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Presidential Drinking, Ranked

I decided to celebrate President’s Day weekend by ranking the 43 U.S. presidents as drinkers. My main source material was Mint Juleps With Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking, by Mark Will-Weber[1].

The primary factor in a president’s rank is the amount he put away. We’re talking life achievement: a president who drank heavily but cleaned up his act later in life, or who fell off the wagon after leaving the White House, will have his rating adjusted upward.

There are two other factors. One is the president’s contribution to drinking, regardless of how much he personally put away. And style counts: a president who drank with flair gets a boost over more pedestrian imbibers.

The ratings start at the bottom, and work their way up. Drum roll, please…

43. Rutherford B. Hayes. His wife, Lucy Hayes, was a committed teetotaler, which earned her the derisive nickname “Lemonade Lucy.” Hayes himself was a moderate drinker who preferred beer, but he banned alcohol from the Executive Mansion out of respect for his wife. Rumor had it that one of the punch bowls inside the Executive Mansion was spiked for the benefit of journalists, but Hayes denied it.

42. Abraham Lincoln. Despite having the ultimate high-stress job, he was among the lightest-drinking presidents. He used humor, not booze, to deal with stress. In a way, alcohol was responsible for Lincoln’s assassination. John Parker, the president’s substitute bodyguard, left Ford’s Theater to get a beer. Parker wound up the same tavern where John Wilkes Booth was drinking whiskey to fortify himself.

41. Millard Fillmore. As a young New York legislator, Fillmore took “the pledge,” and took it seriously: he drank no alcohol, not even beer. Ironically, his cabinet featured some of America’s champion drinkers, with Secretary of State Daniel Webster heading the list. Though he didn’t drink, Fillmore and his wife entertained twice a week, and served multiple wines to his dinner guests.

40. Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge drank occasionally and sparingly, and thus ranks as one of the presidency’s shortest hitters. His favorite beverage was Tokay wine. It is said that Coolidge brought out a bottle of whiskey after the 1928 Republican Convention took him at his word that he wasn’t running, and nominated Herbert Hoover instead.

39. Herbert Hoover. Hoover amassed a huge fortune, and spent some of it on luxuries, including a quality wine cellar. He supported Prohibition, but not as avidly as his wife, Lou. Once the Volstead Act took effect, she dumped her husband’s entire collection, even though the Volstead Act allowed him to keep what he’d bought legally. Hoover refused to cheat on Prohibition, and banned alcohol from the White House. Late in life, when he suffered from pneumonia, he asked for a dry Martini.

38. John Quincy Adams. Unlike his father, the second President Adams was a moderate drinker, perhaps because he suffered an awful hangover when he was a 20-year-old law student. Somewhat of a snob, he looked down on his hard-drinking colleagues, Henry Clay in particular. However, he loved Madiera wine, and had a sommelier-like ability to distinguish varieties of it.

37. Zachary Taylor. He found whiskey more of a hindrance than a help, and rarely took a drink. However, he had to deal with heavy drinkers, especially in the military. On the rare occasions when he lifted a glass, he’d do it at the famous Carusi’s Saloon at 11th and C Street in Washington.

36. James Garfield. Political opponents called him a drunk—a common dirty trick in those days—but he was a moderate drinker who preferred beer. He banned alcohol from the Executive Mansion. After he was shot, his doctors—among the most incompetent in history—fed him whiskey and brandy as “stimulants” while he slowly died of untreated infections.

35. Benjamin Harrison. His letters suggest that he wasn’t much of a drinker, even when he was an officer during the Civil War. As president, he spoke of the benefits of moderation, including having a glass of wine with dinner.

34. Bill Clinton. He overindulged a few times as a young man, but that’s about it. His stepfather, Roger Clinton, was a violent drunk, which might explain his aversion to heavy drinking. At Oxford, one of his favorite drinks was the Snakebite, a not-too-potent combination of beer and hard cider. But he wasn’t averse to photo-ops showing him clinking glasses with world leaders.

33. Jimmy Carter. According to the book In the President’s Secret Service, he sometimes had a martini or a light beer; and his wife, Rosalynn, occasionally drank a screwdriver. The First Lady banned hard alcohol at White House functions, not because of her religious beliefs but because she considered it beneath the elegance of presidential functions. Carter gets credit for signing legislation that re-legalized home brewing in the U.S.

