In the Spirit

The Key to the El Presidente

A delicious and historically important style of vermouth

By Tony Cross

Not long ago, I made time to drive to Durham to visit an old friend, Campbell Davis. I’ve known Cam for about six years; we did business together while he was representing the wine distribution company, Bordeaux Fine & Rare. At the time, I couldn’t get any quality white vermouth. BFR carried the Dolin catalog, which is represented by another distributor, Haus Alpenz. When I found out that BFR was representing Haus Alpenz, too, I was thrilled. It meant quick access to a variety of quality vermouths, liqueurs, and other mixers. In the time since Cam and I met, I got out from behind the bar and started up Reverie Cocktails and, as of this year, he opened LouElla Wine, Beer & Beverages in Durham. Within five minutes of Cam showing me around his newest venture, he handed me a bottle and said, “I bet you haven’t had this vermouth before.” Damn, Cam. He was right.

To be fair, Cam could’ve handed me any number of bottles that I hadn’t had before. Admittedly, the longer I’ve been grinding with Reverie, the more out of touch I’ve been with newer releases in the spirit and fortified wine category. It doesn’t really matter though; Cam’s quick description had me sold from the get-go. “This is Comoz Chambéry Blanc,” he said. “It’s the second Chambéry vermouth to ever hit the market. Dolin probably purchased the company just to soak up its only competition. It’s really good, but kind of different. A lot of wormwood comes through on this one.” Sold! After I returned home, I decided to read up on the Comoz Chambéry, and see what it was all about. I didn’t have to go far — Haus Alpenz’s online portfolio does an excellent job describing their products, along with its history, and cocktail recipes to boot.

Jean-Pierre Comoz established the House of Comoz in 1856 making it, according to the spreadsheet from Alpenz, “the second vermouthier of Chambéry.” Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry is the oldest, dating back to 1821; Comoz just happened to be previously employed there. Jean-Pierre and company started producing a pale vermouth when they launched. But soon after in 1881, under the leadership of Jean-Pierre’s son, Claudius, they began producing a blanc vermouth, which contained flavors from a selection of wines, plants and fruits. They were the first producers of this crystal clear, semi-sweet vermouth. Dolin followed suit years later with their version of a blanc-style vermouth, sweeter and paler in color. Comoz Chambéry Blanc’s claim to fame was when it made its way to Cuba as the key ingredient (besides rum, of course) in the El Presidente cocktail. More on that in a bit. Unfortunately for the House of Comoz, sales and production declined in the mid-to-late 20th century. In 1981, the house shut its doors. They continued production under contract, but never really seemed to get rolling. In the new millennium, they were non-existent. Enter Dolin. Today, through Dolin’s acquiring of Comoz and Haus Alpenz’s distribution, you can enjoy this Bianco-style white wine for under $20 a bottle.

On its own, the Comoz is just a tad sweet with notes of cherry and stone fruits; it has a nice body to it as well. In a cocktail, I’d recommend starting with what it’s best known for — the El Presidente. Cocktail nerd, Camper English, wrote that, “The drink is credited to German bartender Eddie Woelke, who was working in Havana, Cuba. He may or may not have invented it, but it is believed he refined it sometime between 1913 and 1921.” He also goes on to say that the drink was probably named for President General Mario García Menocal y Deop. It soon became a favorite of the following president, Gerardo Machado. The recipe calls for white rum, blanc vermouth, orange curaçao, and grenadine. I would usually do a 2:1 ratio of rum to vermouth, but with this one, equal parts really let this vermouth shine. As you’re probably well aware, our local ABC doesn’t have much variety in quality rums. Start with Bacardi or Havana Club, but when you get a chance, grab a rhum agricole or a bottle of Caña Brava for a better quality drink. For the curaçao, use Grand Marnier. I don’t think the grenadine is a deal breaker, but if you decide to use it, make your own. It’s garnished with orange oil, with or without the peel. Personally, I like dropping a Maraschino cherry in mine. I’m not a huge fan of cherries in my cocktails, but I think eating it after having that vermouth is simply delicious. Now that the weather is warmer, it’s hard to have just one of these. For me, it’s a fast sipper. Nice and light with a ton of depth. You can pick up a bottle of the Comoz at Nature’s Own, but please, the next time you’re in Durham, stop into LouElla’s and grab one of Cam’s many offerings.

El Presidente:

1 1/2 ounce white rum

1 1/2 ounce Comoz Vermouth de Chambéry

1 barspoon orange curaçao

1 barspoon grenadine

Combine all ingredients in a chilled mixing vessel. Add ice and stir until proper dilution is obtained. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Take a swath of orange peel, expressing its oils over the drink. You may discard or drop the peel into the drink. If you’re feeling feisty, go ahead and add that cherry. PS

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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