It’s never an easy job, even in the best of times: impossibly long hours, incessant wrangling with self-important blowhards, crackpots to the right of you and loonies to the left and everybody in the whole world second-guessing every little thing you do. In the worst of times, it’s all that, plus a war to win. Small wonder that a great many of our presidents have liked a good, stiff drink every once in awhile.
George Washington favored his wife’s Rum Punch, while JFK preferred his rum in Daiquiri form. FDR mixed a mean—and by “mean,” I mean “terrible”—Martini. Richard Nixon, when he wasn’t having Scotch (he kept a bottle in his desk), was another Martini man. In that, at least, he stands beside our current president, though Barack Obama prefers vodka in his.
Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were bourbon drinkers, as was Ulysses S. Grant, famously; Martin Van Buren was another whiskey fan—indeed, one of his nicknames was “Blue Whiskey Van”—while the candidate he lost the presidency to, William Henry Harrison, adopted hard cider as his campaign tipple, to seem like a man of the people. James Buchanan and Warren Harding drank whiskey, too (and pretty much everything else). Even Teddy Roosevelt, who lost a brother to alcoholism, allowed himself the occasional Mint Julep when suffering through a Washington summer.
Presidents have not only enjoyed cocktails, but also inspired them, although none as well as Mario García Menocal, president of Cuba from 1913 to 1921, who was immortalized by the utterly sublime El Presidente. That one still remains popular today.
Alas, most of the concoctions dedicated to American presidents were neither popular nor sublime. Take, for example, the Nixon Cocktail, invented by Joe Gilmore of the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London to commemorate Tricky Dick’s 1969 visit, a potent but rather unconvincing mix of equal parts bourbon and sloe gin dashed with peach bitters and served on the rocks with a slice of peach. (That’s still better than the “Nixon Cocktail” an anonymous wag was touting in 1973, post-Watergate: “water with a bug in it.”)
The Baltimore politico who concocted a McKinley Punch in 1896 took the opposite tack from Gilmore, venturing into impotence by merely combining sweetened orange juice with red wine. Yet 1896 also saw one of the finest presidential cocktails, created at the bar in the old Waldorf-Astoria in New York, one of the very best watering holes in the country and a GOP stronghold.
The McKinley’s Delight succeeds because it’s basically the same old stuff that everybody likes, just dressed up a little to make it seem new. There’s a lesson there, I suppose.
Contributed by David Wondrich
- 2 oz Straight rye whiskey
- 1 oz Italian red vermouth
- 1 tsp Cherry liqueur
- 1 dash Absinthe
- Garnish: Lemon peel
- Glass: Cocktail
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Cut a thin swatch of lemon peel, twist over the drink and discard.
David Wondrich is the author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl and Esquire magazine’s drinks correspondent. He is also a Liquor.com advisory board member.