32. Ronald Reagan. One of his most famous photo-ops took place at a pub in Ballyporeen, the ancestral Reagan home. However, he avoided heavy drinking because his father, Jack, was an alcoholic and because he’d suffered a terrible hangover at a college frat party. He’d sometimes have an Orange Blossom, a cocktail made from vodka, grenadine, and orange juice. Reagan signed legislation that requires all states to set 21 as their minimum drinking age.

31. William McKinley. Like other presidents of the late 19th century, he was careful not to offend the temperance lobby. However, despite being raised Methodist, he didn’t totally abstain from drinking. On occasions he had a glass of wine, or a whiskey as a nightcap. That wasn’t good enough for prohibition advocate Carrie Nation, who called him “a friend of the brewer and the drinking man.”[2]

30. George H.W. Bush. The first President Bush has been described as “a savvy social drinker.” He drank a little bit of everything, including beer and vodka martinis. As ambassador to China, Bush praised Chinese beer, which was less carbonated than American beer.

29. William Howard Taft. America’s heaviest-ever president was a light drinker. As a young man in Cincinnati, he visited the beer gardens in the “Over the Rhine” district. Even though he was a member of Skull and Bones at Yale, he only drank an occasional beer. However, he wrote an opinion settling the question of “what is whiskey?,” which provides the basis for the legal definition of bourbon.

28. James K. Polk. By the standards of his time—members of Congress drank on the floor—he was a short hitter. He might have held back because his younger brother died of alcoholism before his 30th birthday. First Lady Sarah Polk banned hard liquor from the Executive Mansion, but allowed Champagne, wine, and brandy to be served. Booze helped Polk climb the first step on the political ladder: he spent heavily on it to make sure voters elected him to the Tennessee legislature.

27. Woodrow Wilson. He was a moderate drinker with a preference for high-quality whiskey, Scotch in particular. As president of Princeton, he had a tradition of pouring Champagne and singing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve. He vetoed the Volstead Act, but Congress overrode his veto. He maintained an impressive wine cellar at the White House, but moved the wine to his home rather than let Warren G. Harding get his hands on it.

26. Theodore Roosevelt. Otherwise larger than life, T.R. was only a modest drinker—and proud of his modesty. Or was he? Roosevelt claimed he didn’t drink whiskey, but he was known to indulge in mint juleps, made with mint grown on the White House grounds. He famously sued a newspaper for libel after it accused him of drunkenness, and traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to testify in court to deny the allegations. He won the case.

25. Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a young Army man, Ike occasionally over-indulged; and, like other officers—including George Patton—he made his own booze during Prohibition. When Germany surrendered, he celebrated with Champagne. As president, he did most of his drinking in social situations. Besides, he had to limit his intake because of his heart problems.

24. James Monroe. Ever the Virginia country squire, he preferred wine. Two drink recipes are associated with him: Chatham Artillery Punch, whose ingredients included rum, rye whiskey, and gin; and Syllabub, a dessert made with whipping cream, lemons, sugar, white wine, and dry sherry. Monroe’s vice president, Daniel Tompkins, might have topped the list had he become president. Tomkins drank so heavily that he was sometimes too drunk to preside over the Senate.

23. John Fitzgerald Kennedy. JFK’s father, Joseph, made a fortune in whiskey when it was re-legalized in 1933. JFK used drinking as more of a prop for other interests, like talking politics with the guys and enjoying the company of women. Typically, he nursed a Scotch and water, and sipped his wine at dinner, but rarely took a drink during the day. He and Jackie disappointed temperance advocates by lifting the ban on hard liquor at White House functions.

22. James Madison. As a student at what is now Princeton, he drank hard cider and small beer. He later developed a taste for Champagne (fortunately, he wasn’t on a beer budget), and enjoyed wine with dinner at the Executive Mansion. Madison advocated the development of native American wines, something that wouldn’t happen until generations later. He also favored a stiff tax on liquor to discourage consumption of strong drink.

21. Barack Obama. The current president is the first in nearly 200 years to brew his own beer. He’s fond of being seen at campaign stops with a beer—usually a microbrew—in his hand. The president also enjoys martinis and California wines. He hosted the “beer summit” to which he invited Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested Gates on suspicion of burglary.

