Reagan had his jellybeans and Clinton once reveled in cheeseburgers. But what did these leaders drink to get their jollies? You might be surprised by the level of boozing accomplished in the presidential office as early as 1797. Everyone from John Adams to L.B.J. did his share of drinking—but it wasn’t always fine Champagne coating those gullets. Some presidents took beer for breakfast; others enjoyed Scotch from a plastic cup. Some distilled themselves, while others delighted in mass deliveries of liquor to the Oval Office. No matter your politics, you can’t deny: These guzzlers-in-chief knew how to handle their drink.
The nation’s first president was a non-discriminatory drinker, enjoying everything from Madeira and port to rum and porter. But his foray into whiskey distilling brought him the greatest success following his presidency. The only founding father to own a commercial distillery, Washington was lured into the booze business by his Scottish farm manager at Mount Vernon. Rye whiskey was the most plentiful spirit produced there, though it was not bottled or aged, but shipped to merchants in 31-gallon barrels. In 1799 (the same year as Washington’s death), the distillery yielded 11,000 gallons, cementing its status as the largest whiskey distillery in the country at the time—and Washington the most profitable distiller.
A tankard of ale a day? Standard fare for America’s second president, who started drinking in his early teens and was known to down beer for breakfast by the time he entered Harvard at age 15. Adams also started smoking at the tender age of eight, but his rebel style didn’t shorten his lifespan: He died at a ripe 90. Cider, rum, porter beer, Madeira—all were in Adams’ regular rotation. He valued a good drink so highly that during a 1777 trip to Philadelphia, he lamented to his wife in a letter, “I would give three guineas for a barrel of your cider [and] a guinea for a barrel of your beer [...] I am getting nothing I can drink, and believe I shall be sick from this cause alone.”
Thanks to time spent in France and Italy in the 1780s, Jefferson is still considered the principal wine authority to ever hold office. He took time to tour major French vineyards and was a serious collector, purchasing around 20,000 bottles of wine during his presidency. He even attempted his own grape cultivation at home, which, along with his massive wine purchases, resulted in near financial ruin. Jefferson didn’t save the good stuff for himself at least. He schooled other presidents on the best vintages and requested an estimated 500 bottles of Champagne a year for parties at the Executive Mansion.
You know you’ve done some next-level drinking when you’re tagged with the nickname, “Blue Whiskey Van.” Van Buren was renowned for his high tolerance, and was curiously able to quaff mass quantities of whiskey and Schiedam (otherwise known as genever) without appearing the least bit tipsy. The outward effects of his drinking eventually caught up with him. He developed gout and struggled with obesity, which he apparently tried to hide in later years by wearing a corset. The last blow came during the 1840 election, when William Henry Harrison portrayed Van Buren as a drunk, leading to Van Buren’s eventual loss.
Gout schmout. Dysentery? Child’s play. Buchanan may have suffered both as a result of his heavy drinking, but neither stood in the way of his having a good time. Liquor merchants who delivered inappropriately small Champagne bottles would receive swift reprimand from the chief executive. On Sundays, Buchanan ventured out on joyrides for the express purpose of purchasing ten-gallon casks of whiskey from Jacob Baer distillery. Witnesses observed him to be another president who could hold his booze, with “no headache, no faltering steps, no flushed cheek.” Two or three bottles at once was an average intake for Buchanan, who would start with cognac and ease into rye whiskey as the night wore on.
Dares usually result in excess drinking—but Cleveland was operating on another level. Beer was his poison of choice, and his intake was so impressive that his nieces and nephews referred to him as “Uncle Jumbo,” a nickname supported by an impressive beer belly. During a district attorney race against his friend Lyman K. Bass, Cleveland agreed to restrict himself to four glasses of beer a day in order to stay focused. That limit quickly proved too strict, and both sides worked around their suds deficit by replacing standard beer glasses with oversized steins—a much more palatable solution.
The repeal of Prohibition clearly warrants FDR the highest-ranking position in the pantheon of presidential drinkers. He had a penchant for Bermuda Rum Swizzles while sailing and Plymouth Martinis while entertaining. He also experimented with ratios—often unsuccessfully. His infamous Martinis skewed vermouth-heavy, and with a few drops of absinthe and a double garnish of olives and a twist, many guests claimed that FDR made “the worst Martinis ever tasted.” Bartending skills aside, FDR knew how to enjoy life. Heart problems led his doctor to prescribe a low-fat diet, which proved overly effective. Faced with the task of gaining the weight back, FDR did what any resourceful drinker would do: Drink punch bowls’ worth of calorie-laden Eggnog.
LBJ’s recreational activity of choice? Tearing around his Texas ranch in a station wagon while sipping Cutty Sark Scotch from a large plastic cup. His drinking method isn’t recommended, but no one asked questions as he was speeding around the property at 90 miles per hour. Secret Service agents followed behind in a separate car and sprang into action when the president needed a refill. Slowing to a roll, LBJ simply stuck his cup out the window, shook the ice cubes and waited for an agent to run over and fill it up before revving off again at full speed with his drink properly refreshed.
Mixing your cocktail