Welcome to the American Whiskey Podcast where we talk about the intersection of American history and American whiskey. This week we are going to have a truly presidential episode focusing on the past presidents of the United States that loved whiskey. Some of these presidents had a bigger cellar than others, but very few had an empty one. We’ll start with the beginning, George Washington, and move through time to more modern presidents. We’ll spend more time on some rather than others, because most presidents liked to keep their drinking habits to themselves. At the end of the episode we are going to be drinking some Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which I have high hopes for because most people have rated the current batches really highly.
So don’t pay any attention to Sawyer’s rude remarks, watch out for that smoke monster, and lets turn that Darhma Initiative frozen wheel. Hopefully we don’t end up in the Sahara Desert, but instead land in the presence of our very first president, George Washington.
George was a hell of a guy. After leading the Continental Army to victory over the british in the American Revolutionary war, he is the only president in US history to receive all the votes of the electoral college, literally, all of them, and he did it twice. Now of course, the electoral college was a lot smaller back then and the people in it were used to electing a single dictator, but regardless, unanimous votes. It would have been 3 terms too, but he declined a third time being elected, setting the standard that most presidents followed until term limits were established in 1951 with the 22nd amendment.
After being first president of the United States and being a public official for nearly 40 years, George retired to Mt. Vernon, intending to get the farm back up to the profitable plantation it once was. Fate would have it James Anderson, Washington’s Scottish plantation manager, who distilled whiskey back in Scotland before coming to the US, recommended to George that he turn some of the rye used from the farm into rye whiskey.
Washington was a keen businessman and knew people were drinking a lot in the late 18th century. How much? Well in the year 1790, we have a record that people drank, on average, 34 gallons of beer and cider, 5 gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine, per person, per year. Holy crap that’s a ton of alcohol. If you compare it to today’s consumption of alcohol, we drink an average of 2.3 gallons per year, per person. Of course, it was different then, as alcohol was often turned to for medicinal and practical choices. When you drank water in the 1790’s, it would oftentimes make you sick, alcohol on the other hand, did not. Additionally, as the colonists spread throughout the early United States, the first building often erected in new townships were taverns and became the center of social activity. Taverns were used for everything from reading newspapers, to holding meetings. Most taverns were also used as the first American post offices. It’s interesting to note that while the early colonists drank like fish, they actually despised drunkenness and many of the founding fathers are often quoted as talking about moderation and understanding limits. One obscure piece of lore was that people who were known to be drunkards were often forced to wear a large red “D” on their clothing, not unlike the scarlet letter, that was supposed to shame them into sobering up. I would have worn that letter D proudly and added and F and a U on my back too.
So Washington sees all of this going on around him and trusting his manager, orders two small stills to start producing whiskey. At his farm, Washington already grew wheat and corn and used rye as a cover crop, so instead of wasting it, they turned it into a rye whiskey. In fact, he was quite the farming innovator, he actually created a crazy looking 16 sided barn that was supposed to revolutionize the farming industry. They produced some whiskey and turned a little profit. Enough of a profit for Washington to throw a ton of money at the project and by the end of 1798, they built the largest distillery in the country, with 5 stills. They produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey and that was sold for $1,800, roughly $120,000 grand by today’s standards. Sadly, Washington died the next year. From reading this stuff it looks like the whiskey Washington sold was unaged and had a mash bill of 65% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley, but they didn’t stick to one type of whiskey or one particular mash bill either – cinnamon rye whiskey, apple brandy, and when rye supply was short they produced a wheat whiskey.
In 1997 a bunch of archeaologists got together and rebuilt the distillery to orginal specifications, it reopened in 2007 and was funded by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. They produce whiskey a few times a year and it’s weird because they follow original production methods using wood barrels and buckets to distill. They sell the whiskey for a pretty high price point and from what I read, is not that impressive, but hey, if I ever visit Mt. Vernon, I’ll pick up a bottle for sure.
Moving on to Andrew Jackson, who was quite literally an insane man who somehow took the white house. Jackson was ruthless. When he wasn’t out killing Indians or telling British officers where to stick it, he could be found at the local racetrack, betting on horses and getting liquored up. In a discrepancy with a bet, he challenged a guy to a duel. The guy he challenged was an expert shot and Jackson knew this. So his plan was to let the other guy shoot first, hoping for a misfire or a missed shot, then Jackson would take his time and aim his shot appropriately. Well, the guy did shoot first, but he didn’t miss and there wasn’t a misfire. The bullet hit Jackson in the chest, but Andrew was so drunk on whiskey he reportedly didn’t even feel it. He then aimed his shot and hit his opponent in the chest, later killing him. He was quoted as saying, “He could have shot me through the brain and I surely would have killed him.”
