“It’s hard to take a man’s measure unless you know how he takes his booze.”— John Adams (not really, but also…not impossible?)
The calendar has turned once again to that most beloved of American holidays: Presidents Day, when patriotic children everywhere gather around the fire to hear Grandpa tell the rousing story of how Warren G. Harding fathered a love child with Nan Britton.
To celebrate the occasion, let’s take a look back at the most valuable presidential trivia of all: what kind of alcohol these 45 men liked to drink as they led the nation from crisis to crisis.
When he wasn’t viciously downing cherry trees, our first president regularly downed dark porter beers laced with molasses. To no one’s surprise, this rotted the teeth right out of his head, but it also gave him the courage to cross the icy Delaware and crush the Hessian garrison at Trenton.
Washington also pioneered the political strategy of plying the electorate with booze. During his 1758 campaign for the House of Burgesses, he bought over 140 gallons of rum to treat Virginia voters to a cocktail called the bombo. Naturally, he won, and American democracy was born.
- 2 oz. rum
- ¼ oz. Demerara syrup
- Top with freshly grated nutmeg (or pre-grated nutmeg, no judgment here)
Recipe adapted from Smuggler’s Cove by Martin and Rebecca Cate.
Forget James Madison — we’re here to talk about his wife. Dolley Madison was maybe the coolest person to ever reside in the White House. Her parties, or “squeezes,” drew up to 500 people of all political persuasions. She served ice cream even though no one had freezers yet. (Her favorite was oyster ice cream, but we’re gonna let that slide.) During the War of 1812, as the British closed in on Washington, she went ahead with her plans for a dinner party.
One of her favorite beverages to serve was, in the words of Lord Francis Jeffrey, “little cups of what I took for lemonade — but found to my infinite horror was strong punch.” As best anyone can tell, she was mixing whiskey sours before whiskey sours were even a thing, which means she may well have invented them. Historians remain mystified why she ended up marrying the Founding Snoozefest that was James Madison.
Dolley Madison’s Whiskey Sour
- 4 (!) oz bourbon
- 1.5 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp fine sugar
- Shake and serve over ice while murmuring bawdy jokes about Henry and Lucretia Clay
Recipe adapted from Workman.
Our 25th president liked his rye. During his 1896 presidential campaign, he had a cocktail named after him — McKinley’s Delight. Voters evidently far preferred it to William Jennings Bryan’s Free Silver Fizz, probably because it was much better.
At some point after the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, the drink was redubbed Remember the Maine, and the name stuck, even after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. History is rude that way. But for Presidents Day, we’re going back to the OG nomenclature.
- 3 oz rye whiskey (100 proof)
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 bar spoon of cherry brandy
- 1 dash of absinthe
- Stir and serve in chilled coupe
Recipe adapted from David Wondrich.
Considered by many to be the manliest man to ever sit in the Oval Office, Roosevelt was big into boxing, hiking, jiu-jitsu and shooting elephants. He also liked tennis, but apparently no one in his cabinet would play tennis with him until he made a batch of his famous mint juleps.
Everyone knows a mint julep is made with bourbon. But bourbon is for boys and Teddy was a man, so he made his with rye. And brandy, because why not. “You must always remember,” British Ambassador Cecil Spring Rice said of Roosevelt, “that the President is about six.”
- 12 mint leaves muddled with sugar or simple syrup in a julep cup
- 3 oz rye whiskey
- ¼ oz brandy
- Add crushed ice
- Stir quietly, and swallow a big sip
Recipe adapted from Chilled Magazine.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
How do you steer a frazzled nation out of the Great Depression and defeat the Nazi hordes? You end Prohibition and maintain a steady regimen of alcohol consumption. Perhaps more than any other president, FDR appreciated a good cocktail — and this might have something to do with why he was elected president four times.
He insisted on a regular gossip-filled cocktail hour where he mixed the drinks himself in a silver cocktail set from China. He added absinthe to pretty much everything. He got Stalin liquored up on dirty martinis at the Tehran conference in 1943, paving the way toward D-Day. Whenever you’re feeling good about your accomplishments, reflect on how much fun this man had while making the world a better place, and then pour yourself a drink to weep into.
But perhaps his favorite quaff was the Bermuda Rum Swizzle, which he preferred to take while sailing on his presidential yacht, the USS Potomac. “At sea the radio messages and the occasional pouch of mail reduce official work to not more than two or three hours a day,” he boasted on a fundraising call while drifting off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in a rum-soaked haze. Let us always remember him thus.
Bermuda Rum Swizzle
- 2 oz dark rum
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
- 1 oz fresh orange juice
- ¼ oz Velvet Falernum
- Shake and serve over ice, then deliver a radio address to soothe a weary nation
Recipe adapted from Mr. Boston Drinks.
John F. Kennedy
Perhaps the most glamorous of presidents, JFK drank whatever the cool kids were drinking at the time — martinis with Ian Fleming, Dom Perignon with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Daniels with Frank Sinatra. He also had a weakness for Heineken — or so the Dutch would have us believe.
But his favorite drink of all was the Bloody Mary. Legend has it that his cabinet would sit in silence as he stirred his celery stalk round and round for 40 minutes before declaring, “Okay, let’s try the exploding cigar.”
- 4 oz tomato juice
- 2 oz vodka
- ¼ oz lemon juice
- ¼ oz lime juice
- ¼ oz Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp horseradish
- ¼ tsp hot sauce
- Freshly cracked pepper
- Serve over ice in a glass rimmed with Old Bay
- Garnish with celery stalk
Recipe adapted from Meehan’s Bartender Manual.
During his time as Nixon’s veep, Ford would drink a slew of martinis during lunch, making him one of the most productive vice presidents in American history. Once it became clear Nixon would resign, Ford’s killjoy aides urged him to cut back on the drinking. But if you’ve ever watched Ford tumble down the stairs of Air Force One, you know he vetoed that suggestion.
“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency,” he said in a 1978 speech, after his loss to Jimmy Carter allowed him to devote more time to his beloved cocktail. “Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?”
- 3 oz Fords gin
- 1 oz dry vermouth
- Garnish with three olives
- Strain into a chilled coupe glass
Famous for his all-American optimism and utter contempt for the poor, Ronald Reagan is easily the best actor who ever pretended to be president. He was mostly into wine but also seems like the kind of man who would happily drink whatever you put in his hand.
In a nod toward his BFF Gorbachev and his native California, Reagan’s preferred cocktail was a variation on the Orange Blossom, a vodka-and-O.J. concoction that embodies the shiny, empty wasteland of 1980s mixology.
Ronnie’s Orange Blossom
- 2 oz vodka
- 2 oz orange juice
- 1 oz grenadine
- Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
- Garnish with jelly beans and shredded Iran-Contra documents
Recipe adapted from Advanced Mixology.
Is this actually a cocktail? Depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. Fun fact: In 2001, Clinton once tried to order a snakebite in one of the many UK pubs that have banned the drink, which remains the most scandalous thing Clinton ever did.
- Fill a pint glass with equal parts lager and hard cider
- Serve with a Big Mac and fries
George W. Bush
43 didn’t drink, which explains his reputation as our most clear-headed, thoughtful and responsible president.
- Pop the tab, take a sip. You’re the Decider now.