The Story Of Cuba's El Presidente Cocktail

The storied history behind one of Cuba's most famous cocktails

Trying to plan that first trip to Cuba? You're not alone. Cuba was among the five most-searched-for and booked destinations on Cyber Monday, and has seen a 150 percent increase in the number of American travelers in the past year alone.

Once you've booked your trip, the real research begins. And if you're like me, priority number one is to figure out what to drink on vacation.

Havana is home to hall-of-famers like the daiquiri (white rum, sugar, lime juice) and its even more citrusy spin-off, the Hemingway Daiquiri (which adds maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice). But with white rum, French vermouth, orange curaçao and grenadine, the El Presidente, a lesser-known Havana classic from the early 20th century, departs from the rum/sweet/citrus formula to offer a boozier, smoother, stirred rum drink that proves Cuba's cocktail tradition isn't a one-trick pony.

Although the El Presidente originated as Cuba's tip of the fedora to the whiskey-based libations Americans craved during Prohibition, the drink, with all the makings of a classic, became more than just a stand-in. "In the world of cocktails from Havana, there are very few stirred cocktails that have stood the test of time," says Nick Detrich, who recently visited Cuba and is the co-owner and bar director at Cane & Table in New Orleans. "It's a very elegant cocktail that appeals to rum drinkers, people who prefer more vermouth-forward drinks, as well as those who enjoy a lighter and marginally lower-proof cocktail."

Havana: All the Presidents' Potables

The history of the El Presidente goes like this: The drink was first invented in Havana during the 1910s for Cuban President Mario García Menocal, who ruled from 1913 to 1921. The cocktail was then refined and popularized by American bartender Eddie Woelke, who arrived in Havana in 1919 to run the bar at the swanky Sevilla Biltmore Hotel. According to drink historians Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown's book, Cuban Cocktails (2012), the libation's fresh cachet caught the attention of Cuba's new president, Gerardo Machado, who took over in 1925. Naturally, he demanded his own version, and the Presidente Machado, which simply added a few dashes of curaçao, was born.

The El Presidente and Presidente Machado shared power briefly before coalescing into a classic in the early 1930s, when masterful Cuban cantinero (a seriously trained bartender) Constante Ribalaigua Vert embraced and gussied up the El Presidente at legendary Havana bar El Floridita. He garnished the drink with both cherries and an orange peel, and he used red—not the now-popular orange—curaçao to mimic the color of grenadine. Today, most bartenders revert to orange curaçao and (red) grenadine, but the dual garnish is still a common choice.

Coming to America

After Prohibition, the American bartending industry needed to regain its footing due to the 13-year dry spell. Those who went back to the books to relearn the classics found El Presidente recipes that listed the vermouth style as either "French" or "Chambéry," named for a town in southeastern France. Surveying their inventory, barkeeps reached for the dry French stuff used in martinis. But—whoops!—wrong move. As a result, the drink went the way of most pre-Prohibition classics in America: forgotten but for a few scraggly old books that survived long enough only to make the rounds at flea markets and tag sales.  

It was cocktail historian David Wondrich who rescued the El Presidente from decades of obscurity by taking another look at how vermouth plays in this once-loved drink. In 2012, he discovered that the semisweet blanc-style vermouth from Chambéry—and not, in fact, the dry vermouth—was almost certainly intended for the El Presidente. Without it, the cocktail had been a lame duck.

Today's Takes

With blanc vermouth back in the mix, the El Presidente is finally emerging from exile. "We often describe it as a 'rum Manhattan,'" Konrad Kantor, owner of El Libre, a tiny Cuban café in New Orleans's French Quarter that uses blanc vermouth in its version, says. "It's absolutely the best stirred rum cocktail I've ever tasted." 

Today, Dolin makes most of the Chambéry blanc vermouth you'll find in bars and liquor stores; the producer also makes a very popular dry vermouth from Chambéry that's also clear in color—hence a continued confusion. But even though the use of blanc vermouth is considered ideal for the classic El Presidente, some bartenders have expertly rejiggered the recipe to allow the dry variety to work as well.

Like just about every other classic cocktail, the El Presidente has managed to avoid the constraints of a single, definitive recipe. That said, there are a few reasonable parameters that help maintain the drink's character. Deviation from any of the following would constitute a coup d'état: the use of rum and vermouth, stirring rather than shaking and, of course, serving the drink up.

A good example of a classic version—from the 1924 book, Manual del Cantinero, by León Pujol and Oscar Muñiz—calls for half portions of Bacardí rum and Chambéry, referencing the French blanc vermouth. It also requires "poquito" grenadine or curaçao, and is garnished with a cherry and an orange peel.

Modern drink makers vary in their approach to the El Presidente. Some choose to pay homage to the cocktail's origins by making only slight changes; others retire to the cocktail lab to conduct experiments until they find just the right personal twist.

Kantor is in the former camp, as is Julio Cabrera, a Cuba native who trained as a cantinero. Now, as managing partner at The Regent Cocktail Club in Miami Beach, Cabrera spins the El Presidente as a more rum-forward drink by cutting the vermouth blanc in half; he adds half an ounce of orange curaçao and a barspoon of house-made grenadine, discards the orange peel after expressing it over the drink, then drops in a cherry. 

While Cabrera adjusts for his heavier pour of aged rum by selecting the sweeter-style Bacardí 8, Kantor's version at El Libre employs a very dry rum (like Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Seco) and an equal amount of vermouth blanc. He, too, uses a barspoon of house-made grenadine but has a lighter hand than Cabrera with the orange curaçao (only a quarter ounce). Then, he garnishes the drink with an orange peel rather than a cherry. Despite their subtle differences, each of these El Presidente expressions represents an honest interpretation of the classic.

On the more experimental end of the spectrum is a version with dry vermouth. Although recently outed as the wrong ingredient for the El Presidente, John Lermayer bucks the retro trend. At his Miami Beach bar, Sweet Liberty, which was named Best New American Cocktail Bar at July's Spirited Awards (the nightcap to the cocktail industry's annual Tales of the Cocktail), Lermayer combines two ounces of aged white rum (preferably Caña Brava) with one ounce of dry vermouth. In a nod to tradition, he adds half an ounce of curaçao and a barspoon of grenadine. But his garnish of choice is a Filthy cherry on a stick: pre-bottled maraschinos with an extra coating of sugar and rich syrup.

With this approach, the drink skews more martini than Manhattan. There are, of course, other philosophies about how to use a dry vermouth to achieve a worthy version of this drink. Although Detrich sticks to the classic blanc vermouth at Cane & Table, he recommends balancing dry vermouth (like Atxa, a Spanish version) with a sweeter rum (like Plantation Pineapple).

"In this variation, if the sugars are still balanced between the two ingredients, then the result will always be pleasant," he says. "Some modern interpretations drop the vermouth down by half and double the curaçao, while also omitting the grenadine. But with too many changes, it's hard to call it an El Presidente."

During In Good Spirits month, we're going behind the bar to find out what separates aperitifs from digestifs, which It cocktails the world's top bartenders crave and how to turn your home into the hottest speakeasy in town.