Mastering the El Presidente With Julio Cabrera

In “Masters of X,” we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Julio Cabrera on the oft-overlooked Cuban classic, the El Presidente.

Although it’s not the top-selling cocktail at his Miami bar, Cafe La Trova, Julio Cabrera insists that the El Presidente is the best cocktail—when it’s done right.

Using a recipe he first learned in Cuba, Cabrera has spent three decades “perfecting the elegance” of the Prohibition-era rum classic. Today the bartender—or, in his preferred Cuban parlance, cantinero—says the keys to his spirit-forward variation is simplicity, balance—and blanc vermouth.

The original El Presidente cocktail was first created in Cuba to honor Mario García Menocal, president of that country from 1913 to 1921. Eddie Woelke, an American bartender who worked at the Jockey Club in Havana during the Prohibition years, is usually credited with creating the drink, which began as a mix of equal parts white rum and dry vermouth, sweetened with a barspoon of grenadine. According to some accounts, when Gerardo Machado took over the presidency in 1925, he demanded his own version, resulting in a few dashes of orange Curaçao added to the mix.

“It’s like a Manhattan: very simple but unique,” Cabrera explains. “It’s one of the most beautiful cocktails I’ve tried.”

The first time Cabrera tried one was in 1989, while attending cantinero school in Cuba. That version was made with white rum, dry vermouth and grenadine—no Curaçao. “It was much better than the Rum and Coke I was drinking at the time,” he recalls.

Over time, Cabrera has refined the drink specs. While he has tried many variations—“it’s been an evolution over 30 years,” he says—his preferred version snapped into focus in 2012, while working with late bartender John Lermayer to open The Regent Cocktail Club in Miami Beach. Cabrera was appointed to focus on both rum-driven and Cuban cocktails. “I tried to make them with a modern twist, and [the El Presidente] was one of them,” he recalls.

Compared to the classic equal-parts recipe, Cabrera cuts the vermouth in half: “I think there should be more rum, and just the vermouth as a modifier.” He recommends using a Spanish-style gold rum, specifically Banks 7, a blended aged rum that includes distillate sourced from Panama and Guatemala, among other countries.

Meanwhile, the vermouth should be a mellow blanc. Compared to the more austere dry vermouth, blanc yields a drink that is “more complete, more elegant, more balanced,” says Cabrera.

Cabrera made this swap after reading a 2012 Imbibe article penned by drink historian David Wondrich that suggested semidry blanc-style vermouth from Chambéry would have been the historically accurate choice in Prohibition-era Cuba. These two ingredients create an El Presidente that would have been similar to the ones head bartender Constante Ribalaigua would have mixed at Havana’s famous El Floridita.

The same year that Cabrera made the switch to blanc vermouth, dry Curaçao was reintroduced to the United States via a collaboration between Wondrich and Cognac maker Pierre Ferrand. Cabrera found the drier, bitter orange flavor profile better suited to his variation: “If you’re using blanc vermouth, it will already have a little sweetness,” he explains, and traditional orange liqueur will push the sweetness level over the edge, while the dry Curaçao maintains the drink’s all-important equilibrium. To that, he also adds a barspoon of house-made grenadine, “for color, not for sweetness.”

While most modern-day versions are served with an orange peel garnish, sometimes in tandem with a brandied cherry, Cabrera is adamant: no orange peel floating in the coupe glass. “I don’t think it is nice looking,” he says. Instead, his version calls simply for the orange peel to be expressed, then discarded, while a solitary cherry is dropped to the bottom of the coupe glass.

Of course, not all of his variations on the recipe over the past 30 years have been home runs. For example, his experiment barrel-aging the drink for a couple of months did not stick. “I tried it and said, this is not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I didn’t want it to change the original recipe . . . I keep it simple.”

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