Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A New Administration for El Presidente

Being out of step with history can really bring on an inferiority complex.

This is how I felt about the El Presidente. For years, I had been told—by books, by drink experts, by bartenders—that this mix of rum, curacao, dry vermouth, and grenadine was one of the classic cocktails of the 20th century, and certainly one of the two eternal libations of Cuba, the other being the Daiquiri. It was created by Eddie Woelke, an American bartender at the Jockey Club in Havana.

I've wanted to like the El Presidente, but I couldn't. Something seemed off about the mixture, unbalanced. Of course, I blamed myself. This was obviously the fault of my immature tastebuds. So many people have loved and respected this cocktail over the decades; how could they be wrong? One night, I tried to force myself to see the light. I made and drank (and thought deeply about) three El Presidentes in a row. 

I didn't see the light. I got sick.

Thereafter, I swore off the cocktail. I didn't like it, and I didn't care who knew it. But I still felt slightly ashamed of the fact.

Then, at Tales of the Cocktail, came sudden relief and insight. I attended a seminar called "Around the World on a Brass Rail." It was led by David Wondrich and Jeff Berry. Berry handled the section of the seminar that covered the proliferation of American-style cocktails in the Caribbean in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Somewhere in there, Wondrich started holding forth on the El Presidente. 

I couldn't believe my ears. Was he really saying that for years he had not liked the cocktail? Yes, he was. He had tried and tried, but disliked the taste. (He told me later that he had experienced a regret similar to mine, and had felt something must be wrong with him for not liking the drink.) But finally, he thought he uncovered the reason why. All modern versions of the recipe call for dry vermouth. Wondrich found an old recipe that called instead for blanc vermouth instead. Blanc is a style that is both white, yet sweet. The arrival of the Dolin vermouths in recent years has introduced many Americans to the blanc style. Wondrich said he mixed up an El Presidente with blanc vermouth instead of dry, and suddenly the drink appealed.

I did the same thing when I returned to my Brooklyn home. The cocktail did taste better. The acrid underpinning of the dry vermouth, which had (to my mind) always warred with the drink's sweeter components, and clawed at the lining of my stomach, was gone. Harmony reigned.

It's still not my favorite drink by a long shot. But I like it a lot better than I did. And this is why we need cocktail scholarship.


SPS said...

Did Mr. Wondrich by chance suggest a particular set of proportions to rectify this libation?

I have made a few quite enjoyable renditions of the El Presidente using this approach (http://rumdood.com/2009/10/12/cocktail-recipe-el-presidente/), though I could see how the bianco vermouth might add some further dynamism.

frederic said...

I 2nd the request for a recipe.

I like the dry vermouth in equal proportion to the orange liqueur for it makes a great balance of sweet and dry (the barspoon of grenadine and the rum do sway things a little).

Doug Ford said...

I had lot of trouble with El Presidente, too. I simply couldn't make sense of the "standard" recipes, and I certainly didn't like them. I think it was the idea that this was supposed to be such a great classic that kept me from giving up---I just couldn't believe my tastes were that far out of whack.

My solution was a little different from yours---I found an early recipe that omitted grenadine and had very little curaçao, and that seemed to provide a much more palatable cocktail. But to my embarrassment, I missed the Dolin clue in that same old recipe: a reference to "Chambery Vermouth." If I had taken a moment to google that phrase, I would have discovered that the first listings are full of references to Dolin's vermouths. I don't know that I would have been clever enough to try the blanc over the dry, but I certainly would have had at hand one of those things that make you say, "hmm..."

You've given me another thing to try---thanks for the posting!

Tony Harion said...

Sound’s like a great way to employ bianco vermouth!

I usually have the Dood’s Presidente and quite like it, but this idea is reason enough to crack up a fresh bottle of bianco.
Thanks for posting, I missed that session

laughterNforgetting said...

I just tried this with Cinzano Bianco and Banks 5 Island Rum and it is really a revelation! I reduced the Cointreau to 1/2 oz given the added sweetness of the vermouth. Fantastic!