Stir the ingredients together over cubed ice, then strain into a chilled coupe glass.
An altogether under-recognized and under-ordered cocktail, El Presidente is a lost treasure from the golden age of the Cuban Club de Cantineros. It was invented in Havana at some point during American Prohibition and probably named for Gerado Machado – a man who would score a B+ on the Latin American dictator brutality scale – who served as president from 1925 to 1933. Many historians point to Eddie Woelke, an American bartender at the Jockey Club in Havana for the creation of both the El Presidente and the Mary Pickford cocktail (rum, pineapple, maraschino and grenadine).
The drink later became the house serve at Club El Chico in New York’s Greenwich village, which was run by Spanish immigrant Benito Collada. Following prohibition, El Chico had its own brand of Cuban rum bottled for use in the drink. In 1949, Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts commented: “The vanguard of Manhattan cognoscenti has discovered what regulars of El Chico in the Village have known for many a moon: the El Presidente cocktail is elixir for jaded gullets.”
For many, El Presidente is rum’s answer to a Manhattan or Rob Roy cocktail (whisky, vermouth and bitters) but once you get to know the drink intimately, you come to realize that it sits in a family of cocktails all of its own. There are no bitters for a start, instead we have orange curaçao and occasionally grenadine as modifiers. But the fact that both of these ingredients are quite sweet, and the fact that rum and vermouth are both prone to wander into sweetness too, means that El Presidente is a drink that’s prone to differ enormously depending on who’s got their hands on the barspoon.
The 1935 La Floridita Cocktail Book lists the drink simply as equal parts Bacardi Oro (gold), and Vermouth Chambéry, with a teaspoon of orange curaçao. It’s stirred over ice and garnished with a cherry and orange zest. The important distinction here is the use of blanc vermouth de Chambéry, which is a colourless, sweet vermouth style, that’s more herb-centric and less spicy than Italian rosso vermouth. It was originally commercialized by Chambéry producer Dolin, who have an Appellation d’ Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation on the style.
Later versions of the drink increased the quantity of curaçao and threw in some grenadine, which might have been an effort to combat the less sweet “dry” vermouths that became popular in the mid-20th century.
It just so happens that the original recipe (very nearly) got it right, so assuming you can get your hands on a blanc vermouth, you needn’t worry about the grenadine at all. For my tastes, I do prefer to drop the ratio of vermouth ever-so-slightly, however.