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Ale To The Chief

Jack Bettridge
Posted: September 7, 2012

We just received the happy news that Congress Hall, a classic American seaside resort in Cape May, New Jersey, is celebrating the presidential election season with three themed drinks: The Elephant, The Donkey and The Incumbent. While the drinks, which are built with plenty of red, white and blue ingredients (e.g., grenadine, whipped cream and blue curaçao, see recipes below) to give a patriotic, sound delicious, they also got us thinking about what kind of drinks our commanders-in-chief actually drank.

Of course, the current resident of the White House, Barack Obama, outed himself as a beer fan when he shared a brew to calm the tension between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a Cambridge, Massachusetts, police sergeant. Now, comes the exciting revelation that the president has a home-brew kit and the White House is making a honey ale and a porter.

But the incumbent is not the first chief executive to make alcohol. That threshold was crossed with our first president. While George Washington may have put down the Whiskey Rebellion, he also apparently put down quite a few drinks himself. He was an inveterate rum drinker, but it was rye whiskey that he chose to distill at his Mount Vernon home while in retirement. The ex-president made a tidy sum with the small still, which has recently been replicated there thanks to the efforts of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), which is now selling some of the product.

Thomas Jefferson, who spent lavishly on French wines while stationed in Paris, struggled to produce grapes in the vineyards of his home in Monticello. He also offered an insight on tariffs that today's politicians might do well to consider: "I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines as a tax on luxury. On the contrary, it is a tax on the health of our citizens." The inventive president installed a dumb waiter at his home to hasten the wine's trip from the cellar to the table.

Our second president, John Adams, came from humbler background than the first and the third and his drink of choice--hard apple cider--reflected that, even while being quite American, especially in colonial times. He often took a gill (four ounces) before breakfast, saying "I shall never forget, how refreshing and salubrious we found it, hard as it often was." His presidential son, John Q. Adams, stepped up in the world, however, becoming something of a wine connoisseur, claiming he could identify Madeira by taste.

The first frontier president, Tennessean Andrew Jackson, hosted an inauguration so debauched that he had to save the White House furniture by luring the revelers out to the lawn with tubs of whiskey punch. His successor, Martin Van Buren, grew up working in his father's tavern in Kinderhook, N.Y., which was something of a hangout for politicos. "Old Kinderhook" drank wine and was the victim of an early instance of "swift-boating" when William Henry Harrison slurred him as the high-life president and promoted himself as the "log cabin and hard cider" candidate even though "Tippecanoe" from wealth and didn't drink at all and Van Buren was relatively poor.

W.H. Harrison wasn't alone in his temperance. Non-drinking presidents included James K. Polk,  Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Probably the most noted abstemious White House resident was Rutherford B. Hayes, whose wife's staunch temperance stance (she banned booze from the executive mansion) earned her the nickname "Lemonade Lucy," although it's rumored that Rutherford enjoyed a nip when out of eyeshot of the old battle ax.

Two presidents--Franklin Pierce and George W. Bush--actually took the pledge and quit drinking, although the former disastrously fell off the wagon, developing cirrhosis of the liver. The latter remains sober, non-alcohol beer being the only vestige of his hellion early days.

Another notoriously hard-drinking president was Ulysses S. Grant. His fondness for Bourbon came to light during his service in the Civil War. Other generals jealous of his successes complained that he was a drunkard. The sitting president, Abraham Lincoln, happy to have an effective military leader, was willing to overlook the shortcoming and quipped: "Find out what Grant drinks and send a barrel of it to each of my other generals."

Presidential endorsements are always highly sought. Benjamin Harrison was famously given a small cask of Dewar's from the Scotsman Andrew Carnegie, which created quite a flap as it wasn't American whiskey, but reportage of the incident was also a big boon to Dewar's sales in the U.S.


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Comments   2 comment(s)

Thomas Person — louisville, KY, USA,  —  September 7, 2012 5:00pm ET

Also on October 14, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment sponsored by Senator Alan Cranston creating an exemption from taxation for beer brewed at home for personal or family use. This exemption went into effect in February 1979 and home brewers have been quite happy ever since.


JACK BETTRIDGE — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES,  —  September 8, 2012 9:31am ET

Excellent point! Wish I'd remembered to include iy.


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