When you check into the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, there’s no ignoring the fact that you’re on the alleged site of the Piña Colada’s creation.

Just off to the side of the outdoor check-in desk, a large wall display salutes the hotel’s former bartender, Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, and tells the story of him supposedly creating the Piña Colada in 1954 on the very site.

Nearby, in the lobby’s hotel bar, known as the Caribar, a bartender tells me he blends up “more Piña Coladas than I can count,” though he eventually admits the figure to be in the hundreds every day.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

In addition to that, the bar has taken to making Piña Colada variants for those who want to vibe on the iconic drink at its source, but aren’t necessarily into consuming a beach-body-wrecking calorie bomb of coconut cream, pineapple juice, and rum. There’s an Old Fashioned take on the Piña Colada, made with a pineapple simple syrup, as well as a spritz riff topped with Champagne. (There’s also a Piña Colada Martini and tequila-based Patrón Colada on the extended Colada menu.)

In this era of cocktail tourism, the Caribe really leans into being the birthplace of the Piña Colada — even if The New York Times talked of “Cuba’s pina colada (rum, pineapple and coconut milk) four years before that 1954 creation date, and Barrachina, another San Juan bar, has a plaque claiming it is actually responsible for it. Whatever the case, the drinks are all pretty darn good at the Caribe, especially the “Original Piña Colada” as it’s labeled on the menu.

Was it the best Piña Colada I’d ever had in my life, though? Eh, probably not. Back home in urban Brooklyn, I favor a version from Long Island Bar that’s served smooth as silk straight from a high-end Spaceman frozen drinks machine. I also couldn’t help but think the current bar I was sitting at in San Juan looked nothing like the Caribe’s bar back in 1954.

“It’s natural to be disappointed by those storied experiences, but it’s almost by design,” says Joey Smith, bar director at New York’s Chez Zou and a noted Piña Colada enthusiast. He likewise holds the Long Island Bar version in high esteem. “With rare exception, the motivation to make drinks at the highest level comes from a drive to create. Almost never are the most talented of us driven to be a steward for someone else’s ideas for any significant period of time.”

Which raises the question: Does one need to have a classic cocktail from the source to fully understand it? Is a cocktail from the source still its best incarnation these days? Or, once a cocktail has entered the canon, do better and even more important versions inevitably begin popping up across the globe?

The Thrill of the Chase

For modern classics, like the Benton’s Old Fashioned (New York’s PDT) or Tommy’s Margarita (San Francisco’s Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant), it might actually make sense to want to try them at the source; they were created within the last two decades or so and still mostly taste like the original incarnation. This is especially true when the drink’s actual creator, like Tommy’s Julio Bermejo, can still make it for you should you pop in.

“It’s been a mixed bag. Some live up to their reputation, some don’t. The excitement is always less the drinking of the cocktail than the thrill of the chase.”

“It’s a lot easier to keep the highest standards if the creator themselves is around to mentor, teach, and help one grow while you do the hard work of maintaining their legacy,” Smith says.

But for canonical drinks from a past era, the source of them has, in many cases, moved so far away from the original creator’s legacy — the bar so weighed down with hype and overrun with tourists, and the drinks so mass-produced and lackadaisical in preparation to keep up with a zillion orders — that the quality of the iconic cocktail has often suffered.

But does any of that actual matter?

Robert Simonson, VinePair contributor and author of the recently released “The Encyclopedia of Cocktails,” thinks the quality is almost beside the point for these classic drinks.

“I’ve had plenty of classic cocktails at their supposed source,” he says. “It’s been a mixed bag. Some live up to their reputation, some don’t. The excitement is always less the drinking of the cocktail than the thrill of the chase.”

For any cocktail lover, even those more than aware of the possible let-down, the intoxication of pursuit continues to drive us to travel the globe, attempting to try iconic cocktails at their sources.

Speed Without Passion

Earlier this year I also found myself at the Buena Vista, a corner café in San Francisco where the Irish Coffee was introduced to America. The story apparently goes that one day in 1952 international travel writer Stanton Delaplane helped then-owner Jack Koeppler recreate a spiked coffee drink he had recently tried at Shannon Airport in Ireland. The so-called Irish Coffee made its U.S. debut and soon became a viral, pre-internet sensation.

Today, the Buena Vista reportedly serves some 2,000-plus Irish Coffees per day. Should you visit the brightly lit, diner-like establishment, it’s not hard to believe that number — every customer seems to be drinking them. In fact, the sloppy, sloshy, assembly line of ancient, white-jacketed bartenders making the Irish Coffees has even turned into a TikTok sensation.

“It’s not the best Irish Coffee you’ll ever have in your life, but at least the Buena Vista has some magic to it,” says spirits writer Brad Japhe, who cites the Dead Rabbit’s Irish Coffee as being much better. “You can at least look out over San Francisco Bay and the bartenders take pride in preparing them expeditiously.”

