El Presidente is a rum drink for those who don’t care for limes. You may dislike the little green orbs because you have digestive issues. Or perhaps you have a serious personality flaw—I mean, who doesn’t like limes? Or maybe you just believe that limes are for summer, best reserved for daiquiris and mojitos. That last argument is debatable, but defensible.
In any case, El Presidente is less daiquiri and more Manhattan, less summer and more winter. “It’s the only elegant, spirit-forward Cuban cocktail,” says Julio Cabrera, a Cuba native and proprietor of Cafe La Trova in Miami’s Little Havana. The drink is on his menu, and the restaurant is where I became reacquainted with it earlier this year. “It’s one of my favorite cocktails,” Cabrera told me. “That and the Hemingway daiquiri, depending on time of year and time of day.” Cabrera, it should be noted, holds no animosity toward limes.
I first sipped an El Presidente fifteen years ago, in Havana, at a sidewalk café across from a vendor selling postcards of Che Guevara. It was revelatory. Rum, it seemed, had suddenly grown up. Instead of wearing a backward baseball cap and lurching disconcertingly at a beach party, here was rum in a top hat dancing on my tabletop with the grace of Fred Astaire. “It is the aristocrat of cocktails,” wrote the impeccably named Basil Woon in his impeccably titled 1928 book, When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba.
The drink is said to have first been concocted in Cuba around 1913, and was named in honor of President Mario García Menocal. It consisted of equal parts rum and vermouth, with a dash of grenadine. It was notable enough that when President Calvin Coolidge visited Havana in 1928, Cuba’s president offered him one at the presidential palace. This was obviously a moment of peak presidentiality. However, it was also the moment of Prohibition in the United States, in an era when presidents believed public actions conveyed private meaning. Coolidge declined the drink.
Later, the addition of curaçao liqueur gave the cocktail a subtle citrus note, and by the 1930s, it had become a mainstay at El Floridita, Havana’s high temple of Cuban quaffing. Here, bartending virtuoso Constantino Ribalaigua Vert perfected the drink’s proportions and established it as a classic. Cabrera experimented with a variety of vermouths and rums. His ultimate preference was for Banks 7, a blend of rums from an array of countries, and either Comoz or Dolin Blanc Vermouth de Chambéry. His choice of curaçao is Pierre Ferrand.
El Presidente is a cocktail that thrives in obscurity, invariably pleased when an adventurous toper discovers it. Cabrera admits that it’s not one of his top sellers. His customers are perhaps hesitant to order a rum drink that fails to fraternize with lime. “But when they try it,” Cabrera says, “they fall in love.