I keep trying to write about drinking and ending up writing about politics, whether I want to or not (mostly, it’s not). It’s an easy border to wander across: more Brooklyn-Queens than the old West Berlin-East Berlin. There’s no Checkpoint Charlie to pass through.
Politics always having had the capacity to make people tense, of course, and alcohol always having had at least some capacity to ease the worried mind, the connection is by no means a new one. I don’t want to give it a blanket endorsement (not that that would make a bit of difference in how much people are drinking or why), but there have always been times when a little bit of alcohol proved to be just the right amount of cooling oil for the smoking, sticking mental gearbox that can result from political engagement.
Take, for example, April 22, 1783.
The British were whipped. They’d lost the war. The treaty was signed. All that was left was for them to get the hell out of the last part of the now-independent colonies they still occupied and go home.
That wasn’t so easy: the three islands (Manhattan, Staten Island and Long Island, or at least most of it) and the sliver of the mainland (basically, the Bronx) were still crammed with 23,000 troops—plus another 35,000 Loyalists, who had fled to New York after things got too hot for them elsewhere, and who had no intention of staying to face the music. Moving almost 60,000 people by wooden ship took planning. Keeping George Washington and his army out of New York while they did it, took negotiation.
And, according to General Washington, negotiation—the art of practical politics, something of which his current successor knows nothing—took cocktails. At least that’s what William Smith recorded in his diary. Smith, Chief Justice of the Crown Colony of New York, was one of the men who accompanied Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander, up the Hudson River to Tappan, New York, where General Washington had commandeered Johannes DeWint’s house (still standing, by the way) to host the negotiations.
On April 22, after a long day of arguing in circles about every aspect of the evacuation and increasing levels of frustration among all involved, “Washington pulled out his Watch,” as Smith wrote, “and observing that it was near Dinner Time, offered Wine and Bitters.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but after a day of wrangling with hostile losers like Carleton and Smith, I would need something a little more, well, alcoholic than “Wine and Bitters.” Practical politics is conflict, and conflict makes me tense, and when I’m tense I find a Dry Gin Martini is the shortest distance between two points, and, yeah, maybe skimp a little on the vermouth.
Yet, George Washington very well may have had something a little stiffer in mind. “Wine and Bitters,” you see, was an old English drink dating back to the 1690s, when a young London apothecary named Richard Stoughton began advertising that his “Magnum Elixir Stomachicum,” an alcoholic tincture of various bitter and not-so-bitter botanicals that was known as much for its “pleasant (although bitterish) taste” as for its supposed medicinal value, could be taken in a glass of sweet wine.
Now, while a teaspoon or so of Dr. Stoughton’s “Bitters,” as everyone called his Elixir, in a glass of strong, sweet Madeira—the sort of wine General Washington was most likely to have on hand—is no Dry Martini, it nonetheless ticks off all of the boxes for a textbook definition of a “Cock-Tail,” as it was first laid out in print in 1806: alcohol, water, sugar and bitters. The bitters were the bitters, of course, and the sweet wine took care of the alcohol, sugar and water.
What’s more, the General’s Wine and Bitters might have been even closer to our idea of a cocktail than that: “wine,” you see, meant the fermented juice of the grape, to be sure, but in the popular parlance it was also the genteel way to say “booze”—a convention that remained current in country music through the 1960s, as any Merle Haggard fan can attest: whether it’s “Wine, Take Me Away” or “Little Old Wine Drinker Me,” the wine Merle was singing about was brown and 86-proof, not red or white or (God forbid) rosé, no matter what the actual lyrics said. As the New Orleans Daily Picayune wrote in 1844, Wine and Bitters was an “all-pervadingly comprehensive” term that easily stretched to include Gin & Bitters or the cocktail itself. While I doubt that Washington would have plied his aristocratic guests (for so they were) with the rustic whiskey or gin, which still enjoyed a rather sketchy reputation, brandy or rum cocktails would not have been out of the question. If so, this would be the earliest appearance of the American cocktail by 20 years. First in the hearts of his countrymen indeed.
But I digress. If strong drink can be used to soothe the tensions inherent in politics, it can also be used to inflame them, particularly at election time. Elections can create a world of their own, one in which the petty concerns and constraints of normal daily life are cast off in service of a larger goal. For those who have succumbed, the only day that matters is election day, the only people that matter are the ones in your tribe or who can be lured into it, the only moral principle that matters is winning. The world is turned upside down.
