This classic pina colada recipe is based on the original piña colada recipe of Ramón ‘Monchito’ Marrero who claimed to have concocted the pineapple and coconut cocktail at the Hilton Caribe Hotel in Puerto Rico. It’s a taste of the Tropics in a glass.
That means this classic pina colada recipe – a deliciously rich aromatic cocktail that screams tropical sunshine and summers on the beach – does not contain any Malibu, a coconut flavoured rum that was originally invented for bartenders to simplify the classic piña colada recipe.
The original piña colada recipe is simple enough to make as it is, and far easier than my copious notes suggest – especially if you’re not making your own coconut cream and sugar syrup. Nor toasting dried coconut. But that’s part of the fun of making cocktails.
If you haven’t dropped by Grantourismo in a bit, this classic pina colada recipe is the latest in our holiday cocktail series, which so far includes an authentic Cuban mojito, classic Champagne cocktail with a tropical (dragonfruit) twist, a classic Negroni with winter spices, and a frappe-style White Peach Bellini recipe from Chef Peter Gilmore of Sydney’s Quay restaurant.
Classic Pina Colada Recipe – A Cocktail that is the Tropics in a Glass
I have to confess that when I first started sipping cocktails in my late teens I had a fondness for the creamy sort – despite my dad being a Scotch and dry kind of guy, my mum’s proclivity for gin and tonics, and growing up with a Russian family that knocked back straight vodka like most people drank water.
I blame my parents for a brief affection for the Brandy Alexander after allowing me to order a cocktail of my choice at my 16th birthday celebratory dinner at a fancy French restaurant in Caloundra, a beachside town on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, where we lived at the time. Crème de cacao and nutmeg. Enough said.
My newfound fondness for creamy cocktails accelerated during two weeks of high school work experience on the Sunshine Coast Daily. I’ve always wondered if the editor knew that the reporter tasked with showing me the ropes capped off days teaching me the art of how to rewrite press releases and create stories out of nothing with post-work drinks.
After I ordered a Brandy Alexander the first evening, thinking how sophisticated I must have seemed, he introduced me to Malibu and milk. Hmmm. Fortunately, my partiality for creamy cocktails remained on the Sunshine Coast after I moved back to Sydney to go to university. Decades later, I hadn’t given them a second thought, until…
Late last year I took a trip participant, an American cocktail writer for Eater, to the Elephant Bar at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, where I suggested she try the signature Airavata with rum, crème de banana, lime, coconut juice, pineapple, and… Malibu.
Far less creamy than a piña colada, of course (I’m getting to the point, trust me), but, as it’s a drink I don’t usually order, until Caroline pointed it out I’d never questioned why they’d use Malibu when the drink already contained rum and coconut.
From that point on, along with Caroline, I began to notice that the bars in Siem Reap loved their Malibu. It seemed to feature in every pina colada and other tropical drink in the city. But why?
Made with a quality rum, such as the Havana Club Añejo 3 Años, and fresh fruit and fresh coconut cream (or coconut milk or juice if you a prefer), the classic pina colada is a far more pleasurable cocktail to sip that still screams the tropics without smelling of suntan oil. Have a try and let us know what you think.
Notes on Making Our Classic Pina Colada Recipe
We recommend using Havana Club Añejo 3 Años – a pale yellow 3-year old Cuban rum – as it’s more aromatic and rounded yet still heady. However, you can use white rum if you prefer or if that’s what you have in the liquor cabinet.
The original pina colada recipe calls for both coconut cream and fresh thickened cream, but that’s way too much cream for me. I’ve opted for fresh coconut cream instead, as we have access to it (learn how to make your own coconut cream, below), however, you can use tinned coconut cream, too, of course.
If you prefer your cocktails less creamy then you could experiment with one part coconut cream and one part coconut milk (again, tinned coconut milk is fine), and if you’d like your drinks even lighter, try a combination of coconut milk and coconut water. You can thicken your drink up by throwing some frozen pieces of fresh pineapple in the blender.
The classic pina colada recipe garnish was a fresh pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry, however, we recommend skipping the maraschino cherry (you really don’t want to know what’s in those) and sticking to fresh pineapple and toasted coconut slices.
Giving the Pina Colada a Cambodian Twist by Going Local
A classic pina colada recipe doesn’t require sugar syrup or simple syrup but those pina colada recipes that do use sugar syrup make it with white sugar or Demerara sugar, a pale brown, crunchy, large grained, raw sugar produced from sugar cane.
Demerara sugar originally came from Demerara, a former Dutch colony and now a region in the country Guyana, which borders Venezuela – not far from the Caribbean, where the pina colada was invented – although it’s now produced everywhere from Mexico to India.
I gave this classic pina colada recipe a Cambodian twist by replacing the Demerara with locally grown Cambodian palm sugar, as I prefer its warm caramel notes.
Palm sugar is produced all over Cambodia, but here in Siem Reap it mainly comes from producers in villages between Angkor and Banteay Srei. It’s made in a small batch, artisanal manner by families whose ancestors have always produced it alongside other palm tree products – from traditional baskets to thatch roofing to fishing nets.
