You can lead a U.S. president to a bar, but you can’t always make him drink. Not alcohol, anyway, at least not in recent years. Perhaps not even the new president-elect, whose private tastes are unknown and likely will stay that way, in the opinion of Jim Hewes, bartender at the Willard InterContinental hotel’s Round Robin Bar.
“Obama has kept neutral; you might see him with a lager in his hand, but he never drinks, not in public anyway,” says Mr. Hewes, a drinks historian with long years of service behind the round green Vermont marble bar on the hotel’s ground floor.
In drawing up a list of the favorite libations of all American presidents, past and present, he invented a concoction to please the president-elect, describing it as “tall and cool, like the man himself.” Called an Obama shake, it consists of flavored vodka, fresh fruit and cream.
For President Bush, Mr. Hewes inevitably opts for a cola, maybe even a diet cola with a slice of lemon, whereas former President Bill Clinton is associated with Tanqueray gin with tonic - what Mr. Hewes calls “a standard on the Washington cocktail circuit.”
Some of Mr. Hewes’ picks are guesswork, culled from studies of what was popular in the era in which a president served, but he has done his best to research the choices of each man for a special bar menu that premiered Election Day and remains through Inauguration Day.
The record is clear, for example, on the preferences of many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, who “only drank coffee and never touched alcohol.” Nevertheless, Mr. Hewes associates him with a cocktail called a Ward 8 - “a highball [any brown liquor] with soda [or ginger ale] originally served on Tammany election nights.”
Other presidents, he notes, “overimbibed” or changed favorites as “the pace of time changed.” Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, for instance, favored “Cutty & branch” from his Navy days, a mix of Scotch and water, but “going from Austin to the ranch was a six-pack ride.”
It was longtime former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger who wrote about former President Richard M. Nixon’s fondness for scotch, but Mr. Nixon is listed at the Willard as serving up Bacardi rum and Cokes for guests on the Sequoia, the presidential yacht, and also for storing wines in the vault at New York’s 21 Club.
Among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is credited in Mr. Hewes’ research with liking meritage, which Mr. Hewes describes in an interview as “a blended quality red wine, a kind of claret” because, as he writes, “our third president learned to love French wine while in Paris in the 1780s.”
He matches George Washington with Madeira wine, especially Malmsey, a fortified wine from that Mediterranean island, and also with fruit brandies and rye whiskey. The latter was distilled at Mount Vernon, he notes.
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, took his rye whiskey straight, “a two-finger pour.” Southerners such as John Tyler (president No. 10), a fan of the mint julep, tended to favor libations associated with the region. A mint julep served at the Round Robin bar is, of course, a bourbon-soda-sugar-fresh-mint concoction as pretty as it is refreshing - and one of Mr. Hewes’ specialties.
Longtime customer Peter D. Reaske, vice president of Foster’s Americas, came by for a beer after work recently and asked to try one of the more unusual offerings on the list. Mr. Hewes lost no time but went straight to a wineglass and began filling it with hot water - the start of what proved to be an engrossing show and a combination of no fewer than four unrelated alcoholic liquids.
First a bit of Cointreau to flavor the glass, followed by white sugar twirled around the interior and set alight with a match “to caramelize the sugar,” Mr. Hewes explained as Mr. Reaske’s eyes fixed on the bartender’s deft hands, which were busy pouring out Hennessy cognac, Triple Sec, red wine and port in succession. A maraschino cherry and twist of orange peel finished the job. This was a brandy crusta, “all the rage in New York and London during President Millard Fillmore’s time.”
Fillmore only held office for three years, from 1850 to 1853 (predecessor Zachary Taylor died on the job), and on this particular day in the Round Robin bar, he was merely the excuse for yet another colorful presidential anecdote - one of many Mr. Hewes has in his head to entertain customers.
Mr. Reaske gingerly took a sip of the proffered drink - “similar to a dry sangria,” he remarked - then asked its creator to present the small portion left over in the mixer to four flight attendants sitting together opposite him. The first of the women, all drinking mint juleps, pronounced the taste “interesting,” but, even at the regular $12 price per cocktail, said she might not order it on her own.