Barrel-Aging Cocktails: El Presidente

Barrel-aged cocktails seem to be everywhere. It is hard to imagine a back bar without a small one- or two-liter barrel perched on some out of the way corner or shelf. As more and more bartenders become barrel-obsessed, menus have expanded with the results of their experiments. But this trend that has so effected so many is quite understandable. My attention and interest were greatly captivated when I first read about Tony Conigliaro's and Jeffrey Morgenthaler's experiments aging cocktails. And while it is true that I was never all that interested in barrel-aging spirits myself until I did it, the idea of barrel-aging a cocktail has fascinated me for years.

With my seasoned barrel recently empty, and two wonderfully unique barrel-aged spirits on my shelf, it was finally time to try my hand at barrel-aging a cocktail. But which one?To me this choice was obvious. Years ago while at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, I was lucky enough to taste two of Jeffrey Morgenthaler's barrel-aged beauties: a Negroni and an El Presidente. And while the Negroni was superb, I could never forget the sublime taste of the El Presidente. As the choice seemed clear, then came the hard part--what recipe do I use. Which El Presidente had captured my heart?

The first El Presidente I ever tasted predates that outing to Portland. In fact, it must have been close to five years ago when I first concocted a drink with this name according to the recipe in the Art of the Bar. I remember enjoying it very much, but my memories stop there. Absent is that Wow factor that makes a cocktail stand out over time. As my interest in classic cocktails grew, I discovered that this version was less like an El Presidente and much more akin to the Palmetto, another rum and sweet vermouth cocktail that also happends to be a favorite. Essentially a rum Manhattan, the Palmetto can be traced at least to 1912, where it was included in an addendum to Cocktail Bill Boothby's The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them, originally published in 1908. Though the Hollinger/Schwartz version swaps Peychaud's for Angostura and uses proportions designed for more modern palates, the recipes are incredibly similar. 

El Presidente (Holllinger/Schwartz, Art of the Bar)

2 ounces Ron Pampero Anniversario rum
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

But this is was not the El Presidente in the Clyde Common barrel that so affected me. That cocktail had a lightness and delicacy that sweet vermouth would have undermined. My search continued. What I discovered was a cocktail created in Cuba that gained popularity during Prohibition when many thirsty Americans flocked there. Though its specific origin is oft disputed, this is perhaps the most widely accepted recipe for the El Presidente.

El Presidente (Wayne Curtis, LOST magazine) 

1 1/2 ounces white rum
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
3/4 ounce orange curacao
1/2 teaspoon grenadine

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Sadly, this recipe has never really worked for me. Something about the way the rum clashes against the dry vermouth has always pushed me away instead of drawing me in. Even after playing around with the proportions or substituting a more flavorful aged rum, the El Presidente has always remained a tough sell. That is, until I read the September/October 2011 issue of Imbibe magazine.

David Wondrich, cocktail historian extraordinaire, in his monthly column often discusses the origins of classic cocktail, and sometimes exceptionally obscure ones. He points out that cocktails that are truly indisputably classic "it has to have some kind of history, it has to have achieved lasting popularity or fame, and it has to taste great." His point is valid. A cocktail that deserves resurrection should stand out, it should transcend its time or place. Sure, ingredients may need to be fudged, or its proportions reevaluated, but without that certain something, why even bother? In his article on the El Presidente, Wondrich reveals a recipe that specifically calls for vermouth from Chambery, France. While French vermouth is often interpreted as meaning the dry style that is more common, there is a demi-sec white vermouth that actually hails from Chambery, Dolin blanc. Even more telling is the fact that Chambery was at that time widely known for this style of aperitif. If the substitution is made, the El Presidente is transformed from something easily forgettable into a well-balanced, delicious concoction.

One night while preparing to make a sweet white vermouth El Presidente, I noticed that I was dangerously low on Dolin blanc. A quick tour of the fortified wine section of my refrigerator revealed a bottle of Cocchi Americano. Thus, a night spent curled up with a new favorite quickly turned into an opportunity for an experiment. Sweet and light, with hints of orange and a twinge of bitterness, the Cocchi seemed to match the direction of the cocktail in theory. The resulting cocktail was wonderful and it is now my house El Presidente variation.

El Presidente (Randall house version)

1 1/2 ounces white rum
1 1/2 ounces Cocchi Americano
1 bar spoon curacao
1/2 bar spoon grenadine

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist an orange peel over the drink and discard.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Appleton white rum, Cointreau, and a homemade grenadine.

While I may never know the exact recipe of the El Presidente that Jeffrey Morgenthaler uses in his barrel, I always knew that it would be my first choice. Since I acquired a barrel shortly after discovering the sweet white vermouth El Presidente, it seemed obvious to use that recipe. In fact, my spirit of choice for the barrel-seasoning process was greatly informed by the ingredients in the El Presidente. If barrel-aging cocktails is going to be on the menu, it seems only natural to preplan your seasoning to further enhance the cocktail later on. And what results they were!

After six weeks in the barrel, the normal light, rich slightly fruity notes had deepened. Vanilla notes and the easily distinguishable taste of oak mingled with the lightly funky barrel-aged Wray and Nephew to added an additional layer of depth and interest. As the flavors evolved and transformed, the Cocchi seemed to stand out more and drive the flavor profile, though not dominate it. Indeed this barrel-aged El Presidente turned out better than I could have imagined.