Barrel Aged El Presidente (and some history)

By Jonathan Laurel October 10, 2019 Cocktails

Lemon cookie, butterscotch, tropical fruit
Nicaraguan silver rum, rhum agricole, chambéry blanc, cointreau, grenadine, orange bitters

One of the lesser-known Havana classics, this Cuban creation is a perfect pairing of rum and vermouth.  Besides being a staff favorite at West Main, El Presidente is an icon of the Golden Age of Cuban bars, as well as the modern cocktail revolution.

As is typical of such a thing, the earliest origins of El Presidente are slightly vague, mostly due to unclear recipes and spotty but eagerly repeated online reporting.  The tale of the cocktail sweeps up an American bartender in Cuba, two Cuban presidents, and the iconic Constante Ribaliagua Vert into a miasma of circumstantial history and apocrypha.  The basic myth: El Presidente was named after, surprise, a President, and then was allegedly altered for another President who was jealous of his predecessor, and then forgotten, and then rediscovered.  Of course, the story isn’t quite as clear as that. 

The primary confusion is the cocktail’s natural variations from the late 1910s to the 1930s and what caused them.  American bartender Eddie Woelke is most often credited with creating the first version of the cocktail.  Multiple sources allege Woelke created the cocktail at “the Jockey Club,” presumably Havana’s fancy horse race track operated during the winter by the Havana-American Jockey Club of Cuba.  But this enjoyable article mentions that Woelke came to Cuba in 1919 to work at the bar at the newly christened Hotel Sevilla-Biltmore, suggesting the cocktail was created there.

Originally established in 1908, the Hotel Sevillawas purchased by two North Americans in 1919, notably the hotelier John McEntee Bowman, who renamed and expanded the hotel in 1920. The new Sevilla-Biltmore grew to be the most glamorous venue in the Havana scene until the Hotel Nacional opened in 1930.  This prestigious stage for Havana society seems the likely launching pad for the Presidente’s fame in its own time. A society columnists named Basil Woon visited Havana in 1928, and famously called El Presidente the “aristocrat of cocktails,” going on to imply the cocktail itself was the cream of Havana society’s drinking culture, and much of El Presidente’s legend relies on its fame as being the reason for it being possessively beloved by multiple people in power.

Woelke’s original Presidente is associated President Mario Marcía Menocal (1913-1921), probably because it was the man’s favorite.  This article suggests Woelke’s original recipe was one part rum, one part dry vermouth, and a bar spoon of grenadine.  (Woelke is also credited with creating the Mary Pickford cocktail, another rum and grenadine classic.)  The vermouth spec is probably a typo on the part of the article’s author and brings to the front the central crisis of the Presidente’s modern life.

By the mid 1920s, the cocktail was popular enough in Havana to make it into cocktail books, like this one from 1924, which clearly codifies the use of Chambéry vermouth, a blanc vermouth with much smoother edges and a pronounced sweetness markedly different from its dry French alternate.  Interestingly, the 1924 Manual de Cantinero also allows for grenadine or curaçao to be used in the cocktail, with a garnish of both a cherry and an orange twist.  This is notable because the substitution of curaçao for the original grenadine is part of the legend of El Presidente, allegedly a request made by President Gerardo “The Butcher” Machado (1925-1933), who liked the cocktail but wanted a version all his own.  But the Manual marks the use of curaçao at least a year before Machado’s election.  In the Cuban Cantinero’s Manual (1928, 1930) we see grenadine was officially scrubbed out for the use of curaçao; the garnish remains both the cherry and orange twist. 

Constante Ribalaigua Vert, icon of the Floridita, is sometimes credited with codifying El Presidente’s modern recipe with curaçao instead of grenadine, garnishing with both the orange twist and the cherry as well.  This cocktail makes it into the earliest version of the Floridita’s recipe book and is repeated in all subsequent versions.  Even though it seems the official Cuban cantinero‘s recipe excluded grenadine well before the Floridita’s books, Ribalaigua Vert’s historical success as Icon of Havana’s cocktail kingdom may be behind him being credited with the curaçao-driven alteration.  Frustratingly, immediately after El Presidente’s entry in Floridita’s book we find the “Presidente Menocal Special”—a Bacardi and peppermint sour cocktail on ice very different from the original Presidente cocktail, obscuring El Presidente’s original credits.

Presumably the cocktail entered a new phase of cultural apotheosis when it became the drink of the bar El Chico, opened by Benito Collada, a Spaniard who had spent time in Cuba before building a bar and club empire in New York in the 1940s.  In 1949, Esquire’s Handbook called the drink an “elixir for jaded gullets,” alleging that the drink’s perfection was already well known among the drinking culture in New York.  From this we know the drink was alive and well at least into the 1950s before going the way of many rum classics in the cocktail canon. 

According to Wondrich’s 1912 article—which seems to be the beginning of El Presidente’s modern life—the cocktail endured many decades of obscurity.  Wondrich tells how he generously figured out the style of vermouth was, in fact, essential to the success of the cocktail and that everyone needed to stop using dry vermouth, instead returning to the original Chambéry blanc and thereby restoring the cocktails delicate but alluring balance.  Decades of carelessness about such an ingredient had led to a vacancy in our understanding, one which is now happily rectified.  

The cocktail has survived many modern variations, each exploring new opportunities for its simple magic.  We blend together our citrusy rum with an earthy, vegetal rhum auricle before adding the El Presidente’s secret ingredient: blanc vermouth.  Six weeks in a charred oak barrel results in a classic cocktail with flavors of lemony biscuits, almonds and fruit.