By Ana Kinkaid, editor of the culinary magazine CONNECT
If political events — past or present — make you want to drink, you are not alone. American presidents themselves have a long and colorful history of raising the glass (or not) to manage the stress and strain of the times. Just consider…
THE MADEIRA MEN
George Washington, America’s first president (1789-1797), was a member of Virginia’s landed gentry. Despite his grand estate at Mount Vernon, he rejected the offer to be “King of America” and accepted, instead, the elected role of president.
While he brewed “small” low-alcohol beer for sale and dispensed whiskey and rum to “lubricate” voting, his favorite beverage was madeira. The fortified wine made on the Portuguese islands of Madeira was long a favorite of the English ruling class — whom Washington had just defeated to win America’s independence.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) was the son of America’s second president, John Adams, and the nation’s sixth president. As a young man he traveled with his father to Paris and later to the Netherlands, Russia and England. His resulting experiences enabled him in a blind taste challenge to successfully identify 11 of 14 madeiras sampled. Not a poor showing!
Not all of America’s early presidents were madeira drinkers. Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president (1801-1809), was a devoted wine lover. His initial interest in wine grew to a fascination while he was securing France’s support for the American Revolution. He was not concerned that his White House wine bill exceeded his annual salary because he paid for wine himself. He even installed a dumbwaiter to bring the bottles up silently.
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) was the nation’s president during the Roaring Twenties when liquor was declared illegal. Prior to the enactment of Prohibition, Hoover had amassed a large wine collection gathered during his many years of travel abroad. His highly educated wife, Lou Henry Hoover, was, however, a non-drinker and dumped his entire collection down the drain without asking him when Prohibition was enacted. Perhaps she redeemed herself by being a lifetime believer that all girls should be able to join the Girl Scouts, no matter their race or ethnicity,
At least ten American presidents have enjoyed a shot of whisky to brighten the day or steady their nerves. Most famous among this group are Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was America’s first president elected outside the original group of colonial revolutionaries (Washington to Join Quincy Adams). He was a frontiersman, rough and ready. He won the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 when England burned the White House and tried to recapture her American colonies. A man of action, he proudly offered American-made whisky to his guests and they knew to drink it down or face his legendary profanity-laced upbraiding.
After Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) became president. But his problems didn’t start there. At Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865, Johnson was so drunk it was feared he would be unable to take his vice presidential oath. He had tried to treat his cold with whisky and had rather “over-medicated” himself. He was sobered up with hard words and strong coffee just enough to complete his pledge to serve the nation as president if called upon to do so. Less than two months later he became, on Lincoln’s death, president of the United States.
Lyndon B Johnson (1963-1969) was a westerner like Andrew Jackson, yet a man facing a very different world. History records he fought for the passage of the Civil Rights Act but was politically destroyed by the Vietnam War, the first war seen in real-time on American TVs. And Americans did not like what they saw. Perhaps to escape the crushing pressures of his office, Johnson loved a good Scotch whiskey in a tall plastic cup while he drove at high speed around his Texas ranch to the great concern of the Secret Service rushing after him.
THE CHAMPAGNE HOST
Champagne has long been served at White House State Dinners, most recently for the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. Yet Richard Nixon (1969–1974) chose to serve it in an unusual manner. Traditionally one offers the best to one’s guests but Nixon chose to reverse that tradition.
Nixon would drink expensive bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, costing hundreds of dollars per bottle, at the same time he instructed his staff to serve mediocre wine to his guests. Towels were wrapped tightly around the bottles’ labels so the guests would not know that they were drinking a lesser wine. Perhaps a forerunner of the future dishonesty that brought his administration down in disgrace…?
THE AMBER BREW
Many American presidents have liked beer (a little or a lot), but Barack Obama (2009–2017) was the first president to brew beer in the White House. The result was an ale made with honey from the White House’s own bee hives and perfectly reflected the relaxed style of President Obama and his wife Michelle.
BAR NONE LEADERS
Spirits have hardly been ignored by American Presidents, many of whom have enjoyed a cool relaxing cocktail. No less than Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton all found a good cocktail made the day go just a little better.
Teddy Roosevelt (1901–1909) liked mint juleps. He was an athletic man who often enjoyed enticing his suit-wearing cabinet members into playing tennis with him in order to have a meeting. In good humor he rewarded them for their endurance with a refreshing mint julep and a hardy slap on the back with the remark that it was all a “Bully experience!”
Twenty-seven years later, his nephew Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932–1945) would become president during some of America’s darkest days. Though crippled by polio and unable to walk without the aid of braces and crutches, FDR steered the nation through the Great Depression and horrors of World War II. An urban man with a common touch, he enjoyed relaxing with a good cocktail, especially a gin-based martini and sometimes whiskey-based Manhattan.
The elegant style of the John F. Kennedy White House (1961–1963) was often at odds with the personal taste of the president himself. While his remarkable wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, often enjoyed a glass of wine or champagne, the president himself preferred a daiquiri or Bloody Mary — perhaps remembering his early Navy days in the Pacific.
President George Bush Sr. (1989–1993) was half of another father-son presidential duo. After serving two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan (whose favorite cocktail was an Orange Blossom Special), Bush Sr. defeated Michael Dukakis and became president. While he often enjoyed a vodka martini, military actions in the Middle East and an economic recession helped lead to the election of Bill Clinton.
Though Bill Clinton (1993–2001) was born in Arkansas, he traveled abroad as a young Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University were he reportedly developed a fondness for a cocktail known as a Snakebite, a memorable combination of hard cider, lager beer and black currant liqueur that’s certain to leave an impact.
JUST A LITTLE OR NOT AT ALL
It’s important to remember several American presidents who did not imbibe, or only a little when socially required to do so. Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865) had seen good lives destroyed by excessive drinking during his early days as a shopkeeper in the Midwest. As a result, he rarely if ever drank liquor in any form.
President Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877) was the leading general of the Civil war before becoming president. Despite his prowess in battle, he was that unique individual with a low tolerance to liquor. Because of this, he monitored his intake of spirits carefully while president.
Lucy Hayes, known to friend and foe alike as “Lemonade Lucy,” banned all alcohol from the White House. Her husband, Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881) and his less-than-sympathetic staff secretly injected rum into the oranges floating in the punch. When Lucy discovered their actions she substituted rum flavoring for the actual rum and declared herself a loyal member of the Temperance League. The gentlemen adjourned to the nearest bar — or so the story goes.
Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) was also known to drink very sparingly. When he attended the Arms Summit with the Soviets, Carter arranged to have a very small glass of white wine replace the traditional Russian vodka for the obligatory toasts. Probably a good idea as the toasts to peace lasted long into the night.
A difficult family history often plays a part in the decision not to drink. Donald Trump (2017-?) lost his beloved older brother Freddy to alcoholism at the young age of 43. Such a loss may be what prompts Trump to abstain from alcohol, though he rarely discusses his absent brother or his early childhood.
American presidents in their choice of drink are as unique as our country — often spirited, sometimes troubled. Yet friendship and fellowship has seen both them and our nation through the highs and lows that mark our history, and that is something to which we can all raise a glass!