Modern cocktail guides have done El Presidente a terrible disservice. They typically describe a sweet, fruity rum cocktail—a cloying, undrinkable embellishment of the original. They do not describe the classic El Presidente.

El Presidente gained prominence among Prohibition-era travelers to Cuba, notably at Havana’s revered La Florida bar. The version served there was both simple and sophisticated, but the drink’s reputation declined during the second half of the 20th century as bartenders dumbed the drink down into a fruity sugar bomb, completely burying the serene, dry original.

The original presentation of El Presidente is a world apart from the familiar rum sour or tiki stylings of the Daiquiri, Old Cuban or Mai Tai. Rather than combine rum with lime, lemon or other tropical fruit juices, La Florida’s El Presidente followed the pattern established by the Martini and Manhattan, using rum, a large dollop of vermouth, and a dash of curaçao instead of bitters to enrich the mix.

El Presidente cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
El Presidente cocktail

That dash, and its accompanying sweetness, makes the difference between a classic and dreck. The basic aromatic mix of rum and dry vermouth is sweetened with grenadine or curaçao; modern recipes typically use plenty of both; early listings recommend very small portions of just one sweetener. The 1935 La Florida Cocktail Book lists equal parts of rum and vermouth, and just a half-teaspoon of curaçao. David Embury, in his 1958 Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, prefers just one dash of grenadine. (He presaged the drink’s evolution away from its classic form in suggesting a variant with an additional one or two dashes of curaçao. El Presidente seems to have gone downhill from there.)

I prefer the curaçao; grenadine just doesn’t make it for me in this drink.

El Presidente

  • 2 oz aged Cuban or Puerto Rican Rum (Bacardi 8)
  • 1 oz dry vermouth (Dolin Blanc)
  • ½ tsp orange curaçao (Clement Creole Shrubb Liqueur, Grand Marnier)

Stir all ingredients until cold; strain into a well-chilled cocktail glass. Express and garnish with orange, or with an orange and cherry “flag.”

Rum: Here in the U.S. we can’t buy legal Cuban rum, so Puerto Rican seems our next best bet. Bacardi 8 seems an excellent match for El Presidente. Unaged rums are not interesting blenders in this drink, nor demeraras; Jamaicans and rhums agricole are very bad choices with vermouth. (If you live in a part of the world where such things are available, I’d love to hear recommendations on Cuban rums that are a good match for El Presidente. Just in case I happen across some.)

Vermouth: Dolin Blanc is the other secret to a superior El Presidente. Not exactly a “dry” dry vermouth, its slight sweetness elevates the drink from a flavor competition to a very compatible blend. (That bit of extra sweetness makes it particularly important to be disciplined with the curaçao, but it is this vermouth that makes the drink work.)

Curaçao: Clement Creole Liqueur just became available in my market, so I was eager to try it in El Presidente. It works extremely well. Both Clement and Grand Marnier are fine choices for this recipe.

And who is “El Presidente?” The assumption is that it was one of Cuba’s pre-Batista presidents (as opposed to some president of the Chamber of Commerce), and most bets are on Michado or Menocal. Or maybe it’s transferrable from one to the next? The La Florida Cocktail Book also includes a minty “President Menocal Special,” which suggests that El Presidente may predate Menocal. I doubt we’ll ever know the answer.