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Abraham Lincoln, Bartender

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

There is a story that Abraham Lincoln once worked as a bartender.

Is this true or is it a myth?

As bourbon aficionados, we know that the history of whiskey in America is filled with myth, embellishment, some tall-tales, and tongues firmly in cheek. The cast of characters are legend: JIm Beam, Elijah Craig, Jack Daniels, E.H. Taylor,  Evan Williams, Pappy Van Winkle, Johnny Walker... If Lincoln sold whiskey, why isn't this a bigger part of our history? Heck, we know George Washington had a distillery late in his life?

Well, hold your horses. Let us tell this tale: The answer is yes Lincoln did, it's a little true but also kinda embellished -- just like the whiskey lore we love!

Abraham Lincoln, Bartender

(Meet your bartender, Abraham Lincoln. Photo in public domain.)

In his early 20s, Lincoln found himself, accidentally, in New Salem, Illinois, washed up on the shores of the Sangamon River, as he might say. He had been a riverboat man, and the vessel was allegedly caught  in driftwood. He would stay in this small town for six years and during those years, for a brief period of time, he owned a store.

In 1833, when he was 23 years old, he partnered with a friend, William "Bill" Franklin Berry, and bought a small store on credit,  named Berry-Lincoln General Store.

"The store sold general merchandise, such as apparel (EDITOR'S NOTE: No, Berry-Lincoln did not sell Colonel Bourbon T-Shirts 😅), dry goods, hardware, home furnishings, and a selection of food, including takeout meals for stage passengers... Lincoln often slept in the back room of the store after a long night of reading."

But the store was missing a particularly profitable product -- one that you pour.

They could sell hard liquor and beer as merchandise: at least one quart in size of the former and two gallons of the latter. But the store could not sell you a drink to be consumed on the premises. In order to do that, the store needed a tavern license -- so they could bartend.

The Berry-Lincoln General Store acquired the license for seven dollars. Supposedly they had a full bar -- whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, beer, cider... Whiskey went for 12 cents a pint.

Is the story true?

Things get a little murky, in large part because Lincoln denied it when he was campaigning for higher office. In the late half of the 19th century, the Temperance Movement was gaining steam, and the results of an election could hinge on your connection to drinking.

In his 1860 autobiography for his presidential campaign, Lincoln wrote about this period, in the third person:

"He studied what he should do -- thought of learning the blacksmith trade -- thought of trying to study law --rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education. Before long, strangely enough, a man offered to sell, and did sell, to Abraham and another as poor as himself, an old stock of goods, upon credit. They opened as merchants; and he says that was the store."

No mention of a tavern or any such thing.

At a Lincoln Douglas debate in 1858, there were roars of laughter as the two bantered back and forth on the alleged shenanigans in New Salem:

Fun fact before you read the exchange: In those days, a general store that sold alcohol by the drink was called a grocery. It was a a term of ill repute. (It would be interesting to learn how that word may have evolved into what we know today.)

Anyway, the excerpt from the banter:

Douglas: "There were many points of sympathy between us when we first got acquainted. We were both comparatively boys... I was a school-teacher in the town of Winchester, and he a flourishing grocery-keeper in the town of Salem."

Lincoln: "Now I pass on to consider one or two more of these little follies. The Judge is woefully at fault about his early friend Lincoln being a 'grocery keeper.'"

Some historians have questioned Lincoln's involvement in the bar. Some point to Lincoln's signature on the license as not seeming to be from his hand, suggesting Berry might be the culprit. But it would certainly be a stretch to say Lincoln, co-owner, was not aware of the in-store tavern -- the "grocery-keeping," AKA bartending. And there would be no doubt Mr. Lincoln, as studious and hardworking as he was, would not have done the job of attending to business.

The politics probably contributed to his image as teetotaler, even though he wasn't above having some Champagne or wine. Although Lincoln was not much of a drinker, he was apparently not so Temperance-minded. As President, he was famously challenged about the wisdom of placing Ulysses S. Grant, a man who enjoyed his whiskey, in the position of commanding Union Troops.

Lincoln repiled: "Well, I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals."

In any case, the Berry-Lincoln General Store was a short-lived enterprise.  Some say it was on account of Berry's tendency to consume the liquid inventory himself. But New Salem was a riverside town that was facing a new age, the Railroad Era.

The Berry-Lincoln General Store

(The reconstructed Berry-Lincoln General Store at the Lincoln's New Salem Historic Site. Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons, Credit Robert W.)

Abraham Lincoln served as postmaster and a surveyor and left New Salem 1837. The town was largely abandoned by 1840. Today the Berry-Lincoln store is reconstructed at Lincoln's New Salem Historical Site. The site is fascinating in itself. In the early 20th century, the land was owned by William Randolph Hearst and later was acquired by the state of Illinois. The site was opened to the public in 1921. Much of the reconstruction occurred during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The site has 23 buildings. Below is a video touring the site. The Berry-Lincoln store is featured at the 11:45 minute mark. 


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1 comment

  • Great history. I can see how the banter at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with the uproarious laughter, contributed to the people seeing Lincoln as a regular guy, not above tending a lob cabin bar, even if one couldn’t champion it in “polite society.” Lol

    Mike F on

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