MAY 2006 – NO. 6
Tracking a lost Cuban cocktail to its lair.
In the savage ecosystem of the cocktail lounge, newly invented mixed drinks generally appear from nowhere, compete fiercely for a time, and then disappear. Some fine concoctions claw their way to the top and remain there exceedingly pleased with themselves, like lions on the savannah. The whiskey old-fashioned, the Manhattan, and the mint-julep — all of which have been around for more than a century — are among the best examples of this. Meanwhile, many execrable drinks are chased into the swamps, where they die a slow and lingering death. This is as it should be. The world is not a lesser place because nobody remembers how to make a Harvey Wallbanger.
In this chaotic and often brutal environment, however, many noble cocktails tragically and inexplicably disappear. Among them: the Eighth Ward, the Bronx (and its variant, the Income Tax Cocktail), the Jack Rose. At times, a drink is lost because its ingredients have gone extinct, such as forbidden fruit liqueur, an essential ingredient in, among others, the Pousse Cafe Variation #5 and the Adam and Eve. Other drinks flare up like a sudden sunspot and then disappear for little reason, scarcely leaving a shadow. Does anyone remember the "Atoms for Peace" cocktail of the mid-1950s, made of brandy, champagne, and blue curacao? I didn't think so.
To my mind, the lost cocktail most worthy of lamentation and keening is El Presidente, a mix of rum, curacao, vermouth, and grenadine, which had its heyday from the 1920s through the 1940s. It has more or less vanished without a twist. In only one city is this not the case: the place where it was created, and where I first happened to sip it: Havana, Cuba.
Old Havana is rightly famous for its splendid historic architecture, but it's also an unheralded preserve for Prohibition-era drinks. Havana, after all, was the Las Vegas of North America during the dry years of Prohibition (1920-1933). Great fleets of ships and planes conveyed hordes of thirsty Americans south to Havana, and hundreds of bars and nightclubs strove to accommodate them.
According to Esquire cocktail editor David Wondrich, El Presidente was created by Eddie Woelke, an American bartender at the Jockey Club in Havana. He shrewdly named the drink in honor of President Gerardo Machado, who ruled Cuba throughout most of the Prohibition years. Basil Woon, author of When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba, wrote in 1928 of El Presidente, "It is the aristocrat of cocktails and is the one preferred by the better class of Cuban."
That same year the eponymous President Machado himself offered an "El Presidente cocktail" to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, who was attending a conference, inside Havana's opulently mirrored Hall of the Presidents. This was a moment of unsurpassed presidentiality. It may also have been a moment of some awkwardness, what with Prohibition in the U.S. and all. A reporter noted that Coolidge declined the drink.
After Repeal, El Presidente crossed the Florida Straits and headed north, where it was met with popular but not universal acclaim. In the late 1930s some drinkers in New Orleans, resentful of the intrusion, "staged a revolution and invented the El Dictador, because a dictator ... can kick the pants off a president," according to one newspaper columnist.
The coup failed. As late as 1949, Esquire's Handbook for Hosts noted, "The vanguard of Manhattan's cognoscenti has discovered what regulars of El Chico in the Village have known for many a moon: the El Presidente cocktail is an elixir for jaded gullets."
Yet this fine drink appears to have been deposed (or perhaps more properly, impeached) soon after, since it more or less vanished. Today if you go into a bar and ask for an El Presidente, you will be rewarded for your efforts with a blank stare. At bars with more competent and conscientious bar staff, the bartender will nod smartly at your request then discretely flip through a bar manual. In this case, you will be served something way too red and way too sweet.
In Havana you can track down many Prohibition-era drinks still lurking in their original lairs. El Floridita, on Obisbo Street just down from the Parque Central, was where the daiquiri was made famous, in large part because Ernest Hemingway was characteristically prodigious in consuming them here. (He set the house record of 16 double daiquiris in a single sitting.) Not far away is the Bodeguita del Medio, which serves up mojitos by the thousands. This, too, is a Prohibition-era Cuban drink, although one that's happily returned to fashion in many of the better bars of the United States. In the world of the cocktail, resurrection is not impossible.
