If you make it with the right spirits, the El Presidente cocktail is sophisticated, light and dreamy. It's every bit as elegant as a Martini, and better-tasting if you're not a lover of gin.
If you make the El Presidente with lesser brands of liquor, it tastes like hairspray. Sadly, this elite cocktail fell victim to political idealism and the search for a cheap buck, but recent cocktail trends will bring it back.
The drink was born when the enemies of fun and luxury enacted Prohibition in 1919. Much of the thriving American cocktail culture, and a lot of bartending talent, went overseas to Europe and Cuba. One of those bartenders, Eddie Woelke, working at the Jockey Club in Havana, put together an improbable mix of white rum, French dry vermouth, orange curaçao and grenadine, and named it in honor of Presidente Gerardo Machado, who governed Cuba through the years of Prohibition.
The drink became the favorite of the Cuban upper classes, much like a Martini or a Southside in America. The main ingredient, Bacardi rum, was one of the finest in the world, unlike the mass-market Bacardi white rum we find in stores today.
What happened to Bacardi light rum? More enemies of fun and luxury, led by Fidel Castro, put many Cuban businessmen in front of a firing squad, which convinced the family of Facundo Bacardi to move operations to Puerto Rico. What happened next, we're not sure, but Wayne Curtis, rum expert and the author of "And a Bottle of Rum," bemoans this loss in Lost Magazine:
Yes, this would have been the original rum in El Presidente -- Bacardi was omnipresent in Havana during Prohibition -- but the company has lost either the will or the way to make an exceptional rum. I've sipped Bacardi white that was distilled in 1925, and, my friend, I'm here to tell you that the Bacardi of today does not even live in the same neighborhood.
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Do You Want It Cheap, Or Do You Want It Delicious?
The second part of the El Presidente that went bad is curaçao, which is an orange-peel-infused liqueur originally from the island of Curaçao. The original, Senior Curaçao of Curaçao, is perfect in the El Presidente, but the brand was pushed out of most liquor stores by cheap industrial curaçao. I mixed a Presidente with Bols curaçao, and it tasted faintly of vermouth with a splash of hairspray.
The final crucial ingredient to fall victim to a bad capitalism -- the triumph of cheapness over quality--was grenadine. This syrup, made from sugar and pomegranate juice, was pushed out of circulation by Rose's Grenadine -- a mix of high-fructose corn syrup and flavorings that tastes like cotton-candy cough syrup. Sure, the corn syrup gives it lasting shelf life, but the store shelf is where I recommend you leave it.
Fortunately, good capitalism has come to the rescue, in the form of Stirrings grenadine, or you can shake equal parts sugar and Pom pomegranate juice together in a jar and make a decent grenadine that can be frozen or kept in the refrigerator for a month.
In the spirit of competition, I put the Good Capitalism version of the El Presidente against the Communist/Bad Capitalism combination, using Havana Club rum. It's the favorite rum of Cuba, and it's pretty good, with a fascinating hint of roasted sugarcane.
1½ ounces Flor de Caña Extra Dry white rum ½ ounce Senior Curacao of Curacao liqueur ¾ ounce Noilly Prat French dry vermouth ½ teaspoon Stirrings or homemade grenadine
-- Pour rum, curaçao, vermouth and grenadine in a mixing glass with ice. Stir for a minute and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel cut roughly in the shape of Cuba.
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Results: one of the best cocktails ever.
The Other El Presidente
1½ ounces Havana Club 3 Años ½ ounce Bols curacao ¾ ounce French dry vermouth ½ teaspoon Rose's grenadine -- Same directions as above.
Results: god-awful. Some brands of hairspray may actually taste better.