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Harry S. Truman, The Bourbon President

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The Bourbon President

Harry S. Truman's preferred drink was bourbon. 

He took a shot of bourbon in the morning, either Old Grand-Dad or Wild Turkey, with his breakfast of an egg, a slice of toast, a slice of bacon, and a glass of skim milk. “It got the engine running,” Truman said.

Harry S. Truman, The Bourbon President

Other presidents and their whiskeys

Whiskey was the favored drink of several U.S. presidents. Andrew Jackson, and the president who followed him into office, Martin “Blue Whiskey" Van. They say Ulysses S. Grant preferred Champagne, but someone is probably pulling our legs because the anecdotes strongly suggest it was whiskey, specifically Old Crow, a premium brand of his day.  Theodore Roosevelt liked Mint Juleps, with two or three ounces of rye whiskey. During alcohol prohibition, Warren Harding routinely stashed a bottle of whiskey in his golf bag. Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson were Scotch drinkers. But no president has been so associated with bourbon as much as Truman.

He and his wife Bess enjoyed old fashioneds, but were very particular

He not only started his day with the America’s whiskey he ended his day with it as well. Every evening, before dinner, he and his wife Bess would have an Old Fashioned. Dave McCullough, in his 1992 biography of the 33rd president, tells this story:

“In the evening before dinner (Truman) and Bess would relax with a cocktail in the so-called ‘sitting hall,’ but as J.B. West remembered, it took a while for the staff to learn their tastes. On an evening when Bess first ordered old fashioneds, the head butler Alonzo Fields, a proudly accomplished bartender, had fixed the drinks his usual way, with chilled glasses, an ounce of bourbon each, orange slices, a teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of bitters. But the night following she had asked that the drinks not be made quite so sweet and so Fields had tried another recipe. 

This time she waited until morning to complain to J.B. West. They were the worst old-fashioneds she had ever tasted. She and the President did not care for fruit punch. West spoke to Fields who, his pride hurt, poured her a double bourbon on ice and stood by waiting for the reaction as the first lady took a sip. ‘Now that's the way we like our old fashioneds!’ she said, smiling.”

Fields grew to like Mrs. Truman; that she would “stand no fakers, shirkers, or flatterers. Here's how to make old fashioneds, the Truman way:

The fateful day he became president

As Vice President, Truman was sharing a “libation” when he received the call to come immediately to the White House, where he would learn Franklin Roosevelt had died; that he was to be sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States. He had been in “Room 9,” Sam Rayburn’s private hideaway, when he received the call. Rayburn was a three-time House Speaker and to receive an invite for the afternoon ritual was a sign you had arrived, as McCullough described.

A dapper dresser who also knew how to relax

We don’t know if Harry Truman would have considered  wearing Colonel Bourbon’s tshirts. He was a dapper dresser, and once owned a haberdashery, "Truman and Jacobson" in Kansas City, in 1919. “…shirts, leather gloves, belts, underwear, socks, collar pins, cuff links…”

But he did let lose occasionally as president, when he relaxed in Key West, Florida, known as the Little White House.  He used to wear brightly patterned colored shirts, which became known as “Harry Truman Shirts.” Truman was well-read on Civil War history, so we’d probably recommend our Major Brinton tee, if it wasn't too impudent  He would probably know the story behind it, undoubtedly telling us another tale or two!

Truman and his staff decked out in Hawaiian shirts, in Key West, FL:

Civil War historian

McCullough tells about the time Truman took a cruise down the Potomac on the U.S.S.  Wiiiamsburg, the presidential yacht, A former U.S. Navy gunboat.  During lunch, he and Bill Hassett, the correspondence secretary (to the President), talked about the Civil War, as others listened. “The conversation ranged over several battles and the abilities and flaws of various Union and Confederate generals…”

“He would like to have been a history teacher", Truman said.

‘Rather teach it than make it?” (Clark) Clifford asked.

‘Yes, I think so, Truman replied, ‘It would not be nearly so much trouble.”

McCullough’s biography won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a marvelous read of a president who was in many ways a 19th century man who shaped 20th century history. Truman’s daily constitutional shot apparently served him well. He lived from 1884 to 1972, passing away at 88 years old. His wife Bess lived to be 97, passing away 10 years later.

Sidenote: A few years into his presidency, Truman had to close the distilleries  in the U.S. for a couple of months, to send grain to Europe, which had been ravaged by war.

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