Across town, I ordered a mai tai in a basement bar below a boxy hotel. What made this striking was that this was the former Trader Vic's at the former Havana Hilton, which had been open less than two years before Fidel Castro came rolling into town. Castro set up his provisional government at the Hilton, and as I sipped my drink I thought of him and his "bearded ones" kicked back in the rattan chairs and enjoying fruity cocktails. The restaurant is now called the Polynesia, but I compared photographs of opening night in 1958 with its present condition, and found it to be more or less untouched, with the same furniture and woven-grass ceilings. So strong was the glow of my self-satisfaction in stumbling upon this place that I was not only able to overlook the wrinkled 70-something American canoodling with a busty 20-something Cuban two tables away, but it didn't disturb me that my mai tai was wholly unpotable.
This is not an uncommon problem. The name of a cocktail may live on, but the drink itself often evolves to become a caricature of its former self. It lacks depth and character. It totters into an imbalance — too sharply alcoholic, too treacly, too sour. The drink wanders off track, gets confused in the weeds, and never finds its way back.
In truth, drinks rarely get lost — it's society that gets lost. This occurred most notably during Prohibition, the dark ages of cocktail culture. Americans not only lost the knowledge of making sophisticated drinks, but they forgot what a good cocktail tasted like. When Repeal came along, Americans were happy to suck down anything an untrained bartender plunked down in front of them. In 1937, the Seven-Eleven mix was introduced, a sweet and sour potion that allowed unskilled bartenders to avoid the high-wire act of finding the right balance between sour, sweet, strong, and weak. It was a first step toward the mass-marketization of the bartending craft, and bartenders soon became workers on an assembly line rather than individual craftsmen making one-of-a-kind cocktails.
The daiquiri and mai tai, especially, descended into the netherworld of powdered pre-mixes. The daiquiri — once a finely handcrafted drink that took a high level of skill to properly balance the sweet and tart — never fully regained its footing; today it is typically served as a slushee that, if consumed immoderately, will give you a hangover. The mai tai is perhaps the most tragically debased. You always order one at your own peril, since there's no standard for it. You often are handed a lavish fruit salad, slightly enlivened with rum.
I sipped my first El Presidente at a bar just down the block from my hotel in Havana, sitting at a sidewalk café near the park where the vendors sold old books and postcards of Che Guevara. Also on the menu was the Mary Pickford, another lost cocktail of Prohibition, which is pink and ladylike and served with a large wedge of pineapple.
Sipping my first El Presidente was revelatory. It had the rounded smoothness of a good rum, lent a slight edge by the musty, earthy appeal of dry vermouth. The curacao gave it a light sweetness, which was pleasingly tempered by the pomegranate pucker of the grenadine. El Presidente is one of cocktail history's missing links — part tropical treat, part sophisticated lounge drink, and wholly Cuban. Trader Vic, who may have done more than anyone else to make rum popular in the 20th century, got it exactly right it when he wrote that the "Cuban Presidente" was "the 'martini' of Cuba and, to me, a lot better than our own."
I've been tinkering with El Presidente at home, and each time I make one I feel as if I'm constructing a small memorial to Prohibition, an era that has no monuments or museums to allow us to reflect on the frequent idiocy of American public policy. But El Presidente is not hard to make well, and it affords an opportunity to reflect on what's been lost.
Here's my advice: don't use a thin, cheap rum like Bacardi white — a spirit that's a mere shadow of what it once was. Yes, this would have been the original rum in El Presidente — Bacardi was omnipresent in Havana during Prohibition — but the company has lost either the will or the way to make an exceptional rum. I've sipped Bacardi white that was distilled in 1925, and, my friend, I'm here to tell you that the Bacardi of today does not even live in the same neighborhood. If you can get some of Prichard's white rum, made in Tennessee, I'd use that instead. Otherwise, substitute a decent aged rum, even if it's dark.
Curacao you can find at a good liquor store, but if not, substitute a good triple sec or even an orange liqueur like Grand Marnier. Grenadine is supposedly made from pomegranate juice, but today it's often manufactured from sugar syrup flavored with cherry and raspberry and a bit of vanilla. If you can find pomegranate molasses at a store selling Middle Eastern foods, use that, although I warn you it's hard to get it to dissolve and it gives the drink the look of an ill-tended aquarium.
But don't worry about appearance. Just sit back, close your eyes, and sip. The vanquished past, you'll find, never tasted quite so good.
Over ice in a tall mixing glass, pour:
- 1-1/2 oz. rum
- 3/4 oz. curacao
- 3/4 oz. dry vermouth
- 1/2 tsp of grenadine
Stir well with ice for three or four minutes, then strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel twist.
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