RECIPE

How to make an El Presidente, a Cuban drink with a rich history

Ask the Oracle Pour: What should I drink today? All signs point to El Presidente and leaning into summer

By Erin Keane
Published August 21, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)
Oracle Pour: El Presidente (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)
Oracle Pour: El Presidente (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)

"The Oracle Pour" is Salon Food's spirits column that helps you decide what to drink tonight.

Times of struggle — whether personal or collective, political or existential, or all of the above — can be humbling. We can orient our entire lives around action and results and still run up against the hard reality of that which we cannot control.

Even something as banal as summer heat can suck the life right out of a person. Railing against August weather expends energy and ends in frustration. The patience to accept what's happening in the present, while knowing the season will turn eventually, can create peace of mind, at least.

Some days, I try leaning into the humidity, letting myself grow still inside it. The right cocktail can help. One thing that's easy-going in a world of inflexible circumstances is the classic Cuban rum cocktail El Presidente, which can be adapted gracefully to your own individual taste. 

According to cocktail historian David Wondrich's "Imbibe!", the original recipe by legendary bartender Constantino "Constante" Ribalaigua, of Havana's Bar La Florida (El Floridita), was published in 1915 in "an impossibly rare little volume" written by John B. Escalante and lifted up from the archives by French cocktail historian Fernando Castellon: 1 part Bacardí rum, 2 parts vermouth de Chambéry, 1 barspoon curaçao, 1/2 barspoon grenadine and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. By the 1930s, Constante — "the Cocktail King of Cuba" who invented Hemingway's daiquiri — had tweaked the recipe to call for equal parts rum and vermouth, and lost the grenadine and bitters. (To that, I and other maximalists say, why not both?)

Some contemporary recipes call for a greater proportion of rum and lesser, equal parts curaçao and vermouth, while some stair-step it (mostly rum, less vermouth, even less orange); some omit or change the bitters; and some go heavy on the rum with a whisper of everything else. When I'm mixing this drink at home, I prefer the balanced proportions of rum and vermouth, with a touch of curaçao, a lighter touch of grenadine and a dash of chocolate bitters to finish.

There was my answer. 


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A note on ingredients that aren't rum: Dolin Blanc is a widely available vermouth blanc. Just don't confuse it with Dolin Dry — the white vermouth martini drinkers reach for. You can sub in an Italian bianco — I do — which are inspired by the French Chambéry style but add a kind of vanilla-tinged softness. (Bonus: The easy-to-find Martini & Rossi Bianco is even on the shelf at the small neighborhood shop I frequent.)

As for rum, the other main event of this drink? Tastes vary; genuine Cuban rum can be difficult to source. Some suggestions: Banks 7, Bacardí Ocho, Don Q Reserva 7, Havana Club Añejo Classico, Diplomático Mantuano (see variations below).

While I'm usually a fan of substituting whatever you have on hand, reconsider reaching for that leftover bottom-shelf bottle of Triple Sec in the back of the cabinet. A quality curaçao is worth it — a dry one if you aren't into sweeter cocktails. (I like Copper & Kings' Intense Orange Curaçao from their Destillaré line — floral with just a touch of honey, it's just lovely.) Some grenadines use higher-quality ingredients than others; read your labels if that matters to you.

Here's a basic El Presidente recipe to get you started. Remix until you find your perfect sip.

Ingredients:

Serving size: one drink

  • 1 1/2 oz. gold or aged rum
  • 1 1/2 oz. vermouth blanc
  • 1/4 oz. curaçao
  • Barspoon of grenadine (about a half a teaspoon)
  • Dash of Angostura (or chocolate) bitters
  • Cocktail cherry and/or orange twist for garnish

Gear:

You don't need any specialty equipment to mix a simple cocktail. But here's what I keep at hand:

Instructions:

Stir in a cocktail mixing glass with ice for 30 seconds, then strain neat into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish.

Variations:

Jose Luis Ballesteros, brand ambassador for Diplomático Rum (and a fourth-generation spirits professional), suggests adding a splash of sparkling wine (his picks: J. Cuvée 20 or La Marca prosecco) for a festive variation or swapping out the grenadine for a raspberry gum syrup. Another option: 3/4 oz. each of Diplomático Mantuano Rum, sherry and dry curaçao, finished with a dash each of flavored liqueur and the gum or cane syrup of your choosing.

More Oracle Pour:

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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