this hotel means a lot, so we have to do it right.”

Rosario, a San Juan native, echoes his colleague’s sentiment. “Growing up, the Caribe Hilton was always an iconic place,” he recalls. “Everybody knows the Caribe Hilton and everything important that happened here, in Puerto Rico and outside. This was always the place to be.”


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