Everything is done by hand, with no machines involved. In the cooler parts of the day, early in the morning and in the evening, a male from the family will skilfully climb the sugar palm tree – a Palmyra palm or Toddy palm, native to Southeast Asia and South Asia, and differs to the coconut palm.
Once beneath the palm fruits where the fruit hangs, he’ll pour the palm fruit nectar that has been slowing dripping into bamboo tubes into a bamboo tube that he’s carried up with him, attached to his waste. Some families will take these bamboo containers to the local market to sell the juice as is – it’s a delicious drink with a gentle fizz – while others will make sugar palm wine or boil it down on an enormous wok over an open fire until it has reduced to a molasses texture.
The palm sugar molasses is then poured into round moulds made from banana leaves and left to cool on trays to produce what Cambodians call ‘palm sugar candy’ (they’re large round tablets) and Indians, Africans and South Americans name ‘jaggery’. Interestingly, jaggery apparently comes from the Portuguese word jágara, which is thought to have come from the Sanskrit śarkarā.
Here in Cambodia, you can buy both palm sugar in the form of molasses, candy and grain in the local markets and supermarkets. The candy is the most convenient to store if you’re primarily using it for cooking – in Cambodian cuisine it’s used in a lot of curries and marinades. For my classic pina colada recipe you’ll want to use the granulated form as you would if you were using Demerara.
(By the way, we take participants doing our Cambodia Culinary Tours to see the processes of both harvesting the sugar palm sap and reducing the palm sugar to create the sugar palm candy, and we also get to taste the juice.)
Our Cambodian twist also comes from the locally made toasted dried coconut slices that I used as garnish the cocktail, along with slices of the incredibly sweet and juicy Cambodian pineapples that came from Battambang.
You should be able to buy dried coconut pieces in packets from a health food store or good supermarket. But once again, we use dried coconut that has been made locally in small batches by family producers who simply slice fresh coconut and dry it out on trays in the sunshine outside their homes. No processing and no preservatives.
How to Make Sugar Syrup for Cocktails
Sugar syrup – also called simple syrup – is a requirement of many cocktail recipes and can also be used in iced coffees and iced teas. It’s super easy to make and can be made with any type of sugar.
Palm sugar, as opposed to white sugar, creates a richer sugar syrup that has a caramel flavour that I love, which works wonderfully with the coconut and pineapple. It’s so simple, it doesn’t require a recipe – it’s just 1 part water and 1 part sugar. If you want it even richer, opt for 2 parts sugar.
Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan on the stove, add the sugar, stirring continuously until it has completely dissolved, then reduce the heat, and simmer for around 10 minutes until well reduced. Remove the pot, let the sugar syrup cool right down then pour it into a bottle to store.
How to Toast Coconut to Use as a Cocktail Garnish
To toast coconut to use as a cocktail garnish, you can quickly and easily toast a half a dozen pieces of dried coconut slices over a gas flame using stainless steel tongs. If you plan to make more than a couple of pina coladas and want to make a large batch, then pop them in a pre-heated oven.
Spread the dried coconut slices out evenly on to a Silpat or parchment paper and once they start to brown a tad stir them around. Watch them closely as they’ll brown quickly and you only want them done a little. You can store leftover coconut pieces in an airtight jar.
How to Serve Your Pina Colada
I served my pina coladas in tall vintage crystal tumblers or highballs, as they’re nice to hold, especially when they’re filled with a chilled cocktail. They also hold the pineapple and toasted coconut garnish nicely – along with the kitschy swizzle sticks and paper umbrellas.
If you really want to go all tiki you could chop your pineapple in half, hollow out one half, and pour your pina colada into the pineapple. You can still use toasted coconut slices as a garnish, but perhaps replace the pineapple wedges with a few pineapple leaves.
You’ll need to sit your pineapple on a saucer – if you haven’t sipped a cocktail from a pineapple in a while, they have spiky thorns – and we recommend using bamboo straws instead of plastic. They’re in theme and they’re better for the environment.
Classic Pina Colada Recipe With a Cambodian Twist
- 45 ml pineapple juice
- 60 ml rum - we like Havana Club Añejos 3 Años
- 60 ml coconut cream - but canned works
- 15 ml palm sugar syrup
- ½ cup crushed ice
- Slices of pineapple for garnish
- Slices of toasted dried coconut slices for garnish
- Make fresh pineapple juice from your pineapple or use store-bought pineapple juice if pineapples aren’t in season.
- Make coconut cream if you have access to fresh coconuts or use store-bought tinned coconut cream if you don’t. If you prefer your pina coladas less thick and creamy use coconut milk.
- Combine the pineapple juice, coconut cream, rum, sugar syrup, and crushed ice in a blender and blend for about 20 seconds or until smooth
- Pour into a 355 ml or 12 oz tumbler or highball glass and garnish with fresh pineapple wedges (a quarter of a pineapple slice) and a few toasted dried coconut pieces.