Simonson agrees with that assessment. “I don’t believe that the Buena Vista has ever made a bad Irish Coffee,” hey says. “And the mix of people there is always a pleasant blend of locals and tourists.”

There’s similar magic to be found at Havana’s El Floridita, not necessarily where the Daiquiri was invented — even if they claim it — but “la cuna del Daiquiri,” the cradle of the Daiquiri. It is there that the frozen Daiquiri (which it may have invented in 1931) became ubiquitous as well as the Hemingway-style version, made with grapefruit juice and Maraschino.

Like the Buena Vista, El Floridita certainly still has an allure that draws one there, as it recalls a post-World War II, pre-Revolution Havana, with bartenders in their red vests and neckties and drinks still modestly cheap (for Americans) at around 180 Cuban pesos ($7.50 USD). Notable U.S. bartenders Shannon Mustipher and Thad Vogler have even named El Floridita the last bar they’d visit in their lifetimes.

“That bar is just this little time capsule,” Vogler says. Simonson is likewise a fan. “El Floridita is a complete tourist magnet, yet they make amazing cocktails,” he says.

In a city still not exactly touched by the modern cocktail renaissance, El Floridita is one of the better options for drinks. But, despite the ambiance, despite the incredible number of visitors each year, some drinkers think the Daiquiris hardly match the caliber of those at an elite craft cocktail bar in the States.

In fact, Inka Larissa, a noted spirits blogger, went so far as to call El Floridita a “tourist trap with just average drinks … made with speed but without passion.”

All the Ambiance of an Applebee’s

It’s a similar story at New York’s St. Regis Hotel where, at the King Cole Bar, one can still order a Red Snapper, the ur-Bloody Mary, supposedly introduced there by Fernand Petiot in 1934. Today it’ll run you $25, which is actually one of the least expensive drinks on the high-end menu. It is mostly well-reviewed by customers online, though most complain about it only being garnished with a single lemon wedge and not the cornucopia of vegetation and fried foods one might encounter at any sports bar these days (let alone a fancy brunch spot).

“Unbelievably overpriced — even for New York,” wrote one recent Yelp user. “It was the worst Bloody Mary I’ve had to date. The bartender hadn’t bothered to mix it, I took a sip and got a mouthful of pure vodka. And everything else about it was all wrong, no flavor or seasoning, just plain bad.”

Though I like the King Cole Bar, with its grand Maxfield Parrish painting of Old King Cole, I never exactly have a hankering for a Bloody Mary when I’m in Midtown Manhattan. The bar doesn’t even open until 4 p.m. on any given day — well past standard Bloody hours for most human beings.

A similar brunch-y drink gets even less respect at its Italian location of creation.

“Harry’s Bar has the ambience of your local Applebee’s,” he says. “One of the most underwhelming places I’ve ever had an ‘original’ cocktail. It could be anywhere.”

“Bellinis always suck,” says Japhe, of the Prosecco and white peach purée sipper, which was first engineered at Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1948. While hardly seen as a connoisseur’s cocktail. these complaints aren’t limited to well-traveled cocktail writers. Both the drink and bar are massacred on user-review platforms like Yelp and Travel Advisor (“the bellinis are tiny and tasteless (sic)”).

The key problem is that Harry’s Bellini isn’t fresh-squeezed but pre-made and poured by seemingly disinterested bartenders into tiny water glasses, all for the cost of 22 euros.

Simonson still thinks it’s worthwhile to track down.

“It is absolutely possible to make a better Bellini than they make, but not by much,” he says. “And what would be the point in getting a Bellini elsewhere if you’re in Venice, even if it was better? You’d have nothing to boast about.”

But Japhe claims there’s hardly any magic on site to make up for what he perceives as a lackluster cocktail.

“Harry’s Bar has the ambience of your local Applebee’s,” he says. “One of the most underwhelming places I’ve ever had an ‘original’ cocktail. It could be anywhere.”

The Never-Ending Cavalcade

As for Smith, as a working bartender he’s more willing to grade on a bit of a curve when it comes to assessing legendary drinks at legendary bars. Unlike those on the other side of the stick, he understands how demanding it is to run a bar and keep a team running on all cylinders, especially when they might be forced to make the same damn drink non-stop all day, every day.

“On a long enough timeline, those little details that get missed here and there multiply,”

In many ways, these bars are handcuffed by their famous creations, he says. The visionary is often long dead and the bar’s auteurial direction has changed hands numerous times over the decades. Perhaps the old bar hasn’t grown with the industry — isn’t using fresh juices and housemade syrups, and isn’t pulling the coldest glassware from the back of the fridge for each drink. For the young bartenders working there, maybe it’s not a calling but “just a job” to serve these storied drinks to half-in-the-bag tourists. Maybe, eventually, the bar team realizes its effort doesn’t even matter.

“On a long enough timeline, those little details that get missed here and there multiply,” Smith says. “Then you find yourself 30 years later serving a subpar [cocktail] that some guy you never met invented, to a never-ending cavalcade of tourists that would buy them whether you made the drink good to begin with or not.”