Shots of History: What the Presidents Drank
George Washington was not only the President we look to when it comes to defining the office; he is why two terms was standard until FDR broke the mold with four elected terms. He is why we refer to the person in the office as "Mr. President." He also knew how to relax after a hard day’s work. Just before the Constitution was signed, he invited fifty or so of the people that worked on the document with him to celebrate the completion of this monumental task. They celebrated one impressive feat with another: they consumed “fifty four bottles of Madeira, sixty bottles of claret, twenty two bottles of porter, eight bottles of whiskey, eight bottles of hard cider, twelve bottles of beer, and seven bowls of punch”. What is not recorded is the hangover cure the next day.
Alcohol, in all of its varieties, has been a part of American history from the time that the Pilgrims stopped in Massachusetts because they ran out of beer. The holder of the highest office in the land is not immune to the allure of a cocktail or four a day. Some of them, like George W. Bush and Ruthford B. Hayes (his wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” for her ban on drinking in the White House), abstained completely from drinking. Other presidents drank a little more than was healthy. A few even used the White House and its gardens to make their own drinks; Barak Obama’s staff uses honey harvested on site to brew several varieties of beer, and Teddy Roosevelt used mint grown on the property to make Mint Juleps for his guests.
George Washington, not content with just being an amazing general and president, owned one of the largest whiskey distilleries on the east coast. Washington’s influence in the whiskey world was not limited to making it; distilled spirits were the first product the United States taxed to produce revenue. The new country Washington was now leading had war debts to repay and revenue to generate. After the Revolutionary War, whiskey was the most popular beverage in the United States, thus the tax came to be known as the “whiskey tax”. The citizens in the frontier lands of western Pennsylvania and Kentucky were not going to take the new expense lying down. They refused to pay, often becoming violent with the men sent to collect the taxes. As Washington sent groups to negotiate with the protesters, he gathered a militia to send if negotiations failed. They failed, and just under 13,000 troops moved into Pennsylvania to deal with the insurgents. This broke up the Whiskey Rebellion, with most of its leaders fleeing to the wilds of Ohio and Kentucky. The Whiskey Rebellion is also the only time a sitting president has been with troops in the field.
One hundred miles to the southwest, but still in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was amassing a wine collection that was admired by his contemporaries. He was called on to select the wines for formal events for the president, and was able to get some deals because of his time spent in Europe. While he was there, he experienced the wine cultures of France and Germany, taking extensive notes to try to replicate their successes in the United States. Jefferson once wrote that “We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” He spend his life, and his fortune, building his wine cellar and trying to turn the Virginia Wine Company into the country’s first vineyard. Despite his expertise, and the expertise of other wine experts, he could not combat the unique diseases that attacked his crops or the Virginia soil. It was not until the 1830’s that a working winery was established in New York, and not until the 1970’s that California produced wine that was globally recognized for its excellence. But it was the vision of Jefferson that prepared the earth for these future endeavors.
No discussion about presidents and alcohol would be complete without diving into Prohibition, and the massive impact it had on society. Prohibition itself was around for just under fourteen years, but the drive to temperance lasted a century. William Howard Taft, never a heavy drinker and opposed to the idea of national prohibition, championed the idea of a federal income tax on corporations. This income tax was important to the temperance movement, since alcohol revenue was one of the leading sources of income for the government at the time. The Sixteenth Amendment, an offshoot of this concept, was ratified in 1913, removing the fear that the government would go bankrupt if the country went dry. Woodrow Wilson, a lover of Scotch whisky, did all he could to fight the impending Eighteenth Amendment. He vetoed the Volstead Act, the real muscle of the movement that defined what one could and could not distill. It was overruled by the House, and a long, dry decade began. The Nineteenth Amendment, allowing women to vote, was initially resisted by Wilson, but he eventually became a supporter of the legislation. Many saw this amendment as an indirect thank you to all of the women who helped put the pressure on politicians to promote temperance, even though at the time they had no other political power.
The Democrats ran in 1932 on a platform of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. The country had changed their stance on drinking, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt rode that wave into the Oval Office. That is not to say the office of the president was dry during the Roaring 20s. Warren G. Harding, who voted for Prohibition as a Senator, snuck whiskey with him into the White House and onto the golf course at every opportunity. Herbert Hoover lost not only the economy in 1929, but his wife dumped his collection of fine wines on the day the Eighteenth Amendment took hold. She was well aware that Prohibition allowed people to keep the alcohol they already had, but this was a good excuse to get rid of the liquor she disdained. Hoover would also visit foreign embassies during that time, which were technically foreign soil, for a drink or two. FDR rolled into office not just on the premise he would uncork the casks and allow liquor to flow again, but promoting the fact it would put thousands of distillers, drivers, servers, owners, and other people back to work - and top off the coffers in the treasury. However, it was said by many Roosevelt was a terrible bartender.
Jimmy Carter was one of the presidents to outright ban alcohol in the White House (outside of Prohibition, of course *wink, wink*). He served a non-alcoholic version of wine (usually called “grape juice”) to the media and at dinners. He may not have liked to drink, but he did have an impact on where drinking, especially beer drinking, is today. In 1978, Carter signed a bill into law, H.R. 1337, that allowed adults to brew beer and make wine for personal consumption. It would not be another four years until brew pubs were legalized in Washington state and California, but many of your favorite beers were first brewed in a basement among friends. He may not have deregulated the craft beer industry (like many say), but he certainly helped to get the ball rolling.
There are many, many other stories of presidents and their enjoyment of liquor. Andrew Johnson showed up to his vice presidential AND presidential inauguration drunk. Grover Cleveland limited himself to four beers a day. Four very, very large beers a day. Franklin Pierce was quoted, after not being supported by the Democrats for a second term in 1856, as saying “What can an ex-president of the United States do except get drunk?” He unsurprisingly died in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver. Outside of the amusing stories, there were many instances of how the president was able to, directly or indirectly, influence how we drink. So whether you choose to drain a Snakebite (favored by Bill Clinton) or a glass of Old Grand-Dad on the rocks (as Harry and Bess Truman did), raise a glass to the people who have lead this country. Cheers!