The great Russian critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called this sort of thing “Carnivalesque,” after the Catholic festival (we call it Mardi Gras). Under the Carnivalesque, the lowly are empowered, normally-questionable or even unacceptable behavior is embraced, blasphemy and profanation are tolerated, and taboos are brushed aside. Host a Fox News “virtual town hall” at the Lincoln Memorial? Why the hell not.
Some of the taboos that tend to get ignored are those surrounding drinking alcohol. Before television and, especially, social media, most of that campaign drinking was done at rallies and party conventions, which were notorious boozathons. For many, the chance to get drunk, kick over the traces and yell your head off with a thousand other maniacs was the whole point of elections, not the actual policies and character of the candidates or the possibility of truly turning the world upside down by creating structural change.
Until Prohibition, in America it used to be customary for the candidates themselves (or at least their campaigns) to buy the drinks, whether it was kegs of beer and shots of rye or, going further back, bottles of Madeira and massive tubs of Rum Punch. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. George Washington, for one.
In 1755, when he was 24 years old, Washington ran for a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. He saw no point in “treating”—buying drinks for—the voters, who were supposed to be property-owning gentlemen like himself, and not a bunch of tavern freeloaders. He lost. (In 1777, James Madison tried the same no-treating policy, with the same results.)
In 1758, Washington set aside his principles and laid out 38 pounds and seven shillings’ worth of Rum Punch, hard cider, wine and ale (a person could live on £30 a year then). The 144 gallons of drinks he bought with that amounted to about a half-gallon per vote that he received, enough with which to win. He never stinted on the booze after that, whether for his constituents, his officers, or Sir Guy Carleton. For at least a century after his death, neither did most American politicians, members of the Prohibition Party excluded (in 1892, their candidate got 2.24 percent of the Presidential vote; just saying).
Things are, of course, rather different today. No candidate could afford to keep his or her followers boozed up for the length of the campaign, since cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle it brought and then social media and its never-ending scroll of doom have stretched campaign seasons beyond any sensible limit. And that was before we went and elected Donald J. Trump.
In the Carnivalesque world of elections, Trump is a born carny. In fact, on Inauguration Day, back in 2017, he registered his reelection campaign with the F.E.C. He’s been running ever since, and pretty much only running—most everything he’s done is geared towards that reelection, unless it’s—ah, never mind; you know all this. Let’s leave it at this: all carnival, all the time.
Things aren’t supposed to work like that. Carnival time is supposed to be a break from a duller, more staid day-to-day. Turning the world upside down is supposed to work like a snow globe, where you flip it just to stir up the flakes and then let them settle. Now they’re in permanent swirl, and that turns out to be grindingly stressful.
As we’ve established, where politics causes stress, a drink can ease it—only now, it’s chronic. Political stress has become a habit, and in the carnivalesque life we’re living, liquid stress relief has not just become a habit as well, but something to flaunt; a sign of team allegiance, whether it’s “Trump did what now? Gin, gin, gin!” or Thin Blue Line-branded bourbon.
I’m as guilty as anyone, I suppose. Let’s just say that I haven’t been participating in that “Sober October” thing. On the other hand, I hate that drinking has become a thing of desperation and reflex; a political thing, rather than the universal pleasure it can be, by turns refined and earthy, convivial and contemplative.
Perhaps, it’s worth thinking of the young George Washington and James Madison, before they got with the program and started splashing the booze around. Perhaps, it’s time to ignore the carnival and leave some of those Martinis in the pitcher. I’m not preaching teetotal abstinence here, just day-to-day, boring-life moderation. It’ll be a change, anyway.
So, for the record, this Election Day I’m going to resist the impulse to fill up a shaker with The Road, a little thing I like to trot out when times are grim that’s named after Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel (shake two ounces Ardbeg or Laphroaig or some other intensely-smoky Islay whisky and one ounce Fernet-Branca with ice, strain it into a couple of shot glasses and drink them both).
In fact, the Election-Day Cocktail I’m going to try is no cocktail. Maybe I’ll have a glass of sherry instead, something soft and pleasant and normal like that. Okay, maybe I’ll splash some bitters in it…