The El Presidente Classic Cocktail: A Cuban Manhattan

An El Presidente Cuban cocktail on white background
El Presidente cocktail / Photo by Sara Littlejohn, styling by Dylan Garret

Imagine a Cuban cocktail. Chances are, the first image that pops to mind is a drink with a healthy dose of lime, small forest of mint or perhaps a frozen, blended drink served in a martini glass.

But one of the reigning champions of Cuban cocktails is a spirits-forward work of art that contains none of these stereotypical trappings. We’re talking, of course, about an El Presidente.

Thought to be invented during Prohibition in the U.S. during the 1930s, the El Presidente is said to have been Cuba’s rum-based answer to the popular Manhattan. U.S. citizens at the time flocked to the island, where alcohol was still legal.

History is a bit unclear as to the exact circumstances that spawned the drink. It’s said to have been created in honor of either Cuban president Gerardo Machado or his predecessor, Mario García Menocal.

Cocktail historian David Wondrich, in his book Imbibe! (TarcherPerigee, revised 2015), credits the cocktail to Constantino Ribalaigua, a Havana bartender who based his drink on blanc vermouth and rum. This makes it similar in structure to the sweet vermouth- and whiskey-based Manhattan, though with a markedly unique flavor profile.

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The result is a balanced cocktail where the source of sweetness is somewhat inverted compared to its popular Northern neighbor. Rather than the spirit providing dryness to balance a sweeter vermouth, a drier vermouth is used to allow the rum’s natural sweetness to shine. A dash of grenadine helps even out the cocktail, compensating for rum’s lack of sugar in comparison to the sweet vermouth of a Manhattan.

Finally, dry Curaçao replaces the bitters found in a Manhattan. This biting liqueur, made with bitter laraha orange, provides a more citrus-forward, aromatic profile than Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters signature spice.

Regardless of its murky history, the El Presidente is a classic Prohibition-era Cuban cocktail that can still stand toe-to-toe with more well-known drinks like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Store-bought grenadine can work in a pinch, but the simple recipe below will provide far better results.

Ingredients
  • 2 ounces white rum
  • ½ ounce dry vermouth
  • 1 bar spoon dry Curaçao
  • 1 bar spoon grenadine (recipe below)
  • Orange peel, for garnish
Directions

In chilled mixing glass filled with ice, add all ingredients except garnish. Stir quickly clockwise for 45–60 seconds, keeping back of spoon against side of glass at all times. Strain into chilled Nick & Nora or coupe glass. Squeeze or twist orange peel over drink to express oils. Drop peel in drink.

Grenadine Ingredients
  • 4 cups unsweetened 100% pomegranate juice
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange flower water
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 ounces vodka or neutral spirit (optional)
Grenadine Directions

In saucepan over medium heat, combine pomegranate juice and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool. Add orange flower water, lime juice and vodka, if using. Stir well, and store in airtight container. Refrigerated, grenadine by itself will keep for 1 month, or indefinitely with vodka.

Published on March 14, 2020