7 Ways to Drink Up Puerto Rico’s Rum and Cocktail Culture
Birthplace of the iconic piña colada and rum capital of the world, this Island makes it easy to fill your vacation (and cup) with delicious cultural adventures. We caught up with one of the impresarios behind Puerto Rico’s thriving craft cocktail scene, Roberto Berdecia, to get his recommendations for how to do it right.
There’s no denying that Puerto Rico boasts an incredibly rich rum and cocktail culture—just ask anyone on the beach with a piña colada in their hand. Puerto Rico’s storied distilleries even make over 70 percent of the rum sold in the U.S. More recently, homegrown mixologists have taken it up a notch, spicing up tradition with innovation and establishing best-in-class cocktail bars.
Surely, you won’t find a better ambassador for Puerto Rico’s growing cocktail culture than Roberto Berdecia, co-founder of Colectivo Ícaro, the group behind some of the Island’s most popular hotspots like La Factoría, Jungle Bird, and Caneca Coctelería Móvil. Named Bartender of the Year in 2017 by the International Rum Conference (IRC), Berdecia’s first enterprise, La Factoría, remains the only bar in Puerto Rico and the second in Latin America to be listed among the World’s 50 Best Bars.
For the legendary mixologist and Puerto Rico native, opening La Factoría in 2013 was filling a void. “People here were more than ready for cocktails,” says Berdecia, who started his career as a barback when he was 16 years old. “In Puerto Rico, at that moment, we didn’t have a cocktail culture. There were mojitos, of course, and cookie martinis—things like that. But that was it. Not a lot of people knew about an old fashioned or Moscow mule. They didn’t know about those classics. I wanted to bring that to Puerto Rico.” Today, with the help of Berdecia and his team, Puerto Rico’s cocktail scene has become celebrated for its sophistication and creativity. We asked Berdecia for some of the best ways to dive deeper into rum and cocktails when visiting Puerto Rico, from enjoying rum tastings at distilleries around the Island and touring museums to taking cocktail-making classes and visiting stylish cocktail bars.
Take a sip of history
“The piña colada as we know it today was invented in Puerto Rico at the Caribe Hilton,” says Berdecia. Created by bartender Ramón “Monchito” Marrero in 1954, the piña colada—which translates to strained pineapple—was first served at the hotel’s Beachcomber Bar. Later in 1978, it was declared the official drink of Puerto Rico. Berdecia warns against imitators that serve their drinks out of slushy machines. “If you go to Caribe Hilton, they will open cans of coconut cream and put some fresh pineapple juice in with the rum.”
Explore the best of Puerto Rico’s cocktail scene
Start your marathon with Jungle Bird, Colectivo Ícaro’s boozy, chill den that serves up inspired takes on tropical drinks. “I stayed in the lab for two weeks with my partner developing the first cocktails,” says Berdecia. “That adventure of intense prepping, trying, learning, reading, discussing was amazing. I love that entire menu.” Berdecia is also a fan of Timber & Blues and SUR Barra Nikkei, which boasts a one-of-a-kind Pisco Bar and sake cocktails. “It’s like an Asian interpretation of Puerto Rico,” he says.
Tour Puerto Rico’s famous distilleries
“If you like rum, you have to go on at least one distillery tour,” says Berdecia. During your visit, you’ll discover rum’s fascinating history, how it’s made, and even sample a drink or two. At Casa BACARDÍ just across the Bay of San Juan, you’ll find the distillery that produces most of the BACARDÍ rum consumed worldwide.
Meanwhile, Hacienda Santa Ana will take you back in time to the late 1800s and walk you through the production and aging process of Ron del Barrilito, the craft cocktail scene’s favorite small production rum. Or wander off the beaten path and take a daytrip to the town of Jayuya for some flavorful moonshine called pitorro at the PitoRico distillery.
Sign up for a mixology class
Ready to try your hand at making your own rum-soaked creation? “In addition to their tour, BACARDÍ has a mixology and tasting class that you can’t miss,” says Berdecia. Sharpen your bar skills and learn how to create the perfect mojito and shaken piña colada. Ron del Barrilito also offers a mixology experience led by some of the Island’s best bartenders.
Visit the bar that started a cocktail revolution
No trip to Puerto Rico is complete without a drink at La Factoría, the place that kicked off the Island’s wave of classically-inspired cocktails. Berdecia credits his bar’s success with how it represents and honors Puerto Rico in everything they do. “It’s not just one thing,” he says. “It’s the blend of everything. The music, the service, the cocktails, the people who go. It is the place—we built La Factoría in Hijos de Borinquen, which was an iconic bohemian bar in a building from the 1700s. We could not make La Factoría anywhere else. Most of our cocktails have three or four ingredients, and it’s made that way because we want to spend time entertaining and having fun with the guests, not making cocktails. Our staff is not the show of the night. It is the customer’s night. Some people told me that, ‘Man, when I go to La Factoría I feel like I’m home.’ And that’s exactly what we wanted to bring to the table.”
Discover the home of a rum icon
Rum connoisseurs can pay tribute to the Serrallés family of Don Q rum at the posh Museo Castillo Serrallés, a Spanish Revival-style home built in the 1930s. “When I was a kid, my father used to take me there,” says Berdecia. “When they built the house, they made it looking out at the sugarcane fields and the distillery. You can see it from the museum.” Today, the immersive tour also includes virtual and augmented reality portions that take visitors through the history of rum in Puerto Rico and the brand building of Don Q.
Hit up a drink truck
You’ve probably been to a food truck, but Caneca Coctelería Móvil, an adorable Airstream run by Colectivo Ícaro, slings well-made, low-maintenance frozen drinks and cocktails over ice, as well as “Suavecitos,” a section of the menu with low-ABV refreshers. “We don’t shake or stir or anything like that—we just fill,” says Berdecia. Located in San Juan’s Lote 23, a vibrant outdoor space featuring a rotating roster of culinary and cultural offerings, it’s a dreamy place to grab a drink and a bite and hang for the afternoon.