Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Spirit of ‘76

My good friend and personal bartender, Chuck, has been researching the favorite drinks of the Presidents.  It turns out that several of these drinks actually sound pretty good, and we are slowly working our way through them.  Chuck is working on his own bartender’s guide, and when he is ready, I’m sure he will share it with you.   But his research has reminded me of several anecdotes about presidential drinking I thought I might share.

Stories of Ulysses Grant’s drinking are legendary—and mostly apocryphal.  Don’t get me wrong, Grant had a well-exercised elbow, but every drinking anecdote from the nineteenth century—and earlier—was attributed to the man.  But there is one story that is both undeniable, and yet rarely remembered.

Grant lay dying of cancer of the throat, caused at least in part, by the 10,000 boxes of cigars that had been sent to him by admirers.  Unconscious and close to death, Grant was sprinkled with holy water by a minister who pronounced him converted and baptized.  As a doctor forced a little brandy between the lips of the dying president, he suddenly regained consciousness.

“It is Providence!” exclaimed the minister.

“No,” said the doctor.  “It was the brandy.”

While Grant may have had the reputation, in fact the president who drank the most may have been James Buchanan.  When he took office, he replaced the funereal Franklin Pierce. (Actually, that is a little unkind, as Pierce and his wife watched their son Bennie die when he was crushed to death in a train accident while en route to the inauguration.  Pierce blamed himself, believing that God was punishing him for the having the hubris to run for office.  The Pierces’ four years in the White House were indeed a long and unhappy funeral.)

Buchanan wasted no time in telling the purveyor of spirits to the White House that small bottles of champagne were no longer required.  “Pints are very inconvenient in this house,” he told them, “as the article is not used in such small quantities.”  Supposedly, the amount of wine and spirits consumed during his term could have quite literally filled a cellar.

Buchanan used to stop off at the distillery of Jacob Baer on the way home from church to purchase a ten gallon cask of “Old J. B. Whiskey.”  Not only did Buchanan regard this as a fine whiskey, but he made no effort to disabuse White House guests who believed the initials meant it was his own private label.

President Harry Truman also enjoyed a few drinks while in the White House--actually, more than a few.  First thing every morning, Harry had a shot of Wild Turkey, followed by a glass of orange juice.   Later, just before dinner, Bess and Harry would have an Old Fashioned.  Shortly after the couple moved into the White House, Bess ordered their usual drinks from the butler.  While the President and his wife finished the drinks, the next night they requested that the drinks be made a little dryer.  “They were too sweet,” Bess complained.  So the butler carefully made the drinks with much less sugar, but the following night, the Trumans still requested that the drinks be made still drier.  Peeved, the butler added a little ice to two glasses and then filled them to the brim with straight bourbon.

“Ahhh” said the President.  “That’s the way we like an Old Fashioned.”
When Jimmy Carter was president, his brother Billy was the most famous alcoholic in the country.  He peddled “Billy Beer”, played the drunk on television, and once publicly asked faith-healer Ruth Carter Stapleton to cure a hangover. 

When asked his favorite drink, Billy answered quickly.  “Bourbon” he said.  “All southerners drink Bourbon.  Never trust a scotch drinker, they really prefer bourbon, but they are just putting on airs.  My brother Jimmy used to drink bourbon, but when he decided to get into politics, he switched to scotch.”

Very few of our presidents have been teetotalers. President Rutherford B. Hayes’ wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” because she refused to allow alcohol in the White House, and George W. Bush swore off alcohol before he ran for the office.  Abraham Lincoln rarely drank, and sent the numerous gifts of alcoholic beverages he received to nearby military hospitals.

The vast majority of our founding fathers enjoyed a good drink.  During George Washington’s administration, the happy hour began at 3:00 in the afternoon and continued through dinner.  Why is John Hancock’s signature so large on the bottom of the Declaration of Independence?  He may have been feeling no pain.  He was an alcoholic beverage dealer. George Washington himself was at one point the largest distiller of bourbon in the country.

The history books leave a lot of interesting details out today.  Have you ever wondered why the Mayflower (a ship that up to that point had been used mainly to ship beer to France and return to England with wine) dropped off the pilgrims in Massachusetts during the winter?  The original destination was Virginia, but the ship ran out of beer—a surprising fact when you consider that the ship left England loaded with more beer than water.  The colonists started making spruce beer just about as soon as they got ashore.  If they left these details in the history books, maybe students would pay more attention.

There are lots of little stories like this.  Johnny Appleseed gave out apple seeds and seedlings so the pioneers could make hard cider.  Patrick Henry was a bartender.  At the first Thanksgiving, no one ate cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, or pumpkin pie.  They did, however, drink beer, wine, gin, and brandy.  During the early colonial period, tavern owners enjoyed higher social status than preachers.  One of the first buildings at Harvard was a brewery to provide beer for the students.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a tavern, and at Monticello, made his own beer, bourbon, and--according to the Hemings family—his own slaves.  Possibly under the influence—since the surviving records show the household used over 400 bottles of wine each year.  

Our country was pretty much founded on alcohol.  The bill for a celebration party for the 55 drafters of the US Constitution listed 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcohol punch large enough that "ducks could swim in them."  Not counting the punch, that’s about 3 bottles of booze each. 

The 4th of July is less than two weeks away.  What better way to celebrate the anniversary of our country than to reenact this party.  Please invite me.  Please leave the ducks out of the punchbowl.


  1. I would love to have a party of this magnetude but remember I graduated with my ba in history, and food stamps don't but booze...

  2. Btw, I have spent the last several weeks catching up on this blog (as I graduated and need something to read now), I can say that I laughed more often than not, but my favorite might be the "Go Speed Racer, Go"

  3. I don't always talk to former History students--but when I do, I ask for large fries.

  4. Or in my case, you ask where new release movies and memory cards are....