A Brief History of Presidential Drinking
Explore the boozy history of America’s chief executives with the author of a book on presidential vices.
By the time a Philadelphia distiller appropriately named E.C. Booz began handing out free bottles of his Old Cabin Whiskey at campaign rallies for William Henry Harrison in 1840, American presidents had already established quite an intoxicating history. As author Brian Abrams details in his new book, “Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery and Mischief from the Oval Office,” George Washington downed four glasses of Madeira every afternoon while his successor, John Adams, hoisted a tankard of hard cider for breakfast every morning.
Franklin Pierce was mocked as the “hero of many a well-fought bottle.” Andrew Johnson displayed the telltale signs of a man who had just slugged three shots of whiskey during his slurring vice presidential inaugural speech in 1865. Even the unassuming Harry Truman threw back an ounce of 100-proof Old Grand-Dad whiskey every morning “to get the engine running.”
Abrams, whose book profiles each president’s vices and includes cocktail recipes from James Monroe’s syllabub to Dwight Eisenhower’s eggnog, found a ranking of presidents by their partying proclivities too difficult a task, but he says there were four commanders-in-chief in particular—a veritable Mount Rushmore of drinkers—who stood out for their love of liquor:
1. Ulysses S. Grant
Abrams says Grant developed an historic reputation as a drunk during his Civil War days when soldiers and newspaper reporters saw the Union general staggering around, swilling whiskey from a canteen or, in the case of one inspection tour, projectile-vomiting onto his horse’s mane. “He was seen as out of control, but the truth is he wasn’t like John Belushi in ‘Animal House.’ He was 135 pounds, eating army rations and prescribed brandy for migraines.” Between self-medicating with the bottle during bouts of homesickness and taking liquor under doctor’s orders for a host of infirmities, Grant developed a terrible alcohol habit. Later in his dying days in a desperate attempt to complete his memoirs, Grant gargled with wine laced with cocaine to relieve the pain of throat cancer brought on by decades of cigars and snuff.
2. Grover Cleveland
Well before his two stints in the White House, Cleveland overindulged in the cheap beer and rich food served in the smoke-filled saloons of Buffalo, New York. During his first campaign, a run for district attorney, Cleveland cut back his sudsy consumption—to a gallon of beer per night. While his friends matured and married, Cleveland grew into a 250-pound, middle-aged barfly living in a sloppy bachelor’s pad. “As time passes,” Abrams says, “his nickname changes from ‘Big Steve’ to ‘Uncle Jumbo.’ It’s almost as if a new generation of bar-goers arrive and no longer is Cleveland a peer but the old, wise man at the bar.” Cleveland’s love life ultimately engendered more gossip than his drinking. He admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock before marrying a 21-year-old during his first term in office.
3. Warren G. Harding
Not even Prohibition could keep the 29th president away from the hard stuff. Although he voted for Prohibition as a senator, the whiskey aficionado hypocritically kept a fully stocked sidebar in the White House. At smoke-filled poker nights held twice a week, Abrams says the whiskey flowed freely, even by a guest’s pet monkey who poured a bottle all over Harding’s white suit. The scandals involving Harding went well beyond political affairs such as the Teapot Dome. A biographer of First Lady Florence Harding accounted for seven alleged mistresses, including two who were impregnated. Recently released love letters revealed Harding’s lecherous side in graphic detail. “The letters are shocking in that you never expect for historical figures or senators to express themselves in that way,” Abrams says, “but on a less naïve level they are human beings, too.”
4. Lyndon B. Johnson
Always seeking to wield the levers of power to his advantage, the Machiavellian Johnson while Senate majority leader instructed staff to make his scotch and soda significantly weaker than his guest’s so that he could keep a clearer head. As president, Johnson threw massive barbeques for dignitaries and media members at his Texas ranch, and his Styrofoam cup of Cutty Sark was a constant companion. “Johnson had this Lincoln Continental convertible customized with mud-grip tires and a reinforced undercarriage to cruise the ranch,” Abrams says. “He’d drive reporters around the ranch, and he would stop and stick his Styrofoam cup out of the window whenever he needed a refill from the portable scotch bar in the trailing Secret Service vehicle.”
5. Thomas Jefferson
An honorable mention also goes to TJ, who spared no expense in his pursuit of happiness. A moderate imbiber, the “Sage of Monticello” certainly didn’t drink the most of any president, but he probably drank the best. The third president had been so spoiled by the fine cuisine and liquors from his five years as a minister in Europe that he spent more than $16,500 (over $300,000 in present-day money) on wine during his White House years. His vast wine collection swelled to more than 20,000 bottles.
So after researching the drinking habits of each chief executive, which president would Abrams want to grab a beer with? The answer might be surprising. “I would be curious to hang out with Gerald Ford,” he says of the down-to-earth 38th president who picked up after his golden retriever on the South Lawn in his morning bathrobe. “In Ford there’s something that makes me want to know this guy. During his first Christmas as president in 1974, for example, he managed to break away to party with the press corps who covered him as vice president. It was the first chance for old buddies to still get together and have martinis. There’s something very endearing about that to me, especially in what’s usually such a hard-nosed relationship between the media and the president.”