Booze Beast

How Harry Truman Ran a Bourbon-Soaked White House

Truman’s fondness for bourbon not only broadened his appeal, but also helped him defeat his much-heralded opponent, Republican Thomas Dewey.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Now that we are officially in the throes of the 2016 presidential election race, the media is obsessed with weighing the merits of one candidate’s platform versus another. But let’s be honest: We are interested in more than just their politics. Dissections of vacation destinations, price comparisons of haircuts and even psychological analyses of music playlists count in the minds of voters, almost as much as proposed foreign policy strategies and views on taxation. But the one detail I’d love to learn about the lives of these wannabe commanders in chief is never discussed: What they like to drink. (And I don’t mean iced tea or lemonade.) Like in a scene out of Veep, most would no doubt find some way to dodge the simple request if asked. (No surprise, given how well Obama’s so-called “beer summit” went over back in 2009.) However, the United States has a long and rich boozy presidential history that often reflected the state of the union. It started in the very beginning: George Washington owned the country’s largest rye whiskey distillery after leaving office. And it wasn’t that long ago when presidential candidates proudly publicized their drink of choice—case in point, Harry S. Truman. Truman, who held office from 1945 to 1953, has one of the most storied presidential relationships with alcohol to date.

“He did have a reputation for enjoying his bourbon,” says Clay Bauske, the curator of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. “[Though] he certainly didn’t go as far as Winston Churchill, who is a very famous drinker.”

The Missouri Democrat harbored a love for bourbon so well-known that in November of 1945 the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which objected to his frequent drinking and poker playing, tried to prevent Baylor University from giving him an honorary degree.

The following year, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by Luther Huston called “Bourbon on the Potomac,” which talked about how the spirit was the social lubricant of choice in D.C.

The article included a section on the then administration: “Now, President Truman does not settle momentous controversies on the basis of teetotaler vs. tippler, but anyone who knows him is aware that there is quite likely to be a stronger bond between him and a Southern gentleman who likes a hooker of red likker than between him and an arid Iowan.”

It should come as no surprise that both sides of Truman’s family came from America’s most famous whiskey-producing state, Kentucky. But despite his lineage, he seemed to keep his appreciation for the spirit and his foreign policies separate.

He shut down the nation’s distilleries for 60 days in 1947 to preserve grain, which was sent overseas to feed hungry Europeans.

The move was particularly tough for American distillers, since they were just getting started after World War II, when most of them had been producing high-proof alcohol for use in rubber, explosives, and antifreeze for the armed forces. It was also a rough period for drinkers, with stocks of straight whiskey running low.

Ultimately, Truman’s fondness for bourbon not only broadened his appeal, but also helped him defeat his much-heralded opponent, Republican Thomas Dewey.

Truman’s campaign, according to David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Truman, ran on a diet of bourbon and poker, while Dewey’s staff and accompanying press favored the more rarified combo of Martinis and bridge.

The president’s liquor preference was no cheap election-season publicity stunt.

The straight-talking Midwesterner was an unabashed whiskey fan, for years beginning most days with a dram of Old Grand-Dad or Wild Turkey bourbon and a power walk.

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The regimen, according to McCullough’s book, was perhaps responsible for his good health that lasted well into his late 60s.

Bourbon could also melt the awkward formalities of official Washington.

After losing a tough fight at the Supreme Court, when even his own appointees declared his attempt to temporarily nationalize the steel industry unconstitutional, Truman found himself invited to an Old Alexandria home for a cocktail party with Supreme Court justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black.

As McCullough recounted in Truman: “At the start of the evening, Truman, though polite, seemed ‘a bit testy,’ remembered William O. Douglas. “But after the bourbon and canapés were passed, he turned to Hugo [Black] and said, ‘Hugo, I don’t much care for your law, but, by golly, this bourbon is good.’”

Later in life, Truman’s physician actually instructed him to imbibe. “The doctor says he should drink, that it’s good for him, it’s relaxing for him, and that it’s particularly good for people who are getting older and have hardening of the arteries or restricted circulation, and so forth,” said his son-in-law, E. Clifton Daniel, in a 1972 interview. “So, he is not only permitted to drink, but encouraged to drink, but of course not too much.”

Besides his morning constitutional, Truman usually enjoyed his whiskey with water or with ginger ale—but to nowhere near the excess one might think.

According to numerous interviews, with friends, former colleagues and subordinates, collected as part of an oral history project at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, he generally limited himself to just a few drinks per event, which he would nurse all night.

“He can make a highball last longer than anybody I ever saw,” said Edgar G. Hinde, a lifelong friend, comrade in World War I and former postmaster in Independence, Missouri. “I’ve seen him take one highball, and—all evening that would be all he’d take but he’d drink with everybody that’d come in…I never saw him when he was anywhere near under the influence of liquor.”

No matter how much he drank at one time, bourbon became one of the hallmarks of his presidency.

For Christmas 1946, his cabinet presented him with a handsome bar set featuring two crystal decanters (one for bourbon, one for Scotch) and 12 matching silver cups each engraved with a staff member’s name and, of course, one for the him.

Spirited gifts were frequently bestowed on Truman. The list of Christmas presents that the White House received in 1951 includes a case of Old Grand-Dad and an unnamed 18-year-old bourbon.

The 33rd president certainly had enough friends and colleagues to share his liquor with.

But he wasn’t the only Truman to enjoy a glass of whiskey before dinner. McCullough recounts how the first lady, Bess, schooled the White House bartender on how to make an Old-Fashioned.

Her version, it turned out, was actually a sizable glass of bourbon on the rocks void of the sugar, bitters and fruit that normally make up the cocktail.

All of this raises the question, what bourbon did Truman love best? Though there are lots of opinions on the matter, the truth is he drank a number of them, including the aforementioned Wild Turkey and Old Grand-Dad, as well as Old Crow and Old Forester, which are all still available.

So this Fourth of July weekend, pour yourself a dram, toast to Truman and his affinity for the good stuff—and hope that at least one of 2016’s candidates is a whiskey drinker.

Noah Rothbaum is the author of the recently published The Art of American Whiskey.