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First accurately described in a 1919 article in the New York Evening Telegram, this Cuban mixture of “bacardi [sic], granatin [also sic] and French vermouth” was apparently christened in honor of Mario García Menocal, president of that country from 1913 to 1921 and a man who didn’t mind throwing a lip over a cocktail. A broadly temperate people, the Cubans had only recently learned to appreciate the American mixed drink, but this one they liked. By the mid 1920s, the more discriminating among the massive influx of bibulous Yanquis that American Prohibition brought into the Queen City of the Caribbean had learned to like it too (well, all but Calvin Coolidge, who refused to partake when he was offered one at a Cuban state banquet in 1928). Before long, the Presidente was one of the most popular drinks in the U.S. as well, whether served illegally during Prohibition or legally after. Basil Woon, the wonderfully named society correspondent, deemed it the “aristocrat of cocktails,” and there were many who were of his opinion.
But among the many lessons I’ve learned since is that drinks were generally popular for a reason, and if you can’t find that reason you’re probably doing something wrong. Armed with that insight, I recently took another look at El Presidente and immediately noticed something significant. Among the several Cuban recipes for the drink that exist from the 1920s and ’30s, the earliest one, from the 1924 Manuel del Cantinero by León Pujol and Oscar Muñiz, specifies precisely which type of French vermouth to use, a recommendation that is seconded by the 1928 Cuban bartenders’ association’s official manual and—even more importantly—by the great Constante Ribalaigua, head bartender at Havana’s famous Floridita. Their choice? Vermouth de Chambery. These days Dolin, the chief surviving brand of this regional style, comes in a dry, white style and a sweet, red one like pretty much every other vermouth. But Dolin also makes a “blanc” vermouth, one that’s white but only semi-dry—and, as a little research confirms, this is the style for which the southeastern French town of Chambery was historically known. A quick dash to the bar and Eureka! El Presidente, as it was meant to be. Rich and lightly sweet yet still refreshing, with layers of flavor that are fully integrated into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. There’s your aristocrat.
RECIPES: El Presidente Cocktail