20. Franklin D. Roosevelt. He ran on a party platform calling for the end of Prohibition, and signed legislation that re-legalized 3.2 beer in America (he famously said, “I think this is a good time for a beer.”) His drink of choice was the gin martini, with a little vermouth and a classic garnish of olives. The usual daily ration was two drinks, though he was capable of handling more. Although he’s associated with cocktails, he enjoyed a variety of other beverages.

19. John Tyler. A self-confessed lover of Champagne, Tyler toasted his ascension to the presidency with bubbles. However, he called himself a “de facto temperance man” who avoided hard liquor. Before leaving office, Tyler threw an extravagant bash, at which he reportedly said, “Now they can’t say I am a man without a party.”

18. Chester A. Arthur. In true Gilded Age fashion, Arthur spent lavishly on fine clothing, rich food, and top quality liquor—the latter two would kill him at age 57—but wasn’t considered a heavy drinker. He angered temperance forces by ending the no-alcohol policy in the Executive Mansion. After a friend said a mutual acquaintance had gotten embarrassingly drunk, Arthur replied, “No gentleman ever sees another gentleman drunk.”

17. Harry S. Truman. He loved bourbon, and his morning routine included a belt of it, followed by his daily constitutional. His favorite drink was the Old Fashioned, and he instead that they be made strong. He’s one of the free presidents after whom a drink was invented: the Missouri Mule, made with bourbon, applejack, Campari, and Cointreau.

16. Thomas Jefferson. Though he wasn’t a heavy drinker, he always went first class when he imbibed. He never let mounting debts interfere with his enjoyment of the finest wines. At Monticello, he made and brewed his own beer. However, he wasn’t so fond of hard liquor, and favored taxing it heavily to encourage Americans to switch to less-potent beverages.

15. George Washington. His high rank is based more on production than consumption. In the 1780s, he was the nation’s number-one distiller of whiskey, though he didn’t drink much of it. He signed into law a high tax on whiskey; later, he personally led an army to put down a rebellion against that tax. He liked Madeira wine (which was popular among the Founders), Champagne, and Philadelphia-style porter.

14. George W. Bush. He gave up drinking after his 40th birthday (after running up a colossal bar tab at his birthday party), but his performance up to then puts him in the heavyweight division. His adventures as a Yale frat boy included an incident at Princeton that got him banished from town. In 1976, he got arrested for DUI on Labor Day weekend. By his mid-30s, he drank routinely, “with an occasional bender thrown in”; his favorite beverages included beer, bourbon, and B&B, a sweet, after-dinner digestif.

13. John Adams. At Harvard, he drank a glass of hard cider at breakfast. He was 15 years old when he enrolled, and he had taken up smoking years before. Adams enjoyed rum—which New England made in abundance back then—as well as Madiera wine and porter. Whatever he drank, he could put away large quantities. Adams had an iron constitution; in spite of all that smoking and drinking, he lived to age 90.

12. William Henry Harrison. His campaign deserves most of the credit for his reputation as a drinker. In 1840, he ran as the “Hard Cider and Log Cabin” candidate—a manly man who could hold his liquor—but that was was election-year hype. Harrison’s father, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the big drinker in the family; John Adams compared him to Sir John Falstaff.

11. Grover Cleveland. America’s second-heaviest president enjoyed all kinds of alcohol, beer in particular. As a young man, he was a regular in Buffalo’s beer halls. During a campaign for district attorney, Cleveland and his opponent, who were drinking buddies, agreed to limit themselves to four beers as day. The two men quickly found that restriction too burdensome. Being smart lawyers, they found a loophole: they stuck to the four-beer limit, but switched to double-sized tankards.

10. Andrew Jackson. He distilled whiskey at the Hermitage, served it to guests, and drank it himself. Despite his image as a backwoodsman, Jackson also enjoyed wine—French reds and whites, Champagne, port, and Madeira—and served it to guests at the Executive Mansion. In the 1950s, Old Crow launched a series of ads for its bourbon which depicted Jackson and other 19th-century politicians.

