This week we’re celebrating a Cuban Prohibition classic, El Presidente; it’s an enigma in rum, vermouth and bitters. But what have the French got to do with it – or Christina Aguilera for that matter?
According to the BBC, the top five most popular lockdown 1.0 buys were Tequila, gym equipment, makeup, luxury bedding and elastic. I’m guilty of four of those items, but I eschewed elastic for something slightly more, as I like to tell myself, educational – MasterClass!
Yep, those Instagram ads finally paid off. No sooner had the well-worn security code of my debit card been tapped in (muscle memory is a wonderful thing), I had some of the best minds in the country teaching me their crafts. My favourite writer David Sedaris on storytelling and humour, Dr Jane Goodall on conservation, and, um, Christina Aguilera on singing.
But perhaps the most natural fit was award-winning bar duo Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) and Lynnette Marrero on mixology. And it was through watching the soothing videos of the two making their staple cocktails that I rediscovered the Cuban classic El Presidente – and its rich, nuanced and nostalgia-laden history.
Found and lost
It all started where most good things did – during Prohibition (or so some say) and in Havana. One story goes that it was first created to mark President Mario Menocal coming to power; he was in office from 1913-1921. The drink combined amber rum, vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Yet according to Esquire cocktail editor David Wondrich, it was really the creation of American bartender Eddie Woelke in the mid 1920s, during his tenure at Havana’s Jockey Club and in honour of President Gerardo Machado (in office from 1925-1933).
However it was invented, the combination of white rum, Chambery vermouth (more on that later), orange Curaçao, grenadine and a garnish of orange peel, became the drink of Cuba’s upper echelons. “It is the aristocrat of cocktail and is the one preferred by the better class of Cuban,” wrote Basil Woon in his 1928 book When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba (feel free to grab yourself a copy for £3,000).
It was also enjoyed by visiting booze-deprived Americans. Though apparently, US President Calvin Coolidge declined an El Presidente from el presidente Machado for fear of drinking during Prohibition and being cancelled. Post-prohibition, Pan Am served a version of it called the Clipper Cocktail made with gold rum, vermouth and grenadine. But by this stage, El Presidente itself was going out of fashion and stopped being ordered by the beautiful people.
It’s fall from grace may have had something to do with vermouth. As Wondrich points out, when bartenders started making the cocktail, most bars would have been stocking French dry vermouth – but the original recipe calls for a Chambery Blanc. This is, in fact, a sweeter style of vermouth – more specifically Dolin Blanc which was created in France in 1821. This seemingly small change is where the El Presidente can win or fail, and many a drinks lover and expert has been undone by it. Making one at home? Make sure it’s Dolin Blanc not Dry.
When it comes to the Curaçao, dear lord make sure it’s orange and not blue. And the choice of rum is important too. The 1915 tome Manual del Cantinero by John Escalentecalls for a light rum and while white expressions are the classic choice, bartenders aren’t shy of veering towards those with a light amber hue.
Bitters and twists
As for bitters, here bartenders can really get creative. Rum-specialist London bar Trailer Happiness has its El Presidente on home delivery site The Drinks Drop. It combines Santiago de Cuba 11 Year Old, Lillet Blanc, strawberry liqueur, falernum, passionfruit, with Supasawa and Angostura bitters.
Meanwhile in Wales, 2021-born drinks company Distill & Fill run by Jenny Griffiths and Philip David has just unleashed The Presidential Suite on its website. This version mixes Plantation Isle of Fiji, Sacred English Spiced Vermouth, Monin Acerola Syrup, with a touch of both Ferdinand’s Vineyard Peach and Peychaud’s Bitters.
So what are you waiting for? Surely, our own pre-Roaring Twenties, post-lockdown world is the perfect time for an El Presidente revival. In the words of Christina’s What a Girl Wants: ‘It’s for keeps, yeah, it’s for sure’. Now that’s philosophy.
How to make an El Presidente
Chill a coupe or Martini glass. Fill a mixing glass with ice cubes. Add white rum, Dolin Blanc, Curacao and grenadine and stir with a bar spoon. Strain into your chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel.
Recipe from Ryan Chetiyawardana and Lynette Marrero on MasterClass.