The El Presidente Cocktail

The lost art of Havana cocktails


We live in exciting times when it comes to rum and renewed interest in the cocktail culture. For the last 30 plus years of the 20th century we lost great strides in craftsmanship and caring when it comes to what we put in our glass. Today there is new vigor to rediscover old recipes and turn our back on sugar based mass marked drinks. Quality over quantity is starting to make inroads and I for one am pleased to play my small part. Over the past few months I have been keen to learn more about the great rum drinks coming out of Havana in the 1930’s. This is the time frame of the Daiquiri and Mojito. Two staples I am always working to perfect. There was another quite famous drink of the times that has only now begun to be noticed again, the El Presidente.

The El Presidente was reportedly invented by the American bartender David Wondrich in Havana in the late 1920’s. He named the drink after President Gerardo Machado who ruled Cuba during the Prohibition years. One story has Macado offering the cocktail to President Coolidge during a State visit while America was in the clutches of the great experiment called Prohibition, Coolidge demurred. After prohibition the drink migrated north finding a solid home in New York for a time. As the 1950’s approached however, it fell out of favor and all but vanished.

El Presidente Classic Ingredients

El Presidente Classic Ingredients ©2011 Carl Grooms

The drink has been making a slow comeback over the past five to eight years. Some of my fellow RumXP brethren, such as Wayne Curtis and Matthew Robold have written about it and also experimented with the drink in order to find a new balance between ingredients. The problem is the rum and ingredients of the 30’s are no longer available. We might know the exact recipe of the time but the ingredients would have played off each other in a slightly different way.

The original recipe calls for:

1.5 oz. Aged Rum (Bacardi of the 30’s, I used Siesta Key White)
.75 oz. Dry Vermouth
.75 oz. Curacao
.5 tsp Grenadine

When I made this drink I think it came out too sweet with the Curacao taking a front seat. The Curacao and Grenadine we get today were made for modern (lazy) palates, which means, sweet. With this in mind I made some major ingredient adjustments as follows:

1.5 oz. Plantation Grande Reserve Barbados
.75 oz. Dry Vermouth
.5 oz. Citronage, from Patron
.3 tsp Grenadine

El Presidente with alternative ingredients

El Presidente with alternative ingredients ©2011 Carl Grooms

I really liked this new combination. The sweetness was all but gone and the rum was well balanced with the vermouth and citrus. The only problem is I felt that perhaps I had taken recipe too far from itself. As I was researching it appeared that many of the top mixologist were simply backing off the Curacao and Grenadine in order to address the modern sweetness while still staying true to the original taste profile. Of all the recipes I tried I think Matt Robold aka “The Rum Dood” has it about right with his adjusted recipe:

1.5 oz. Aged Rum
.75 oz. Dry Vermouth
.5 oz. Curacao
.5 tsp Grenadine

After multiple cocktails I have to say Matt’s was my favorite. That said, don’t be afraid to try some idea yourself. You can use Cointreau or Gran Marnier as your orange substitute. Wayne Curtis in his article written for Lost Magazine recommends using pomegranite molasses which can be found at Middle Eastern Stores instead of Grenadine. His research shows this a more honest substitute. Such is the fun with cocktails and recreating the old forgotten classics.

The El Presidente is an easy to make cocktail. Chances are you already have all or most of the ingredients in your cabinet already. Wow your friends with a new amazing drink and give them a little history to boot. More importantly embrace quality mixology and ingredients and help spread the word that the quality cocktail is back to stay.

The El Presidente

The El Presidente ©2011 Carl Grooms


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