After the squabble for the White House ends, the sobering reality of what lies ahead kicks in. Refreshments will be required, and in a bid to avoid any rounds featuring a poisoned chalice, the Commander in Chief might instead turn to the Oval Office drinks cabinet. The question will be whether he or she reaches for gin, or just juice.
The 45th president will not be the first to weigh up drinking options. History indicates a social sip has been a pastime for many of the previous 44 incumbents, even those unfortunate enough to serve during Prohibition. Some have abstained, of course, and drinking less but better is the key – we wouldn’t condone a whiskey while that already harum-scarum finger hovers over a nuke button. So if they do need a nip, we hope the president can at least set a precedent for intelligent imbibing.
The founding fathers were less than moderate, they filled their bellies with the fire and courage of alcohol. We commonly associate early colonial anger over British oppression with the 1773 Tea Act, but the taxes on sugar and the subsequent impact on East Coast rum production wound the revolutionaries up in equal measure. George Washington was particularly miffed, the first president needing the molasses to sweeten his beer, but in lieu of rum he distilled his own whiskey.
Then there was Thomas Jefferson, who poured more money than sense into wine and John Adams who substituted his breakfast apple juice for cider. Even the new constitution was created in the pub, the original 55 signatories celebrating by getting wasted on 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, eight bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcoholic punch large enough that, according one observer, “ducks could swim in them”. The bill must have been massive.
For nearly 100 years the White House was awash with booze, from James Maddison who championed champagne, to James Monroe whose oenophilic over-spending helped buoy the burgundy market. Some took it too far, Martin Van Buren drank so doggedly he was known as ‘Blue Whisky Van’ and Franklin Pierce over-stepped the mark when he said: ‘There is nothing left… but to get drunk’.
True Abraham Lincoln barely touched the stuff, but he was the son of a distiller, owned a grocery shop and recognised the economic value of alcohol. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a backlash ensued during the second half of the 19th century, an era peppered with presidents influenced by a strengthening Prohibition movement. A tug of war between tipsy and temperance. Ulysses Grant who could spend $1,800 on champagne during one dinner was succeeded by Rutherford B Hayes who banned booze from the White House. Grover Cleveland too often in cups as a beer swiller, was tellingly followed by Benjamin Harrison who was dry.
As the 20th century turned, temperance claimed the victory with a total ban, but Prohibition proved a daft decision, crippling the economy, damaging health and only facilitating the organisation of crime. Interestingly President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Prohibition Act in 1919, so we can’t blame him, but three more presidents suffered. Among them Warren Harding who secretly sipped scotch on the golf course and Herbert Hoover who was talked into destroying his wonderful wine collection to honour the regulations. Sanity would be restored by Franklyn D Roosevelt in 1933, who ended the ban so could enjoy his beloved martini, shaken each day with his own special set of silver shakers.
After Roosevelt the 20th century presidents never fully recovered, there were drinkers there, but rarely with celebratory tone. Few are as iconic as John F Kennedy, whose time in office was infused in booze. His father had secured the distribution rights of Gordon’s Gin when Prohibition ended, but JFK’s tipple was a daiquiri, making you wonder what the Cuban crisis was really all about. His wife was said to enjoy the occasional grasshopper in Paris.
Granted Richard Nixon enjoyed Chateau Lafite Rothschild but, true to form, he duped his guests by pouring them cheaper plonk directing his staff to conceal the label, so he’s hardly a poster boy for a drinks campaign. And while Gerald Ford occasionally enjoyed a three martini lunch he was quickly followed by Jimmy Carter who condemned it.
Bill Clinton’s taste in tobacco products was matched by an equally salacious snakebite and black. Along came Obama, a man who restored order with a balanced, beer-drinking approach to life, he even added a brewer to his staff, who used honey from White House bees in a bespoke presidential beer. He’ll be sorely missed for that.
So what next? Will the new tenant be a liquor-loving leader of the free world? Hillary Clinton has been seen quaffing, some say too frequently; Donald Trump claims he’s tee total, although he did launch Trump Vodka. Either way, we’ll be watching closely, and since Obama lifted the ban on Cuban imports, we recommend they start the tenure with an El Presidente, a rum cocktail named in honour of President Gerardo Machado and a firm favourite in Cuba during Prohibition.
Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham are drinks writers and comedians The Thinking Drinkers. They will be performing their drinking show at the Museum of Comedy in London from Nov 23 – Dec 23. Details at www.thinkingdrinkers.com