Friday, November 08, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The El Presidente

On a week when each citizen was called upon to exercise his or her franchise, I give to a cocktail something I am unlikely to extend to a candidate: a second chance.

The El Presidente was created in Havana. Several of the city’s bars lay claim to the drink, although its likeliest origin according to cocktail historian David Wondrich is expatriate Yanqui bartender Eddie Woelke at the Jockey Club. Given that a recipe appeared in a 1919 newspaper, odds are the cocktail was christened after Cuba’s then-jefe Mario García Menocal. It quickly became popular on the island and made the jump to another, Manhattan, by 1925. The apocryphal story goes that in 1928, Menocal’s successor Gerardo Machado offered one to Calvin Coolidge on a state visit, but owing to Prohibition America’s El Presidente declined.

Exhibit A
Many a cocktail pioneer championed the drink. Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron dubbed it Cuba’s answer to the martini. David Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, called it “the leading rum cocktail of the aromatic type.” No one did more to popularize the El Presidente than Charles H. Baker, Jr. In his Gentleman’s Companion it’s enshrined as “The Habana Presidente, now Known to Many, but Sound Enough in Its Own Right for Listing in any Spiritual Volume,” and he suggests “every visiting Americano should go to (Havana bar) La Florida and get one from headquarters. The mix is simple and satisfying.” That mix, for the record, is rum, dry vermouth, grenadine and curaçao, and that’s exactly how I first had the drink at San Francisco’s marvelous temple of all things tropical Smuggler’s Cove.

A curious thing happened as the cocktail’s popularity waned: the recipe changed. Blame, as discussed last week, the scarcity of quality curaçao. The schism is laid bare in my late 1980s Mr. Boston guide. It takes a bicameral approach, featuring two versions of the El Presidente, one with lime and pineapple juice, the other with dry vermouth and bitters, nary a drop of curaçao to be seen. Baker had noted that the Special, served at the competing Havana bar Sloppy Joe’s, was an El Presidente with lime, which may explain where the citrus originated. My first attempt at fixing the cocktail myself was based on this later iteration, specifically gaz regan’s The Joy of Mixology recipe extrapolated from a 1949 Old Mr. Boston guide. Submitted into evidence as Exhibit A is a photograph, taken at the old Chez K. This drink – featuring lime and pineapple juices as well as the telltale neon glow of bottled grenadine – tasted nothing like what I’d sipped in San Francisco, proving an underwhelming variation on a daiquiri.

The contender, not the pretender
The recount was prompted by the triumphant resurrection of curaçao. The Wondrich-developed Pierre Ferrand variety, with its orange notes on a solid foundation of cognac, sets off magnificent sparks here. I resisted the temptation to add more, because curaçao’s flavor is so textured that a little accomplishes a great deal. Some recipes call for equal parts rum and dry vermouth, but in my regime I established a clear hierarchy: rum as the strongman, then vermouth, then curaçao, and finally grenadine.

Only not grenadine. I have of late been substituting pomegranate molasses. On the plus side it provides an intensity of taste that most grenadines can’t match. The drawback is it doesn’t dissolve very well. Diluting the molasses largely alleviates that problem. I gave the resulting cocktail the strongest endorsement possible: as soon as it was finished, I made another one.

The El Presidente

1 ½ oz. rum
¾ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. orange curaçao
½ tsp. grenadine or diluted pomegranate molasses

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange peel.

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