When Presidents Drink

Credit: Drew Stephens

Four More Beers

One of the most striking differences between U.S. presidents is how they choose to stock the White House bar. From teetotalers to all-out drunks, a brief history of presidents and their preferred libations.

In early fall it came out that President Obama brews his own beer. He calls it the White House Honey Ale. He also makes a honey porter and a honey blonde. All three use honey collected from the beehives Michelle Obama keeps on the South Lawn.

Of course she does. And of course Obama is a locavore homebrewer. He is our hipster-in-chief; we would be disappointed if he weren’t.

Presidents, and those aspiring to become president, very rarely cut against the grain of their own public image, and what they drink is an essential part of that. One could say these men are the living embodiments of different drinks: Barack Obama doesn’t just homebrew beer; he is a homebrewed beer. Thomas Jefferson, the closest we’ve come to a philosopher as king, is a bottle of fine wine. Bill Clinton, the closest we’ve ever come to a McConaughey as king, is a Fresca spiked with Old Grand-Dad. Gerald Ford was a Seven & Seven. Mitt Romney is a Shirley Temple.

I once came across a cocktail called Thank God for Small Nurses. The recipe is lost to me, but the name remains lodged in my head, around it spinning endless scenarios by which it was conceived. Most involve a band of derring-do GIs sneaking into the nurses’ ward and secreting a few choice ladies out a bathroom window. If John F. Kennedy didn’t do exactly that while in office, he had Peter Lawford do it for him.

Six weeks later, hours after his boss was assassinated, Johnson was found in the second half of an epic bender, and had to be sobered up to take the oath of office as president.

Though few of our sitting presidents have been known boozers, liquor and the presidency are intimately tied. One story, famous if apocryphal, involves two of them, one in office, the other yet to arrive. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was heard praising Ulysses S. Grant, his new favorite general. Grant was rumored to be a heavy alcoholic, and Lincoln’s aides told him as much. “You tell me what brand of whiskey he drinks,” Lincoln replied, “and I will order every one of my generals in the field a barrel of it.” (To add apocrypha upon apocrypha, Grant’s whiskey was supposedly Old Crow.)

If anything, Obama cuts against the tradition of chief-executive drinking by choosing beer as his relaxant of choice. Most presidents have kept whiskey on hand. George Washington was one of the biggest rye producers on the East Coast. Andrew Johnson, who occupied the White House between Lincoln and Grant, was drunk on whiskey pretty much his entire time in the executive branch. He took the oath of office as Lincoln’s vice president after a morning curled up with a bottle—“medicinal” whiskey, he said, for a cold. Six weeks later, hours after his boss was assassinated, Johnson was found in the second half of an epic bender, and had to be sobered up to take the oath of office as president.

If you think about Warren G. Harding—and really, do you ever think about Warren G. Harding?—you probably think of the Teapot Dome scandal. What you don’t think of was his love of whiskey. Though hardly an Andrew Johnson, Harding, president at the dawn of Prohibition, was a well-known imbiber. He had a well-stocked wine cellar, which his wife made him sell off before he took office. Still, the man knew how to party. Harding “sometimes acted more like a frat boy than a president,” wrote Don Van Natta Jr. in the New York Times a few years ago. He loved to drink, especially when involved in important executive functions, like golf. “He placed a wager on every swing, and despite Prohibition, he sipped cocktails as he played. When his on-course drinking caused an uproar, he switched to a private club where black-jacketed butlers served Scotch-and-sodas from silver trays.”

The only lifelong teetotaler elected president was William Henry Harrison, who also holds the distinction for the shortest term in office.

And let’s not forget Ike. While still in uniform, over in Europe, he had a constant supply of bourbon shipped to his staff quarters. Eisenhower was hardly a souse. But he embodied the moment—an after-work whiskey was part of the postwar DNA, and if DDE did nothing else for the country, he set the tone for what Americans could and should slide down their throats.

In contrast, very few presidents have been teetotalers. Jimmy Carter, though often alleged to abstain, said he drank wine in moderation. The only lifelong teetotaler elected president was William Henry Harrison, who also holds the distinction for the shortest term in office—dying of pneumonia less than five weeks after his inauguration.

Both George W. Bush and William Howard Taft abstained from drinking, but they were both late converts: Bush went on the wagon at age 40, in reaction to a wild and crazy youth, while Taft swore off drinking in 1906, possibly for political reasons (Prohibition was already a force in American life, though it wouldn’t become national law for several more years). He won the presidency two years later.

Interestingly, Taft made one of the most consequential decisions in the history of American liquor. His predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, had overseen the passage and enforcement of a law that essentially banned the label “whiskey” for anything that hadn’t been made of pure grain and aged for four years. As one of his first acts as president, Taft oversaw a mock trial between advocates for the blended whiskey industry, which wanted to overturn Roosevelt, on one side, and the bourbon industry and pure-foods lobby on the other. Taft, playing the Solomonic role he would later assume on the Supreme Court, reversed Roosevelt’s rule, declaring that anything could be called whiskey as long as its ingredients were made clear on the bottle.

It’s no coincidence Taft lost his reelection bid. Not because he made the wrong decision—though he did; the stuff that passed for whiskey before Roosevelt laid down the law was closer to turpentine than bourbon. He lost, and deserved to, because anyone who wastes the presidential clock on a topic for which they have such little affection probably isn’t the most effective chief executive.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen