Month o’ rum: El Presidente prelude

havana-american-jockeyTo continue my month of rum, I want to turn now to a classic rum cocktail that’s sadly little known outside of cocktail-geek circles–the El Presidente. But which El Presidente cocktail? There appear to be at least three. A 1967 issue of Gourmet magazine discusses a version made of gin, orange juice, apricot brandy, pineapple juice, and grapefruit juice, with a little bit of grenadine. My god, that sounds awful, and just the sort of crap people were drinking in the 1960s. Why even bother with the gin? Just use vodka and enjoy your sticky sweet fruit juices without anything flavorful getting in the way.

There’s a daiquiri variant (remember, a daiquiri is simply rum, simple syrup, and lime juice) that takes away the simple syrup and adds pineapple juice and grenadine as the sweetening agent. That sounds like a good drink, but it’s not what I’m going for.

History in a Glass

Nope, the version I want uses rum, orange curacao, dry vermouth, and a hint of grenadine. This version arose in Havana, during or just before Prohibition. Accounts, however, differ as to the specifics. Cocktail historian David Wondrich attributes it to an American bartender named Eddie Woelke, who fled the Great Experiment and set up shop overseas, as many American bartenders did during those years. Woelke apparently bounced around a lot, tending bar in Philadelphia, New York, Nice, and Paris, before finally coming to Havana, where he created many once-popular cocktails, including the Mary Pickford. By this account, Woelke created the drink at the Jockey Club, naming it for then president Gerardo Michado.

Eric Felten, writing in How’s Your Drink?, however, isn’t so sure. He offers an alternative explanation–that the drink was created (by an unknown bartender, presumably, since Felten doesn’t name names) at the Vista Alegre Club in Santiago. In this version of history, the drink is named not for Michado but for an earlier presidente, Mario Garcia Menocal. Who knows? As Wondrich has said elsewhere, the history of the cocktail is inevitably murky because it’s a history that goes down in bars, when people are drinking.

Nonetheless, El Presidente is a drink of Cuban origin, invented to please Americans who traveled to Cuba during Prohibition to drink legally in an exotic environment. Steamships would leave ports in American cities, bound for Havana, and as soon as they entered international waters, teams of stewards would circulate through the ship, bearing cocktails for the passengers. Among the drinks invented or popularized during this period were the daiquiri (and Hemingway’s version, the Papa Doble), the Cuba Libre, the Mary Pickford, and the El Presidente.

Varieties of Orange Liqueur

But enough of the history lesson. As I work through my El Presidente variants, I’ll be trying various combos of rums and orange liqueurs. The vermouth and grenadine will remain the same, although I may play with the quantities a bit. So it’ll be instructive, at this point, to describe and define the classes of orange liqueurs that are on the market. Their differing qualities will bring various flavor elements to play in the drink.

0817smurfCuracao. You’ll notice the recipe calls for orange curacao. This isn’t an unfamiliar product; most people who’ve ever attended a party or two in their lives have seen artificially bright drinks made from a similar product, Smurfy blue curacao. Because of this, curacao has a bad rep, I think, reminding people of cheap party drinks, bad decisions, and awful hangovers. I know that I personally seldom seek out bottles of curacao when I’m restocking my bar.

But curacao doesn’t have to be merely another element in a regrettable weekend; a well-made curacao is an excellent ingredient for many different cocktails. It’s made by taking bitter orange peels, drying them, steeping them in neutral grain alcohol, removing them (and adding other herbs), and then distilling the results of that maceration. The most common brands available are Bols, DeKuyper, and Hiram Walker. These are, from what I understand, pretty interchangeable in drinks.

Grand Marnier. According to some sources, Grand Marnier is a grand curacao–that is, a premium version of curacao. With a brandy base, Grand Marnier is the richest and perhaps the booziest of the orange liqueurs. Mixing with it requires a subtle hand.

Triple Sec. Sweeter than curacao, triple sec is another orange liqueur. Also made from bitter orange peels, it’s triple distilled and therefore higher proof than curacao. Cointreau is a brand of premium triple sec. In fact, Cointreau carried the words “triple sec” on its labels until lesser varieties came along and cheapened the term.

Creole Shrubb. Finally, we have Creole Shrubb, which is a different beastie entirely. Instead of having a base of neutral grain spirit or brandy, Shrubb is based on rhum agricole, a type of rum built on sugarcane juice instead of molasses. Again, this product starts with dried orange peels, which are macerated with spices in sugarcane juice, and then blended into a mix of rhums agricole before being aged in oak barrels. Shrubb is crisper and spicier than any other product on the market.

Mixing up the variants begins tomorrow. Cheers.

7 thoughts on “Month o’ rum: El Presidente prelude

  1. I’m looking forward to your experiments as I just made a fresh batch of hibiscus grenadine. My two attempts using Noilly Prat, Cointreau and Bols Triple Sec were less than stellar. I’ll be interested to hear of your rum choice(s) also!

  2. Don’t forget Mandarine Napoleon liqueur…peels of Sicilian mandarine oranges are dried, macerated in alcohol, distilled & then blended with aged Cognac.

  3. Michael, you’re killing me with this suspense. Get on with the El Presidente Showdown! I have rums to drink and need the variants to use them in!

    As far as orange liqueurs, I generally use the Creole Shrubb or divert away from curacao and use Cointreau (though some argue that this, too, is a curacao). The Shrubb is drier and spicier while the Cointreau is sweeter and smoother.

    Usually in my El Presidentes I opt for the Shrubb to keep the sweetness from getting out of hand.

  4. I’ve been reading through your blog and think you’re doing a fantastic job! I’m new to cocktails. I’m intrigued by cocktail menus at restaurants, but could never decide what to order. Could you recommend a good “starter” cocktail for a novice? I’d like to try Wondrich’s basic recipe but don’t know what kind or brand of spirit to buy. Cheers!

Leave a Reply