Drinking With The Presidents

FDR was less fond of the mint julep, but on at least one occasion -- addressing a graduating class on a brutally hot day at West Point in 1935 -- took refuge in their frosty zippiness. His distant cousin would have been, well, "de-lighted!" at the choice.
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For sports fans and American drinkers everywhere, it's the most wonderful time of the year: football season. But on top of celebrating every Sunday through February, we really should be applauding Franklin D. Roosevelt. The NFL may not sell Roosevelt jerseys, but FDR charged through and intercepted Prohibition. In one of his early "fireside chats," he won cheers from thirsty citizens by stating: "I think this would be a good time for a beer."

Although most often associated with cocktails (FDR once hid in a large cloak closet to mix up a second batch because his mother would admonish him if he drank more than one), the President did like beer. He sometimes would drink four in a sitting at late night poker games.

But he also liked rum swizzles, particularly if he was out sailing. An FDR "Bermuda Rum Swizzle" was fashioned like this:

Bermuda Rum Swizzle

2 oz. dark rum
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. orange juice
1 generous dash of Falernum (a sweet syrup)

Shake with ice. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Garnish with a slice of orange and a cherry.

FDR was less fond of the mint julep, but on at least one occasion -- addressing a graduating class on a brutally hot day at West Point in 1935 -- took refuge in their frosty zippiness. His distant cousin would have been, well, "de-lighted!" at the choice.

Speaking of his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt--the Hero of San Juan Hill and the 26th President of the United States -- cultivated a fine bed of fresh mint at the White House.

Teddy used the leaves of that aromatic plant to flavor his juleps, and he used these whiskey-based libations to entice members of his cabinet to play tennis with him. Thus they became known as "The Tennis Cabinet."

Roosevelt charged the tennis net with nearly the same vigor that he charged up San Juan Hill. But when it came to exchanging lobs and backhands with their boss, his cabinet members were considerably less chuffed. Therefore, Teddy's mint juleps were necessary bribes. As he received the requisite "thank you," Teddy dispensed these courtside libations to guests with his trademark toothy grin, the sprigs of mint, and probably an additional verbal garnish of "Bully!"

Since the TR julep was based in rye whiskey -- and not bourbon -- it should be noted that no intrepid son or daughter of Kentucky would embrace this as a true mint julep. Nevertheless, here it is:

TR's Mint Juleps

5 to 10 fresh mint leaves lightly "muddled" with a splash of water and a sugar cube.

A "generous slug" of rye whiskey (2 oz. to 4 oz. depending on desired strength)

¼ oz. of brandy

Sprig or two of fresh mint as a garnish
& serve in a glass of crushed ice

*Teddy sometimes added fruit with the mint sprigs, such as cherries, sliced bananas, or a slice of pineapple.

TR had ascended to the presidency after William McKinley's tragic assassination in 1901. McKinley won the election of 1896, and -- as that political contest unfolded -- a bartender at the GOP convention in St. Louis created a drink called "McKinley's Delight." After the Spanish American War broke out (in 1898) this drink was often called "Remember the Maine" -- a nod to the sinking of the ship in Havana harbor that helped ignite the war.

McKinley's Delight/Remember the Maine


3 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes of cherry brandy
1 dash absinthe

Shake vigorously, pour over ice. Serve in a cocktail glass -- which seems only fair, as this drink greatly resembles a Manhattan.

It would be nice to say that Teddy's bed of fresh mint flourishes yet on White House grounds. There may well be mint in Michelle Obama's garden, but it's highly unlikely it descended from TR's original plants; Calvin Coolidge and a ravenous clutch of chickens seems to have seen to that.

In the two years of researching Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking, I stumbled upon many strange stories. For example:

  • Richard Nixon sipping an exquisite 1957 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, while waiters served clueless dinner guests far cheaper wine -- a towel wrapped around the bottle's label to mask its mediocrity. (Tricky Dick indeed!)
  • Warren G. Harding, casually strolling the greens and fairways of Chevy Chase with a fifth of whiskey conveniently stashed in his golf bag. (Hold the Prohibition, please!)
  • JFK spraying revved up champagne over White House furniture when an impromptu dance party ("Come on, baby... Let's do the Twist!") turned rambunctious.
  • George W. Bush (in his pre-presidential days) drinking beer without using his hands, tutored by Aussie tennis star (and expert tippler) John Newcombe. ("It was all fun until the ride home," George later said of his 1976 DUI).
But the fate of Theodore Roosevelt's fresh bed of mint ranks right up there on the "presidential weirdness" scale. Apparently Coolidge let his chickens--a gift from some "Cool Cal" fan--loose in the mint bed and they consumed it all. (When the chickens themselves were eaten, the meat was said to have a hint of mint.) A man of few words who wore, a tight smile flirting with a sneer, Coolidge was essentially a non-drinker during his White House years. There would have been no need for fresh mint to enhance a julep or any other drink. In his book
42 Years in the White House
, Irwin "Ike" Hoover, the long serving, White House usher, considered the "chicken and mint" incident: "We never knew whether (Coolidge) selected the mint bed on purpose or not. If he did, it was in keeping with many other odd things the President was up to." All things considered, too much alcohol could make a president do weird things -- but Calvin Coolidge proved it wasn't absolutely necessary.

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