Drinking With the Presidents

Photo by ctj71081 via flickr
Photo by ctj71081 via flickr

We celebrate many of our national holidays on Mondays, and that is not by coincidence. Congress signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 to give workers more three day weekends. Until that point, holidays like Memorial Day (May 30th) and Veterans Day (November 11th) were celebrated on the day they occurred. This bill went into effect on New Year’s Day in 1971, requiring Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day to be celebrated on a Monday. Most of them have stayed on that day; only Veterans Day returned to its normal spot after codes were updated in 1978. The other change that has occurred over time is how we celebrate Washington’s Birthday. It was not until the 1960s that the idea of “Presidents' Day” was floated. Even then it was only adding Lincoln to the celebration, since his birthday was relatively close to Washington’s. It is not until the last decade or so that the idea of celebrating the lives of the presidents caught on, setting the tone for how we now celebrate it. On a federal level, however, it is still Washington’s Birthday.

Whiskey Rebellion
Whiskey Rebellion

A discussion of presidential drinking has to start with Washington. It is not that he was a lush; by all accounts, most presidents were moderate drinkers. He just knew the power of a good drink. It helped him win his first elected office, providing 160 gallons of liquor to the 309 fine men who voted him into the Virginia House of Burgesses. When he finally left office, he celebrated with 114 bottles of wine, 42 bottles of beer, and eight bottles of whiskey for him and his 54 guests. He was a distiller of some of the best rye in the country, as well as a suppressor of people wanting to not pay taxes on their bourbon. It is difficult to find a president that has that much of a relationship with liquor.

Presidency and moderate drinking go hand and hand for a reason. One reason is age. Ask anyone you know that is over 40, and drinking loses a little bit of its shine in later years. The youngest man to hold the office was the  42 year-old Teddy Roosevelt. He assumed the role when William McKinley was assassinated. Teddy was not much of a drinker. He did enjoy a special mint julep on occasion, but he rarely touched other hard liquor. The youngest man to be elected to the office is the 43 year-old John F. Kennedy, who did enjoy some drinking. Daiquiris and Bloody Marys were his cocktails of choice, along with the periodic Heineken. His drinking was limited by the medicines he was taking for his debilitating back pain. Additionally, when Russia is sitting with missiles just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, it has a sobering effect.

James Buchanan
James Buchanan

Another reason is the incredible responsibility that goes with the presidency. Even on vacation, presidents really don’t get an off day. Ulysses S. Grant was an infamous boozer when he was a general in the Civil War. He was frequently intoxicated before, during, and after battles on large amounts of Champagne or whiskey. When the General became President, he cut back his (public) drinking to just a glass or two of wine at public events. In fact, he became a wine aficionado after he occupied the Oval Office, frequently choosing the wine that went with dinners.

George W. Bush is another president with a relatively wild youth, which had calmed down by the time he became president. Part of that process was waking up with a raging hangover after his 40th birthday. That, and pressure from First Lady Laura Bush, convinced him to change his partying ways.

President Bush (43) was not the only teetotaler who has walked the halls of the White House. Jimmy Carter was not a drinker, and had the White House emptied of spirits during his time there. If he did have to drink, he enjoyed a glass of white wine. Abraham Lincoln, who would be well forgiven for having some drinks during his time in office, was not a drinker. But he was quite familiar with liquor. He studied law while working at a Berry and Lincoln, a general store that served liquor. His alcoholic partner drank most of the profits, and he sold his part of the business to his partner six months into the venture. Rutherford B. Hayes would spike punches at White House events with rum, since his wife was deep into the temperance movement. Just because Prohibition hit does not mean the government dried out. Warren G. Harding brought a bottle of whiskey with him on the golf course, and his poker nights were legendary for being filled with smoke and overflowing with booze. Herbert Hoover is said to have had an incredible wine collection, which the sewers enjoyed when Prohibition hit. His wife poured it all down the drain. Our current president, Donald Trump, never was a drinker. A personal tragedy early in his life steered him away from liquor, and he encourages his family to do the same.

