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El Presidente: The Most Famous Drink Never Drunk

“Will the president drink it?” a curious America pondered. “To drink or not to drink will be the problem,” commentators commented.

The year was 1928, and perhaps never before nor since had so much press attention been devoted to a single cocktail served to a single person. The setting was the mirrored ballroom in Havana. The event was the official state dinner for the attendees of the Sixth International Conference of American States. The host was President Gerardo Machado of Cuba. The guest of honor was U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.

The cocktail one president was serving to another president in the Presidential Palace? El Presidente, of course. This was an era when politicians could turn presidential up to 11.

El Presidente was already a popular cocktail at the time—“famous among tourists to Cuba,” according to a United Press International reporter on the scene. The mix of rum, vermouth, curaçao, and grenadine was also said to be a favorite of “the sports-loving president of Cuba.”

The beverages served at the state dinner were overseen by Otto Precht, then wine steward of the Sevilla-Biltmore hotel and according to the New York Daily News an “expert blender of liquors.” The Daily News, in covering the run-up to the conference, also noted that all those who’d tasted Precht’s handiwork were confident the president would drink one. “Those who know President Coolidge predict that he will not.”

Coolidge wasn’t being served the drink in normal times, of course. He was then the “President of the greatest prohibition country in the world,” the Daily News wrote, and found himself between the rock of being polite to his hosts and the hard place of setting an example of temperance for his nation. He would be confronted by a “problem of social etiquette, as delicate as any political problem that he has ever faced.” (“What’n Cuba’ll Coolidge Drink?” asked the Daily News headline—which makes one wistful about the decline of creative contractions among copy editors today.)

[Coolidge] was a small-government conservative who found the role of being national nanny for nondrinkers to be, well, a little unpresidential.

While Prohibition was the law of the land, the president was a reluctant enforcer. He’d campaigned against Prohibition when he ran for governor of Massachusetts. He was a small-government conservative who found the role of being national nanny for nondrinkers to be, well, a little unpresidential. In 1926, he even cut funding for the Prohibition Bureau by 3.5 percent. He was said to be fond of a glass of Tokay in private.

Yet based on his dour appearances, Coolidge seemed a poster child for Prohibition. He was born in Vermont, lived in Massachusetts, and came off as a classic, buttoned-down New Englander. He was not someone given to unprovoked hilarity, nor the type who would grab you by the elbow and steer you toward a bar for a shot and a chinwag. Coolidge maintained an alcohol-free White House as president. He may be best remembered for something said about him rather than by him. Upon being told he had died, the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker asked of a companion, “How can they tell?”

Cuba and its lack of similarity to New England apparently prompted Coolidge to loosen his collar a bit. A reporter observed that his “stern Vermont visage” relaxed upon arrival by ship from Key West, and “the President began to smile as those constantly near him have seldom seen him smile. He continued to smile until he left Havana.”

Between speeches and formal events, Coolidge was feted around the city. He attended a jai alai game. He chatted with other dignitaries, their every word registered by “talking movie machines.” He visited President Machado’s farm, where he “showed a sudden interest in the landscape when cocktails were served.”

“Presidente?” asked Machado, ambiguously. Coolidge looked to another for aid. “Maybe” came the answer.

Prior to the grand dinner, a cartoon published in a Cuban newspaper showed Coolidge and Machado each holding a glass of champagne. “Presidente?” asked Machado, ambiguously. Coolidge looked to another for aid. “Maybe” came the answer.

The dinner served up other temptations in addition to the El Presidente cocktail. Offerings included rare wines with the meal, and an 1811 brandy to sip afterward. Newspaper reporters weren’t allowed in, but they pressed guests afterward to learn what happened.

“He Did Not!” blared the UPI headline in American papers the next day. “The United States President refrained from taking any of the choice alcoholic drinks that were offered.”

It was also reported that he did offer a toast. Coolidge saluted his hosts with a glass of water. Given the era, perhaps the most presidential drink of all.

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