Additionally, He quite literally had the most out of control party on his inauguration. There was a mob of 2,000 people waiting for him when he arrived at the white house. They were all drunk on whiskey and having quite the party. The only way the staff was able to get all the drunken rabble rousers out of the white house was to place bowls of whiskey punch outside the white house and once everyone ran outside to get it, they locked them out.
Jackson also had a whiskey distillery on his property in Tennessee called the Hermitage. How badass of an estate do you have to have to get a name like that? Anyways, amidst the slave houses he had a distillery that produced a very similar product to old Washington’s.
We are gonna run through a few honorable mentions of presidents but not spend a ton of time on them, mostly because from here on out the temperance movement took hold and, like we learned in the Abraham Lincoln episode, it was close to political suicide to drink openly and even though there is a brewery inside the white house, if any of our presidents ever made an open spectacle of drinking, they’d see a huge ration of doo-doo for it.
Martin Van Buren, the 8th president of the US, reportedly drank so much that he had the tolerance of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Crushing whiskey for days, he wouldn’t show the slightest hint of being intoxicated. He actually had the nickname Blue Whiskey Van.
Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln was assassinated and was later almost impeached by some shady congressional dealings, actually showed up to the inauguration in 1865 so drunk he couldn’t talk. Rumor has it he had tried to treat a cold with whiskey.
William Mckinley, the 25th president, had a drink named after him during his campaign that consisted of 3 oz of rye whiskey and a shot of absinthe. It was called McKinley’s Delight.
Teddy Roosevelt reportedly loved mint juleps. He used fresh mint from the White House gardens. Yum, Kentucky Derby season, anyone?
Woodrow Wilson who’s campaign slogan was “He Kept us out of war” but then after he was elected, promptly got involved in WW1, had a campaign song that was entitled, “Wilson, that’s all” that was borrowed from a popular whiskey label.
Warren G Harding the prohibition president, would regularly stash whiskey in his golf bag and would often take swigs from it before golfing. I do the same thing, Warren G, regulators, mount up.
Harry Truman would wake up everymorning and before his brisk walk, he would take a shot of Old Grand Dad or Wild Turkey. The 33rd president reportedly drank, Old Grand Dad, Wild Turkey, Old Crow, and Old Forester, which are all still available today. The first lady would also reportedly make him old fashioneds that she had to train the white house staff on how to make. Truman would get mad if they were made too weak.
And last on this list is Lyndon B. Johnson, who reportedly loved to drive around his ranch at high speeds while drinking whiskey out of a plastic cup. Keepin it classy, LBJ, I like it.
One of the thing that all of these presidents have in common, is they were all of a rare breed. What’s that? Rare Breed? Ya, let’s drink some Rare Breed.
Rare Breed is a barrel proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey from wild turkey. It’s bottled at 112. It’s a blend of 6, 8 and 12 year whiskies. This whiskey is VERY widely available and it’s definitely a decent bourbon to have on your shelf, especially if you are just getting started into Barrel Proof whiskies. For those of you that don’t know what that means, when most bourbons come out of the barrel, they add a bunch of water. That’s called cutting. It’s called cutting because it cuts the proof down from the barrel strength proofs to something that is more accessible to everyone’s palate. The drawback in that is you lose some of the flavor that comes from barrel proof whiskies. If you can get past the burn, barrel proof is where its at.
On the nose of this whiskey I find a lot of alcohol burn. Along with light corn that fades into what reminds me of a 50/50 bar or vanilla cream soda. The more it sat in the glass the more I picked up on light caramel notes.
The mouth feel was great, it didn’t feel thin or syrupy. I picked up on some cinnamon apple and there was a great char that cut through to the finish. I was surprised that for being 112.8 proof I pictured more burn but it was very manageable.
The finish was long. I love it when it’s long. Caramel, apple and char all roll together on the tongue and make it incredibly enjoyable. Like I said, you should buy this bourbon. It’s not the greatest thing you’ll ever taste, but it’s a great way to introduce people to barrel proof bourbons.
And that’ll do it. We’ve come to the end of another great episode. I know, I can hear your kids in the back seat saying, “Awww Dad, is it over already?!?” Remember there are 2 rules for success. Number 1, never tell everything you know. Thanks for listening, we’ll catch ya on the flip side.