Teddy Roosevelt in 1914
Teddy Roosevelt in 1914

The flip side of not touching the stuff? Overindulging. It is more common for Presidents to drink less when they assume their mantle, but not always. Legally, there is nothing in the United States that specifies what to do if the President is hammered. Richard Nixon, though not a crook, had a criminally low tolerance for alcohol. Henry Kissinger once told a story where Nixon was intoxicated and trying to decide what part of southeast Asia was ripe to see the business end of our nuclear arsenal. Cooler heads prevailed, and they allowed the president to sleep it off and reconsider in the morning. Fortunately, Nixon was more of a drunk dialer, calling anyone on his staff and speaking with them until he fell asleep. Gerald Ford was an old-school gentleman who enjoyed the three-Martini lunch even as he transitioned into his new role as president. At the urging of his advisors, he gave up the habit of the lunches, but not the Martinis. Lyndon Johnson was also a healthy drinker, mostly of Scotch and soda. He drank that, or a few cans of Pearl lager, while driving around his Texas ranch. If the drink of the day was Scotch and soda, he would hold the empty cup out of his car door, shake the ice, and the secret service would fill it up.

LBJ was not the only president that enjoyed beer, or even cider. John Adams started every day with a nip of cider, and William Henry Harrison ran his campaign as the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate. It showed he was in touch with the people, instead of lazy as the Democrats tried to portray him. Hard cider was given out as some of his campaign stops, but the only drinking he would have done as president was brandy or whiskey. They would have used it to treat the illnesses ravaging his body that killed him one month into his presidency. At one point Grover Cleveland tried to limit his beer intake to four glasses a day. As this task became more and more difficult, the glasses became larger and larger, until he was drinking out of steins. President Obama brought his love of beer to the next level, brewing his own beer at the White House utilizing the honey their bees produced.

President Truman with Churchill
President Truman with Churchill

President Obama was successful in creating his preferred libation on the grounds of the White House. President Thomas Jefferson was not. While he bankrupted himself building an impressive wine collection, he was never able to coax the vines planted in Virginia to produce a decent grape. Wine, Madeira, and sherry were popular in the early days of the country, since many of our early presidents still had a taste for European fineries. Some presidents took it too far; James Monroe ferreted away over one thousand bottles of Champagne and French wine that were purchased with a budget that was supposed to go to furniture. It is said that John Quincy Adams was so fond of Madeira that he was able to identify 11 of the 14 glasses presented to him in a blind taste test. That is impressive by any standards.

Row of wine glasses on barrel in winery cellar
Row of wine glasses on barrel in winery cellar

Whiskey frequently found its way into the presidential liquor cabinet. Andrew Jackson was a such a fan of whiskey he distilled at his home it before he came to office. His distillery burned in 1801, just before he began his military career that would march him to the presidency. It is said that Harry Truman started many of his days with a shot of whiskey to get him moving. His brand of choice was the bonded Old Grand-Dad. If it was not straight, he would take it in an Old Fashioned. Woodrow Wilson enjoyed Scotch and soda, even sneaking a cask of Scotch out with him when he departed the Oval Office. His staff based his campaign song on a jingle for a popular whiskey. Dwight Eisenhower could not drink much because of a heart condition, but he had a Scotch and soda with his meals. Maybe two, if he was feeling rebellious. The whiskey drinker that put them all to shame was James Buchanan. While never showing the toll that alcohol was taking on him, he was putting it away. He’d purchase a ten-gallon jug of whiskey from a distillery ONCE A WEEK, in addition to enjoying Cognac and other liquors.

The presidency is a tough job, and it is understandable that the man (so far) doing the job would need to periodically take the edge off. The drinking habits of the presidents reflect so much about not just the man himself, but the attitude of the country towards drinking in general. Even during Prohibition, when politicians drinking habits were as scrutinized as his policies, the Imbiber in Chief was sneaking drinks when he could. Presidents' Day is a day where we take the time to show a little respect, and raise a glass to the difficult job of running the highest office in the land. Just pick your favorite president and pour yourself a glass of whatever they are having. After all, on the federal level we are still just throwing a birthday party for George Washington.