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What'll It Be, Mr. President?

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

As mixologists and liquor brand reps hustled to get attention during this week's inauguration parties, I saw many dubious cocktails that it's safe to say will not survive the first 100 days, including the Obamartini, the Baracktail and the Obama Mama.

Yet there's always a special fascination reserved for a president's true beverage of choice. Richard Nixon loved tiki drinks. John F. Kennedy enjoyed daiquiris. Gerald Ford mixed gin and tonics. Harry S. Truman stuck to bourbon. George Washington ran the largest whiskey distillery in early America. Abraham Lincoln served applejack at his tavern in Illinois. William Howard Taft got into hot water over a Bronx Cocktail. Franklin Delano Roosevelt served a dirty martini to Joseph Stalin. Even George W. Bush, who officially sticks to cola and nonalcoholic beer, sipped a pisco sour (reportedly without the pisco) in Peru in November.

So although more-important issues were discussed yesterday, I couldn't help but think about what sort of drink our new president will become known for. From what we know, Barack Obama is an abstemious man who ate the same dinner of salmon, rice and broccoli nearly every night on the campaign trail. We know that he sipped on a Yuengling beer while campaigning at a bar in Pennsylvania. And we've also learned (thanks to Newsweek's incisive reporting) that his wife's favorite drink is champagne. So I'm speculating that the presidential tipple won't be particularly high-proof.

Before you dismiss me as trivial-minded, let me say I am not the only one momentarily ignoring the state of the economy and the world to think about such matters. Last week, in fact, this very issue was the subject of an interesting seminar called "All Cocktails Is Local -- Presidential and Political Libations in American History" put on by the Museum of the American Cocktail at Rock Creek restaurant in Mazza Gallerie. Hosts Derek Brown (maestro at the Gibson and co-founder of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild) and Philip Greene (lawyer by day, cocktail aficionado by night) presented a PowerPoint lecture on political libations.

We worked our way through a half-dozen presidential cocktails, beginning with a drink called Yes We Canton, a mix of sparkling wine, pineapple juice and, of course, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. I have to say: Of all the cutesy-marketing-department-titled inauguration cocktails, this one was pretty tasty. After that light aperitif, we jumped right into a rickey made with 107-proof W.L. Weller bourbon as Mount Vernon Estate curator Dennis Pogue described Washington's success as a whiskey distiller and his "very modern attitude toward alcohol" (but apparently not toward his slaves at the distillery). Pogue also talked about Washington's early education in politics, when he won election to the House of Burgesses in 1758 by "treating" voters at the polls with 160 gallons of booze.

The nation grew more puritanical (or at least more hypocritical) in the next century. In the election of 1896, as the temperance movement gained steam, William McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan with the slogan "McKinley drinks soda water, Bryan drinks rum; McKinley is a gentleman, Bryan is a bum."

Brown continued to mix us drinks: the Ward Eight (rye, lemon and orange juices, and grenadine) and a traditional daiquiri, the favorite of Teddy Roosevelt and Kennedy. The PowerPoint demo flashed a 1968 quote from columnist Russell Baker: "I was drinking scotch and soda -- we all got to drink scotch and soda under Eisenhower -- and someone said to me, 'What are you doing? Kennedy likes daiquiris. We all have to drink daiquiris now.' So for me, the Kennedy administration was three years of heartburn."

As mai tais were being served, a PowerPoint slide came on the screen: "Richard Milhouse Nixon, Tiki God." Greene explained that while Pat Nixon drank Jack Daniel's, her husband often dragged his entourage and Secret Service detail to Trader Vic's for tiki drinks. "Well, that explains a lot!" shouted someone at the table behind me.

My favorite presidential cocktail of the evening was the Bronx [recipe]. According to historian David Wondrich, this drink was the Cosmopolitan of its day, at the turn of the 20th century. The addition of orange juice as a mixer was then revolutionary, which meant the drink was -- of course -- loved by the masses and abhorred by the drinking cognoscenti. Taft caused a scandal on a visit to St. Louis in 1911 when his party ordered Bronx Cocktails at breakfast. At the time, the New York Times called the controversy "annoying" and wrote, "When this Republic grows older, and mellows a little, such controversies will not be conducted in public." Ha! If only.

If the nation does grow up, may I suggest a suitable cocktail for you, Mr. President? How about an El Presidente [recipe]? Invented in Havana during our shameful interlude of Prohibition, it is an elegant, cool and sophisticated mix of rum, vermouth and triple sec, sort of a variation on a rum Manhattan. It's more respectable than Nixon's mai tais, smoother than Washington's unaged whiskey and certainly better than a pisco sour without the pisco.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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