There's a big, boozy holiday just around the corner — and it's not Cinco de Mayo. I'm talking about Truman Day, the May 8th celebration of our 33rd U.S. President, Harry S. Truman, who occupied the White House from 1945 to 1953. Truman, who was born in Lamar, Missouri, is well-known for helping found the United Nations, enacting the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe post-WWII, and spearheading a new era of civil rights reforms, including integration of the armed forces.
He was also an unapologetic drinker with a predilection for bourbon. White House gift records note that Truman's cabinet presented him with matching bourbon and Scotch crystal decanters for Christmas 1946; five years later, his haul included a case of Old Grand-Dad.
According to his biographer, David McCullough, who won a Pulitzer for his 1992 tome, Truman, the president began most days at 5 a.m. with a shot of bourbon — Old Grand-Dad and Wild Turkey were his favorites. With his doctor's approval, Truman would enjoy an egg, a slice of toast, a slice of bacon, a glass of skim milk, and a shot of Old Grand-Dad — the latter was purportedly drunk after his morning constitutional. It "got the engine running," Truman said. You can try it yourself at home, or take a trip to Louisville's Dish on Market restaurant, where the Presidential Breakfast will set you back $10.
Legend states that Truman's cocktail of choice was an Old Fashioned — but, humorously, sans bitters, sugar, citrus, or a maraschino cherry.
The Old Fashioned has its roots in the very first so-called cocktail, which appeared in print in a Hudson, New York, newspaper called The Balance and Columbian Repository published, fittingly, the first week of May, 1806. That drink was made with spirits, bitters, water, and sugar.
In antebellum Louisville, the Old Fashioned was so deemed because its recipe harkened back to that original drink — and, at a private gentlemen's club called the Pendennis Club, the bourbon Old Fashioned was born. It all makes sense — though Missouri claims Truman, his ancestors were old-stock Kentuckians.
To make an Old Fashioned the old-fashioned way, simply dissolve a teaspoon of sugar into a little bit of water in the bottom of a whiskey glass. Add two dashes of Angostura bitters, an ice cube, a lemon peel, and a jigger of whiskey. Stir, and sip. For an updated version — think mid-1960s Don Draper — garnish the drink with a cherry and an orange wheel. Or, go full Truman-style and just pour yourself a bourbon on the rocks.
If neither a straight whiskey shot nor an Old Fashioned floats your boat, consider saluting Truman with a Manhattan next Tuesday. It's not too much of a stretch — the drink shares similarities with an Old Fashioned, and, after all, Truman oversaw the Manhattan Project after FDR's death. Truman is (so far) the only president to have employed the nuclear option, when, in August 1945, Fat Man and Little Boy were detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively.
To make a Manhattan cocktail, combine ice, two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, and two dashes of Angostura bitters in a shaker. Rub an orange peel around the rim of your glass, and fill it with the shaken and strained cocktail ingredients. Add a maraschino cherry, and drink.
One footnote: Most people don't know that a few years into his two-term presidency, Truman had to close the nation's distilleries for a 60-day period. He needed to send the grain to starving Europeans. The move garnered a front-page headline in The New York Times on October 26, 1947. "Plants with capacity for producing more than 95 percent of the country's whisky and industrial alcohol are closing at midnight tonight," the article read. "The saving in wheat, corn, and other grains is estimated at 10 million to 12 million bushels."
Honor Truman's decision, and don't waste your drink.