How America’s Presidents Got Sloshed
Lyndon B. Johnson used to get loaded on Cutty Sark blended scotch and drive fast around his extraordinarily large Texas ranch. The Secret Service would follow him, and LBJ would hold his plastic cup out the window to signal he needed a refill.
Herbert Hoover hid booze on the back nine in his golf bag during Prohibition. John Quincy Adams, though deeply religious, loved to start his day by reading the Bible and having a “stiff snort,” says Doug Wead, an author and presidential historian who served under presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Other presidents showed booze affinity in subtler ways. A Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter would enjoy a glass of wine each evening on the low.
Like the rest of us, cocktails have been woven into the daily lives and legacies of our U.S. presidents in some form or another. Though it's difficult to draw any concrete correlations between a president’s drinking habits and their leadership style, what they drank during office reveals parts of their personalities into which we rarely have insight until their memoirs are published.
The perception of a drinkin’ president has also changed over time, though still mixed, depending on who you talk to.
“In the early 1900s, it wasn’t cool to be thought of as a drinker, but in modern times, it’s kinda like their way to show ‘I’m a regular guy. I’m one of the people,’” says Mark Will-Weber, author of Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: a Complete History of Presidential Drinking.
It’s true that some presidents went overboard with it, which doesn’t bode well for the average Joe, much less the leader of the free world.
Once, Henry Kissinger put off an urgent call from the British prime minister about the escalating Arab-Israeli war because President Richard Nixon was “loaded.” It wasn’t even 8 p.m.
General Ulysses S. Grant loved his bourbon during the Civil War. When criticized for his frequency in indulging, Lincoln defended him by asking what brand of whiskey he preferred so he could send some to his other generals.
Presidents have also used drinks to win hearts and minds.
“Alcohol is always involved in the political process in some way,” says Will-Weber. “It predates America. When we were still a British colony, it was a way for constituents to get a place in the House of Burgesses. It’s always been a tool in the war chest of politicians. It’s often involved in the attempt to compromise.”
FDR conducted his famous Fireside Chats over cocktails. He had, after all, reversed Prohibition.
Former speaker of the House Tip O’Neil and President Ronald Reagan often hashed out possible solutions to fundamental disagreements over drinks after work.
Barack Obama famously organized the “beer summit” in 2009 between scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the police officer who arrested him and was accused of racial profiling.
“Alcohol is a great icebreaker. It loosens your inhibitions and willingness to talk,” Will-Weber says. “I don’t think coffee quite does that.”
Jim Hewes, the 30-year veteran bartender at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel’s Round Robin bar, has met every living U.S. president—either before or after they were in office—and created a cocktail menu that matches one drink for all 43 (Obama is the 44th, but Grover Cleveland served two terms).
The Round Robin is just down the street from the White House and has played stage to many an Inaugural celebration and political meeting since its original opening in the 19th century as Fuller’s City Hotel.
There’s a Budweiser bottle listed for Gerald R. Ford, who was known for his reputation as “of and for the people,” Hewes says. LBJ’s got the infamous Cutty Sark and branch (Texas talk for water), while Franklin Pierce’s drink was Oachtel, a predecessor to Kahlua, which he introduced to the U.S. after having fought in the Mexican-American War. Sadly, he later died of alcoholism.
Social drinker John F. Kennedy famously served Bloody Marys in the mornings and daiquiris aboard the Presidential Yacht Sequoia. But if you want to drink in his spirit at the Round Robin, you’ll have a Tanqueray martini with olives because they were served often in his White House at cocktail hour.
Warren Harding drank Seven and Seven, a popular highball among the Ohio contingent in D.C., and served at House Speaker Nicky Longworth’s house.
Not all presidents imbibed while in office, but is it any coincidence that those are also the ones we often forget?
Rutherford B. Hayes banned alcohol in the White House after growing tired of seeing ambassadors acting up while drunk.
Hayes was already serious-minded, having served in the Union Army and becoming responsible for Reconstruction, but his wife, Lucy, got the unfortunate blame with the nickname “Lemonade Lucy,” Wead says. Calvin Coolidge hardly drank at all, which wasn’t a surprise because he was known for being kind of boring anyway.
Though George W. once drank a ton, Hewes listed for him a diet cola with lemon—an ode to his refrain from booze during his presidency after tumultuous, party-filled days as a young man. There’s a vodka martini for Bush Sr., but Wead says neither Bush drank all that much.
“I think the thing to remember is that these guys are human,” says Will-Weber. “[Alcohol] brings out the humanness in the positive and negative.”