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History of El Presidente | One of the Best Cuban Cocktails?

El Presidente throughout time, ending with a modern high-end version of the cocktail

Hello, Friends of Cocktails. It seems that today’s cocktail journey takes us to Cuba once again, as we’re looking at the history of El Presidente. This drink embodies the spirit of Cuban mixology, and its influence on the international cocktail scene in the 20th century is outstanding! With its combination of rum and vermouth it’s often called Cuba’s answer to the Martinez and the Manhattan cocktails, and as Basil Woon writes in When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, “El Presidente is the aristocrat of cocktails”.

We’ll look at 3 very different recipes, starting in 1915 with one that has bitters added, moving then to a 1927 version with equal parts rum and vermouth, and finishing with my experimental take on a modern version of this cocktail - proving you can enjoy a spirit-forward cocktail in the Caribbean too. After the final cocktail I’ll also have a fun story for you, so you definitely want to stay until the end of this Cocktail History. So let’s see how El Presidente started and how far it’s come.

Many claim El Presidente was created by Eddie Woelke, an American bartender at the Jockey Club in Havana, Cuba, in honor of the Presidente Gerardo Machado, but Woelke came to Cuba in the 1920’s during the prohibition, and Machado became the president in 1925 so that’s obviously not true. Another famous bartender credited with the recipe was Constantino Ribalaigua, the Cocktail Master from El Floridita.

Then named La Florida, it was famous for its Daiquiris, but according to Jack Cuddy, who wrote about Constantino in 1937, “his repertoire included the three of Cuba’s most popular cocktails - Daiquiri number 4, the Presidente, and the Pepin Rivero, all his own inventions”. Regardless, the first recipe of El Presidente was printed during the presidency of Mario Garciá Menocal, the Cuban president between 1913 and 1921.

John Escalante, a Spaniard who previously worked in New York, published the “Manual del cantinero”, or the Bartender's Manual in 1915 in Havana. Sadly the page with the Presidente cocktail is scanned in a way that hides some of the recipe, but with a little detective and deductive work we can see the ingredients and preparation for the first cocktail of the day. Interestingly, bitters were still added to Escalante’s 1915 recipe, linking the Presidente even closer to the Martinez and Manhattan cocktails.

Ingredients needed for an El Presidente - Maraschino Cherries, orange, Angostura Bitters, Dry Curacao,Grenadine, Vermouth and Bacardi Rum

1915 El Presidente

● 45mL (1.5oz) Blanc Vermouth

● 22.5mL (0.75oz) Bacardi Rum

● 0.5tsp Grenadine

● A few drops of Curaçao

● A few drops of Angostura Bitters

● 1 piece Orange Zest

● 1 Cocktail Cherry

Start by filling a bar glass with cracked ice, followed by placing all the ingredients but the cocktail cherry into a retro coupe glass filled with ice - you can use a regular mixing glass too, but it won’t feel like you’re in 1915. Now stir to chill and dilute, and once that’s done, remove the ice from the coupe glass and strain the cocktail in. Garnish and serve with a cocktail cherry, and we’re ready to try this Pre-prohibion El Presidente. Salud!

There’s plenty of vermouth and orange on the aroma at first, as well as a beautiful pink hue thanks to Liber & Co’s Real Grenadine. While the different ratios of rum & vermouth are often discussed, this one is vermouth-heavy, making it have a sweet flavor profile - a little too much so for my taste. The rum also gets lost, but that could be partly fixed by using a different style of light rum, but as a pleasant, sweet sipper it was popular among the Cubans for a reason.

We know this was the case because in 1919 the New York Evening Telegram reported that the El Presidente was the “favorite drink of the Cubans“. There it was described as a mixture of “bacardi, grenadine and French vermouth“, but for the next variation we’re moving on to the presidency of Gerardo Machado, who was president from 1925 until he was forced to flee Cuba in 1933.

In 1927 the cocktail book “El arte de hacer un cocktail”, or The Art of Making A Cocktail was published, with the author being lost in time. On page 59 we find the recipe for the Presidente and the Presidente Machado, with curaçao being added to the latter. Fewer ingredients, but still all the main players.

1927 El Presidente Machado

● 30mL (1oz) French Blanc Vermouth

● 30mL (1oz) Havana Club 3

● 0.5 barspoon Grenadine

● 0.5 barspoon Curaçao

● Orange Zest

Again I’m starting by chilling the glass, but this time I’ll also chill the mixing glass before adding the ingredients, as I would for a modern cocktail. This combination of ingredients is most common for El Presidente to this day, all you have to do is find the right balance for your palate. Also, since the rum in the recipe isn’t specified I’m taking the liberty of using Havana Club 3 year, even though it wasn’t created until 1934. All you need to do now is to add the ingredients to the mixing glass, stir to chill and dilute and serve with an orange peel which we’ll express for aroma.

May the second Presidente cocktail be better than the second presidency of president Machado. Salud! Plenty of sweet orange greets you on the nose. This version is still slightly on the sweeter side, but the balance is much better than the original. Luckily rum is allowed to shine and the combination of it all brings nice fruit notes to the front. If you want to make something delicious and easy, make this. Now, for the futuristic version I took inspiration from my variation of the Tequila Sunrise, which we posted a few months ago.

There I swapped grenadine for pomegranate pearls, and I’ll do the same here. For the ingredients I’m not limiting myself strictly to the 4 pillars of the Presidente, but I’m of course keeping the base of rum and vermouth, here using Plantation 3 stars, and a combination of dry vermouth and Lillet Rose aperitif wine, to replace blanc vermouth. Curaçao stays the same, and grenadine will be added as pearls, but I’m also adding maraschino cherries syrup and saline solution, to balance and brighten the flavors.

Before I make the cocktail I’ll just quickly breeze through how I made the pearls with direct spherification.

Grenadine Pearls

● 100g Pomegranate Juice

● 0.3g Rose Water

● 20mL Creme de Cassis

● 3mL Agave Syrup

● Sodium citrate - 0.8% of total weight

● Sodium alginate - 0.5% of total weight

● 1L distilled water

● 10g Calcium chloride

First, juice the pomegranates, then strain and weigh the juice. For every 100 grams of pomegranate juice you will then add 0.3 grams of rose water, 0.6 oz or 20 ml of Creme de Cassis, and 0.1 oz or 3 ml of agave syrup. Mix and weigh the total weight of our flavorful liquid, and based on that you will add 0.8% of that weight of sodium citrate, to bring the pH above 4. Once dissolved add sodium alginate. 0.5 % of the total weight of the liquid, then blend and leave to sit for at least 1 hour.

For that mixture to turn into pearls you’ll need a calcium batch. Add 10 grams of calcium chloride to 1 liter of distilled water and whisk until dissolved, then start adding droplets of our pomegranate, with a pipette or a rapid caviar maker. Leave the pearls in the calcium bath for 30 seconds before transferring them into a pure water bath, scoop them out and that’s it. It’s a fun way to present a cocktail to your guests and you can use it in any cocktail that calls for grenadine, but test it out and adjust the recipe accordingly. Now let’s make a Cocktail Time version of El Presidente.

Cocktail Time El Presidente

● 45mL (1.5oz) Plantation 3

● 30mL (1oz) Lillet Rose

● 15mL (0.5oz) Dry Vermouth

● 7.5mL (0.25oz) Dry curaçao

● 1 barspoon Maraschino Cherry Syrup

● 2 drops 20% Saline Solution

● 1 teaspoon Grenadine Pearls

I’m starting with chilling the mixing glass again, and the Nick&Nora glass I’ll use is already chilling in the freezer. Now add all but the Grenadine Pealr to the mixing glass, followed by plenty of ice and stir to chill and dilute. Time or revolutions for what is the right amount of stirring really depend on your ice and technique, so this just takes some practice to dial down. Luckily practice means making many cocktails, so that’s fun.

Now strain into the chilled Nick&Nora glass. For garnish, scoop grenadine pearls on a teaspoon and place it on the glass, then express essential oils from an orange peel over the glass, discard the peel and that’s it. This has roots in El Presidente, but hopefully it shows you ways to play around with ingredients of your favorite cocktails. So let’s mix in the pearls and give this cocktail a taste. Salud!

The aroma is fruity and citrusy. Rum and Lillet Rosé are harmonized beautifully, while the vermouth adds just the right amount of dryness to balance the cocktail. Pomegranate pearls are a delightful addition for both the eyes and the palate, and the finish is long and full, with lingering notes of rum and flowers. This is the president that gets my vote.

With that you’ve made it to the Bottom of the glass, and this week I have a little historic fun fact about 2 El Presidentes and the El Presidente cocktail. President Machado hosted a diplomatic dinner in Havana, Cuba, in 1928, attended by the US president Calin Coolidge. With Prohibition in full swing back in the US, Coolidge faced a delicate problem of social etiquette under the watchful eye of the American Press. They even printed the cocktail recipe, during prohibition. That’s some heartless reporting.

So, to drink or not to drink? Interestingly, Coolidge campaigned against Prohibition when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, but according to the reporters, Coolidge respectfully declined all cocktails and wines at the dinner. But the press didn’t actually witness the dinner, so who knows? His loss, if he didn’t try the wonderful El Presidente. For more history on Cuban cocktails, check out my posts on the Daiquiri and the Mojito. I’ll see you next week, cheers!


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