At the Willard, All the Presidents' Cocktails
Friday, January 20, 2006
Washington's cocktail scene is constantly in a state of flux. More and more lounges are ditching the same old martini menu for one that changes seasonally. Apple martinis gave way to litchi martinis, and now Hot Cosmos are having their moment in the sun. Our better bartenders -- some of whom might be termed "bar chefs" -- experiment with fresh fruits and the latest spirits, trying to concoct the Next Big Drink.
Not so at the Willard InterContinental hotel's Round Robin Bar (1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-637-7348), where bartender-manager Jim Hewes is more concerned with what President James Monroe may have sipped after dinner, the punches served at Ulysses S. Grant's inauguration and the evolution of the Gin Rickey, popular in William McKinley's day.
The Willard is marking the 20th anniversary of its reopening with a year-long series of exhibits, lectures and special events, and Hewes's contribution is one of those "only in Washington" brainstorms: He has created a presidential-themed drink menu that features one beverage to represent each chief executive.
"I've always been interested in history," says Hewes, a 20-year veteran who consulted his large collection of antique cocktail books for recipes and ideas, as well as historical biographies and letters.
He's a good match for the historic Willard. The first hotel on this site, the City Hotel, was built in the early 18th century, and the original Willard Hotel opened next door in 1850. Abraham Lincoln slept at the Willard the night before his inauguration. Martin Luther King Jr. slept there the night before he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. President Grant liked to relax in the ornate lobby with a drink and a cigar, though he was often interrupted by job-seekers and politicians seeking favors. Thus, according to the hotel, the term "lobbyist" was born.
Even the bar is steeped in the past. According to the Willard, this is where statesman Henry Clay introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C. Clay's legacy is still honored at the bar, where Clay's julep is still one of the top sellers, alongside classic cocktails such as the Stinger, the Ramos Gin Fizz and, appropriately, the Old Fashioned. Portraits of presidents and authors hang on the Round Robin's walls, and the atmosphere is clubby and refined (but for the large flat-screen television).
Hewes says his presidential cocktail list is an ongoing project that has evolved over several years. In some cases, the connection between a president and a beverage was easy to establish. George Washington made numerous references to Madeira in his letters and in his Revolutionary War expense reports. The fortified wine was served to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Washington's first inauguration.
James Garfield received a case of Dewar's scotch from industrialist Andrew Carnegie as an inaugural present. After signing the act repealing Prohibition, Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated by mixing up a gin martini.
Andrew Johnson turned up drunk for his inauguration as Lincoln's vice president. He later explained that he'd had too much whiskey that morning because he wasn't feeling well and hoped it would help him recover. That's not as unlikely an explanation as you might think. "In the days before you could take two Advil and a glass of water," Hewes explains, warm drinks such as a hot toddy were used to help ward off colds and colic. Johnson's "cure" appears on the menu, but no restorative effects are guaranteed.
Other connections on the menu, though, are pure conjecture. "We can't be sure that every [president] tried every one of these cocktails," Hewes admits. "Did Warren Harding drink a 7 and 7 [Seagram's 7 and 7-Up]? Well, a 7 and 7 was the drink of the day" in the 1920s.
The beauty of this cocktail anthropology is the chance to sample curiosities like the Brandy Crusta, a cocktail from the 1830s and '40s that was the Cosmopolitan of its day. "They were very popular because they were very elegant looking," Hewes says. They also are complicated to prepare: A spiral-shaped orange peel is placed in a wine goblet, creating a small bowl within the glass. Ice fills the peel, along with brandy, port wine, Cointreau and fruit juices. Sipped through a straw, the concoction tastes like a light, sweet Sidecar dominated by citrus.
Sherry Cobbler, popular in the early 1800s, looks like a goblet full of fruit salad with brandy poured on top. It packs a punch, too -- the fruit marinates in mint-flavored spirits before it's served. The Mamie Taylor, named after Zachary Taylor's wife, was "America's first highball," Hewes says, with ginger beer poured over whiskey. Of course, we can't be sure if it tastes just like Taylor's. "Back then, 150 or 200 years ago, you blended your own stuff -- your own extracts, your own essences, your own ginger beer, your own cider," Hewes says. "There was no Bloody Mary mix."
For presidents who didn't (or don't) imbibe, Hewes had to be more creative. During the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, his teetotaling wife, "Lemonade" Lucy, refused to serve alcohol at the White House. An incensed press corps, Hewes says, bribed servers to spike the oranges and lemons with gin -- and the incident is commemorated by the Orange Blossom, which mixes gin and orange juice. As for the current occupant of the Oval Office, he's a nice tall glass of diet soda.
Some of Hewes's selections are tenuous at best -- Bill Clinton is represented by Foggy Bottom Ale because he "is always eager to please and appease"; Gerald Ford's drink is Budweiser because he's "a man of the people." I'll ignore these missteps as long as I can sample long-forgotten favorites like the Ward 8 (a turn-of-the-20th-century take on a whiskey sour) and hear stories about the origins of drinks like the Hennessy Martini. "Lafayette came to Washington [in 1825] for the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution, and he stayed at a hotel on the site where the Willard is now," Hewes says. "He was here for ceremonies at the Capitol. Supposedly, it was very hot that day, and during the speeches, someone asked him if he'd like a drink. He didn't want bourbon, so he asked for cognac, and because it was hot, he took the edge off of it by squeezing fresh lemon juice into the glass."
According to Hewes, the mixture became popular in the following decade. It's a good yarn, but is it true? "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," he says.
This is about entertaining customers rather than serious scholarship. "When you can serve something up with a little taste of history -- show people what their parents drank, what their grandparents drank -- it makes it more interesting," Hewes says. "And at the Willard, people enjoy that."