9. Ulysses S. Grant. He could avoid drinking for days, even weeks, on end. But when he did drink, it often ended badly because he had a low tolerance for alcohol. His worst drinking took place in the 1850s, when the Army sent him to California, far from his wife. After he showed up drunk to hand out pay to his men, his higher-ups forced him to resign. As president, Grant was fairly careful not to overindulge. But it was just his luck that one of his administration’s scandals involved The Whiskey Ring.

8. Gerald Ford. His favorite drink was the martini, but he had trouble handling them. Some of his famous stumbles out of Air Force One[3] were the result of too many cocktails. After Ford became president, White House physician William Lukash told him, “You’re the president of the United States. Stop drinking. Especially stop drinking martinis at lunch.” He finally gave it up after his wife, Betty, went into rehab; he didn’t want to drink alone.

7. Martin Van Buren. He was perhaps the most underrated drinker in presidential history. Van Buren got the nickname “Blue Whiskey Van” for his ability to drink large amounts without showing any effects. Being of Dutch origin, he probably indulged in a local potion similar to modern-day gin. Later in life, liberal drinking and rich food gave Van Buren a case of gout.

6. Andrew Johnson. Historians classify him as a moderate-drinking president. His rambling, slurred address on Inauguration Day was likely the of bad 19th-century medicine: the doctors prescribed booze to treat his typhoid fever, and he had a few “hair of the dog” drinks before taking the oath of office. Angry exchanges with hecklers added to his image as a drunk. After leaving the White House, Johnson did start boozing it up heavily.

5. James Buchanan. The nation’s only bachelor president started drinking in his mid-teens and kept at it until late in life, when complications from gout finally forced him to quit. His adventures at Dickinson College might have rivaled those of George W. Bush at Yale. According to legend, he once admonished a wine merchant for sending small bottles of Champagne to the Executive Mansion. The president made it clear that big bottles would be required in the future.

4. Warren G. Harding. He wasn’t the biggest presidential drinker, but he was the brassiest. Prohibition be damned, he carried a bottle of whiskey in his golf bag, and had an occasional belt while he played. He drank upstairs in the White House while playing poker with friends, and once lost some of the White House china in a card game. After his death his widow, Florence, burned papers that would shed light on his drinking, gambling, and affairs.

3. Lyndon Johnson. LBJ is widely-known for crude behavior, and alcohol fueled most of it. In early 1960 he was found “drunk as a loon” and taken home, but that didn’t keep him off the Democratic ticket. He normally drank Fresca during working hours, but broke out the Scotch when lawmakers visited his office. At the LBJ Ranch, he liked to drink whiskey and Pearl beer while driving his Lincoln Continental at high speed. One of the Secret Service’s assignments at the ranch was making sure that the president got his refills.

2. Franklin Pierce. At Bowdoin College, he and his friends—one of whom was Nathaniel Hawthorne—almost earned a scarlet letter for drinking and gambling. Pierce loved alcohol, but couldn’t handle it; and he did a poor job of choosing drinking companions to boot. He’s probably the only president who died of cirrhosis of the liver. After the Democratic Party refused to renominate him, he supposedly said, “What can an ex-president of the United States do except get drunk?” Especially if he was one of the worst of all time.

1. Richard Nixon. Simply put, he couldn’t hold his liquor. Vice President Nixon prepared for his “kitchen debate” with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev by downing half a dozen vodka martinis. When Watergate investigators closed in on his inner circle, he resorted to “drunk dialing” White House staffers[4]. Nixon got so blasted during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that aides had to tell the British prime minister the president was “unavailable.” On the night before he resigned, he brought out a bottle of brandy and asked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to share it while the two of them prayed.

[1] Even though the publisher is Regnery, a right-wing outfit that is to the book world what K-Tel is to recorded music, the amount of bias in this book is minimal. Kind of gives Regnery a bad name.

[2] Some things never change. The temperance lobby blamed booze, not guns, for the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. They pointed out that John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau were both heavy drinkers, and Leon Czolgosz was in a saloon shortly before he assassinated McKinley.

[3] Chevy Chase’s impression of a stumbling President Ford might have cost him the 1976 election. It ranks among Saturday Night Live’s best political impressions of all time.

[4] For example, Nixon sounded sloppy drunk during a phone call to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in 1973.

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