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A return to Havana — the El Presidente Cocktail

El Presidente Cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All Rights Reserved.

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.


13 Responses to “A return to Havana — the El Presidente Cocktail”

  1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

    I’m typically not a rum drinker, but El Presidente has appeal in name, as well as the combination of flavors offered up from the recipe. I’m curious if you have tried substituting bitters for the curaçao. Could be interesting. I’m going to add El Presidente to my list of cocktails to try. Simple and sophisticated sounds good to me.

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      Interesting you should ask—I wondered the same thing, as I caught on to Martini/Manhattan as a model for El Presidente. Naturally, I did a couple experiments, and it turns out that a dash or two of orange bitters, either in place of, or in addition to, the curaçao, makes a pleasantly complex addition to the mix. Since bitters seem to appear nowhere in the drink’s history, I think you’d need to call it by some other name, but it does make a nice change of pace for El Presidente—and it gives you an option for pulling back the sweetness intrinsic to curaçao or grenadine.

      CocktailDB does show an El Presidente variation along these lines:

      http://www.cocktaildb.com/recipe_detail?id=3017

      It doesn’t specifically spec orange bitters, but that’s your best bet.

      So now it’s time for more experiments.

      Reply
  2. Frederic

    Generally make mine 2:1:1 or 4:1:1 both with a dash of grenadine. The equal parts of curacao and dry vermouth balance each other and the grenadine gives it a pleasing pink color (to some that is). I think my bias is based on how it is made here in Boston (also Paul Clarke used this ratio in an old Cocktail Chronicles post).

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      Hi, Frederick— I’m guessing that my use of words like “dreck” and “undrinkable” probably isn’t going over well with Boston drinkers. It’s a good reminder (to me) that what’s sweet to one person is sour to another. (My sister reminds me of this every time I make her a whiskey sour.) I have to call ‘em as I sees ‘em, but my tastes change with the seasons to some extent; I’ll try El Presidente “Boston style” when cold weather rolls around, perhaps I’ll see it differently.

      The grenadine is an interesting ingredient in El Presidente. I can imagine bartenders swapping out curaçao for grenadine on a whim, depending on their tastes, and their customers. Using both seems like gilding the lily. It appears I just never gained a taste for grenadine. I despise the “cooked” style, though I’m still contemplating how to exploit that molassesy burned flavor into… something, as an intellectual challenge. The uncooked “cold” style is more palatable, but not a flavor I search out.

      And I guess that’s the story of how 2:1:hint with curaçao became my favorite El Presidente.

      Reply
  3. AlchemistGeorge

    Thank you for spelling out which Rums you’ve tried and what you recommend. FWIW our ‘go to’ white rum is Flor De Cana, if we want something that is not so ‘rummy’ we go to Myer’s Platinum. I’ve found that, as a generalization, Bacardi rums have too little flavor. I’m also pleased to see you spelling out your thinking on grenadines – so far we lean towards cold process grenadine – but our preliminary conclusion is no grenadine for this drink.

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      I agree that the Bacardis are sort of light-flavored, but I think that’s sort of the style for Puerto Rican rums. I think that might play to this drinks advantage, in the sense that you need a rum that vermouth can be friendly with. I’ll have to try the Flor de Cana…

      Reply
  4. Raphael

    Didn’t have Dolin Blanc the first time I made this, so I used Dolin Dry. BIG MISTAKE. The result was undrinkable and I poured it down the drain.

    Went out and picked up a bottle of Dolin Blanc, then gave it another go. Delicious! I used Flor de Caña 7yr rum, which is one of my favorites, otherwise used your recipe exactly.

    If one uses a Central American rum, maybe it should be called the Francisco Morazán? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Morazan

    Love this blog, keep up the great work!

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      I had not learned of Morazán before, so I’m a bit better educated in my Central American history. Thanks for that.

      I’ve heard that El Presidente is pretty good with Flor de Cana, I look forward to giving it a try.

      Reply
    • Doug Ford

      Hi, Raphael,

      I’m delighted that El Presidente barrel ages well. Aging is something I look forward to trying one day; I had always thought I’d start with a whiskey drink—Manhattan or Boulevardier, I guessed—but I may follow your lead and try El Presidente instead.

      Thanks for letting us know about your experiement.

      Reply

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