Looking for the Perfect Presidente

27 Sep. 2018
5 of the best bars in the USA present their take on a Cuban classic

It could be argued that there’s no ‘civilized drinking’ culture until you mix your local spirit with vermouth. By that reckoning, the United States reached that stage in the late 1870’s, when its bartenders came up with the Martini and the Manhattan. Cuba did at the very latest in 1915, when the Presidente’s first recipe was published. That is very early, especially if you keep in mind that most commentators or self-styled historians still insist that Cuban cocktail culture owes everything to American prohibition (1919-1933).

The Presidente was very popular until the 1930’s. Like many classics, it almost disappeared over the following decades. Although it’s far from enjoying as much renewed interest as the Old-Fashioned or the Negroni, the cocktail renaissance has given it a new lease of life, as it did to dozen of other ‘lost’ drinks (not all of them worthy of the ‘classic’ tag). 

Over the last twenty years, most Presidentes were either made with dry, French vermouth or sweet, red vermouth. Thanks to the work of David Wondrich, many bartenders realized that the original Presidente vermouth was an altogether different beast: it came from Chambéry and it was what we now call a ‘bianco’ or a ‘blanc’, distinctly sweeter than a dry but less bitter than a red. Many updated their recipes accordingly.

There are as many ways to stir a Presidente as there are to skin a cat… Although the original recipe – and the one used at Floridita – called for ‘carta blanca’ Cuban rum and Chambéry vermouth, Sloppy Joe’s made it with dry vermouth in the early 1930’s. Modern versions that called for aged rum and red vermouth can taste amazing. And one more variation has been thrust upon us: as I personally discovered while investigating the history of this great cocktail a couple of years ago, the Chambéry brand available in Cuba at the time of the Presidente’s creation was the defunct Comoz – an iteration of the style less sweet than what we have now and markedly more alpine in its aromatic profile. Since Comoz has been revived and relaunched this summer, we can expect bartenders to once again change and update their recipes, which means more delightful Presidentes to sample…

More than absolute historical correctness (in many cases a fool’s errand), what matters really is how good your Presidente is. That’s why we decided to pick 5 of the best Presidentes we sampled over the last few months in the United States – it’s after all the country that revived the classics. At Pegu Club, a bastion of traditional drinksmaking, we were delighted by their dry vermouth / Havana Club 3 Años Presidente. At Attaboy, they bumped up the curaçao for a thicker version – they also offered a delicious aged rum / blanc vermouth combo. In New Orleans, at Cuban-themed dream of bar Manolito, the bartender went half dry vermouth / half blanc. Not everything is traditional, though, and we had some revolutionary takes on our beloved Presidente: at BlackTail, they use a bit of mezcal, while at Pouring Ribbons, they do away with vermouth altogether.

For all the details on our quest for the perfect Presidente, follow us on Facebook where you’ll find a Presidente a day. You don’t want to miss that.

François Monti