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The Rum Diaries: El Presidente Cocktail

July 13, 2012

What mixes best with white rum? Most would opine fruity mixers like tropical fruits and citrus are the first items to come to mind, and that would not be wrong to conclude. But as a new era of rums and rum connoisseurs is ushered into popular culture, so too does the way we think about rum cocktails. Rum is taking a step back in time, back to a time when even filtered white rums were spirits with body, texture, and flavor.

When Denizen’s proprietary blend of Trinidadian and Jamaican rums was formulated and crafted, it was with cocktails in mind. Specifically those legendary cocktails from the golden era of rum mixology in Cuba like the Daiquiri. It was always expected that Denizen would be recognized as rum that was freeing the flavor of long lost and forgotten drinks. As Martin Cate of the famous Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco puts it “”Denizen is used in several cocktails at Smuggler’s Cove where we’re looking for a historic flavor profile and a product that in a way mimics the smaller batch, less technologically advanced era of distillation.  To make a very long story short, a little less efficiency means more body and character.”

That body and character is what led us to (re)discover a drink that had fallen off the radar for some time. The El Presidente is what is referred to as a ‘spirit-on-spirit’ drink. This means, basically that it is comprised almost completely of spirituous liquids that are similar in their weight and texture and therefore we stir to mix and chill them as opposed to a shaken drink. This basically means that we are trying to maintain the texture and silky smooth mouth feel of the drink by keeping oxygen out when chilling it. It also means that the drink has an overall higher alcohol by volume than your typical sour-style shaken drink. Think Martinis and Manhattans for reference.

Like most noble classic cocktails the El Presidente has unclear origins and has been said to go all the way back to 1919. It’s not clear which of 2 Cuban Commander in Chiefs it may have been named for. It is said to have been offered to and refused by Calvin Coolidge during his visit to Havana in 1928, a time when the U.S. was still fighting to repeal National Prohibiton. Our Rum Diaries segments on Rum Mixology have gone to great length to talk about the vibrant cocktail scene that developed in Havana during this time with Cuban and out of work American ex-pat bartenders combining to forge a surge in creativity. The El Presidente is one of the scarce few stirred drinks held in noble esteem by bartenders from the time and can be more easily compared to a Martini than, say, a Daiquiri. This is what makes the drink special within its context. There are some dead give-aways that call it out as Cuban. Grenadine or pomegranate syrup was a calling card of Cuban bartenders and sort of unusual in this kind of drink. Then there’s the rum…

When I first became aware of this drink while scouring classic cocktail books it called for dry vermouth and the style of rum was listed ambiguously as ‘aged’. No matter what I tried, I just was displeased when I stirred it up.

To put it simply: without rum that can stand out in the final product, this drink falls flat.  Also the dry vermouth just wasn’t working.  What to do with this one? Why was it famous?

It was at this time that I was going back through the lexicon of classics to try Denizen on for size. Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom was the first the point out to me that some new things had come to light about the drink. He explained to me that while doing some independant research, Cocktail Historian Emeritus David Wondrich had stumbled onto the misssing link in the El Presidente. His research led him to the oldest known recipe from 1924 calling for Vermouth de Chambéry. As in the producer Dolin. His research led him to believe that during the time of the El Presidente’s creation, Chambéry producers only exported their Blanc (aka Bianco in Italian) vermouth. When he tried it on for size, he found that it made for a much more balanced cocktail and did us all a great service.

The original El Presidente is made of equal parts of white rum and blanc vermouth, a barspoon of good quality curacao and half a barspoon (for color more than taste) of grenadine. Stirred over ice and garnished with the peel of a lemon or a cocktail cherry.

Below is the recipe that I’ve settled on with our own Noble Blend. The addition of a little orange bitters really fills in the cracks and orange peel instead of lemon accentuates the Curaçao and bitters and really ties everything together nicely.

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1 1/2 oz. Denizen Aged White Rum

1 1/2 oz. Dolin Vermouth Blanc (Martini & Rossi or Cinzano Bianco are fine substitutes)

1 barspoon orange Curaçao or Grand Marnier

½ barspoon real grenadine


Pour all ingredients in a mixing tin and add cracked ice.

Stir ingredients and strain into a chilled glass.

Express the oil from a long cut orange peel then rub its oils on the glass’ rim and place it in the glass skin up.

The El President is BACK! Let us continue to free the flavor of the stirred white rum cocktail. Click here to hear a clip of the folks from Denizen discussing the El Presidente on Damon Boelte’s Speakeasy talk show on Heritage Radio Network.


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