Derek Brown is the author of “Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World.”
In 2013, Esquire drinks writer David Wondrich offered to “personally buy the first round any time two senators or congresspersons of opposite parties drink together.” The number of takers on the offer, good for a month, was zero. But that Wondrich could even make the offer marked that year as a rosier era, when, even if politicians didn’t drink together, they at least drank at the same bars. Now, a politician or pundit might be spat on, yelled at or ridiculed during his or her visit to the wrong one. From the “Moscow Mitch” cocktail to guest bartending shifts by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), cocktails and bartending are being used as tools in partisan politicking.
That’s in keeping with a noble tradition, but cocktails can do more than help draw partisan boundaries. In the past, drinks helped politicians ingratiate themselves with their constituents, and bars were spaces where politicians could see each other as individuals rather than mere representatives of their parties. Drinking together can help us remember our common purpose: As a bitter presidential election season approaches, politicians should consider cutting the tension with a cocktail.
Politics and drinking are so closely entwined that an early definition of the term cocktail actually came in the context of political coverage. In 1806, Harry Croswell, a Federalist newspaper editor, told a confused reader that a cocktail is a combination of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. And he added a slap at his political adversaries, noting that cocktails could “be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”
The practice of pairing booze and baloney knows no partisan boundaries. George Washington himself missed his shot at the Virginia House of Burgesses the first time around because he failed to provide adequate amounts of alcohol to his would-be constituents, according to author Daniel Okrent. It was a mistake he never made again, buying 144 gallons of beer, rum, punch and cider to win his next contest.
Yet drinks do not have to be polarizing. Drinking, whether alcohol or the increasing number of options available to teetotalers, at bars can create a feeling of great geniality. In fact, one of the District’s historic bars, Shoomaker’s, was known for serving the best whiskey in town, as Judge Samuel H. Cowan testified in the congressional Agriculture Committee in 1906, and being a haven for politicians of all stripes. Writer Elbert Hubbard commended Shoomaker’s for its ability to provide an atmosphere of acceptance in his pamphlet, “A Little Journey to Shoomaker’s: Being an Appreciation and Eye-Opener.” He wrote: “It is democracy carried to the limit. . . . Here men get freedom from the tyranny of things. Nothing matters. The bartenders are your neighbors, the proprietor your long-familiar friend, the patrons your partners.”
That “democracy carried to the limit” was not just visible down Pennsylvania Avenue, where there was a string of bars labeled Rum Row, but also in the Capitol itself, which operated a bar until 1903.
There is no reason to pretend that those congenial days were inclusive. The idea of rich white men clinking martinis served by people of color, and without the presence of women of any race, hardly seems like the kind of inclusive congeniality that we want in 2019. And I am sympathetic to servers and owners who take a stance based on conscience. Cocktails must never be an excuse for inaction in the face of a known evil.
Yet, drinking together is vitally important. We cannot have Republican bars and Democratic bars any more than we can have two countries, one red and one blue. The more we drink apart, eat apart, entertain ourselves apart and share our stories apart, the more we risk an increasing alienation from our fellow Americans. While we cannot excuse grave misdeeds, we must also not ignore each other and build metaphorical walls.
When people drink together, they have to answer in person for their more egregious stances and comments face to face with their colleagues and neighbors. That makes it harder to regard another person as pure evil or brush aside their criticism. It might even be an opportunity to put aside public posturing and get to the real business of governing.
Cocktails might have had a long history of politicization, but there is no reason we cannot use that lever again for something positive. Maybe Wondrich’s offer has expired, but I would challenge politicians on both sides to make the leap themselves: Go buy your colleague across the aisle a drink.