All 43 Presidents, Ranked by How Hard They Partied
Because, like most people, we often sit around wondering what sort of parties Chester "Elegant" Arthur might've thrown, we decided to spend several weeks researching the presidents in an effort to figure out who liked partying, and who merely engaged in the political kind. And because no ranking is complete without some steadfast criteria, we came up with two important factors: sociability and vices.
The former was obviously weighed more heavily than the latter, as we didn't want to reward presidents choosing to explore their vices alone (because that's sad and doesn't involve lavish parties). So here are our 43, ranked in order. Let us know your best presidential anecdotes in the comments. Hail to the chief, indeed.
43. Rutherford B. Hayes
Hayes set the bar for all buzzkill presidents in 1877 when he banned booze from the White House. Though history would blame it on his wife ("Lemonade Lucy"), it was really Rutherford being a grumpy old stiff.
42. James K. Polk
Polk’s own White House booze ban might've been more lenient than Hayes' -- he at least allowed wine, Champagne, and brandy -- but his strict Presbyterian wife barred any dancing at the Executive Mansion. And anyone who sets a precedent for John Lithgow in Footloose is an L7 weenie indeed.
41. Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison’s great-Grandfather was famous for his Falstaffian love of parties. Benjamin Harrison was famous for... um... almost annexing Hawaii or something. But it definitely didn’t involve parties.
40. Jimmy Carter
The peanut farmer made it a point to decry the "three-martini lunch" in his campaign, and once he got elected, he outlawed hard liquor at the White House. It was all part of his overarching "new morality" play, which doesn’t always lend itself well to ragers.
39. Millard Fillmore
C'mon, did you think a dude named Millard was a secret spitfire? The guy took a temperance pledge in his early 20s, and once got tipsy from "merely moistening his lips" with some wine. Next.
38. Gerald Ford
President Ford liked an occasional G&T, but he gets a pass because his wife started the Betty Ford Center for alcoholism and we’re respectful like that. But respect and being a real fashion model in college doesn’t move you up the rankings, Jerry.
37. George H.W. Bush
Bush the Elder was a frat president like his son, and a college athlete, and though he famously threw up at a banquet in Japan hosted by their prime minister, it was not from partying, but a bug. He does host fishing tournaments in the Florida Keys and occasionally drinks vodka martinis, but, as with his politics, George did everything else in moderation.
36. Calvin Coolidge
Though we love Cal, the best story ever about him involves being at a dinner party with Dorothy Parker and her saying "Mr. Coolidge, I've made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you." To which Coolidge replied, "You lose." Needless to say, that was about as crazy as Coolidge would ever get, though William Randolph Hearst basically tricked him into trying Tokay wine on a visit to San Simeon. I mean, we’re talking about a man who even toasted the president of Cuba with a glass of water. IN CUBA!
35. Franklin Pierce
Perhaps the saddest of all the presidents, Franklin Pierce certainly was not afraid to have a couple of drinks. The problem is, he did it all the time, and it wasn’t really because he was partying, but more because he had a rather depressing life. He had lost his sons, his wife had mentally checked out, and the country was falling apart and about to embark on a Civil War. And if you think it couldn’t get any worse, he was also arrested while president for running over an old lady with his horse. Man, we need to move on, he’s bringing me down.
34. William McKinley
McKins was known to enjoy cigars and a whiskey nightcap -- and he had a decent supply for the latter, since Andrew Carnegie personally sent him barrels of Dewars. But he famously waged a war on the illegal sale of alcohol to Mount Union College students, making him forever a pariah to coeds across America.
33. James Garfield
Garfield wouldn’t ban booze in the White House like Hayes, despite aggressive lobbying from temperance thumpers, but he also wasn’t the wild and crazy guy those same people smeared him as. He was definitely a middle-of-the-road kind of dude, though we never got to see his true potential since he was assassinated in 1881.
32. Ronald Reagan
He was a famous actor, so you’d think that would lead to a life of body shots with Julie Newmar, Jayne Mansfield, and other old actresses I just asked my Mom about. BUT he was also the guy who signed the national minimum drinking age bill, would famously have one screwdriver then cut himself off, and got caught by Errol Flynn dumping his bourbon cocktails into a spittoon. The man was too damn in control of his own image to cut loose. Come on, President Reagan, tear down those walls!
31. William Howard Taft
Despite Taft’s impressive girth, he wasn’t a beer man or even really a booze man. That said, he was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame for making a legal ruling on whiskey definitions, and that's a pretty slick thing to put on your business card.
30. Abraham Lincoln
During his life, Abe abstained from drinking, smoking, and chewing tobacco. But long before he was president, Lincoln ran a general store. And while that store certainly sold whiskey, his political opponents claimed it was a "grocery," which is old-timey speech for saloon. While Lincoln flatly denied the allegation, a tavern license issued to his store (in his partner’s name) seems to suggest otherwise. It’s a contentious matter for historians, but we like to imagine young Abe acting as a folksy Sam Malone in rural Illinois.
29. Richard Nixon
By most accounts, Nixon didn’t "party" so much as hole up in the White House with some cocktails when he was at his most paranoid. There’re funny anecdotes about his experiments with Chinese liquor and tipsy declaration that Mamie Eisenhower "doesn’t give a sh** for anyone -- not a sh**!" but mostly Nixon comes across as a sad, strange guy who probably shouldn't yell at his dog so much.
28. William Henry Harrison
Anyone who wins the presidency based on hard cider and log cabins sounds like a great time, but Harrison was more about projecting the image of a hellraiser than actually living it. As the story goes, when a newspaper wrote, "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin," Harrison built an entire campaign out of it. Despite the fact that he was actually from a rich Virginia family, WHH leaned into the frontiersman image by staging pulls of hard cider in front of crowds and handing out free booze and barbecue. It might've been a show, but those campaign stops do sound fun.
27. John Quincy Adams
Adams was your classic wine snob. The man wrote letters to his Mom bragging about 160-year-old Rhenish wines he’d tried abroad and allegedly once identified 11 out of 14 Madeiras while blindfolded at a friend’s party. So while he wasn’t going to get in the way of you getting down, he also might’ve annoyed the crap out of you with his lengthy discussions of tannins.
26. Woodrow Wilson
The man’s campaign song was taken from a popular whiskey of the day, he tried unsuccessfully to veto the National Prohibition Act, and he was a lover of Scotch. But he didn’t have a lot of friends except, apparently, for “admiring uncritical women,” and was often described as awkward and shy when in social settings. But that slogan...?
25. James Monroe
He was ambassador to France, which gave him a taste for red wine and Champagne, but other than that, he just kind of did boring stuff like securing the Louisiana Purchase and establishing our long-held foreign policy doctrine.
24. Zachary Taylor
Old Rough and Ready is always associated with whiskey, because of some tale during the Mexican-American War in which he tells an aide to “stop your nonsense and drink your whiskey.” But all of the other things we’ve found mainly involve him getting upset about other people boozing, or refusing to pay traders in Wisconsin the elevated price they were charging for said liquor, much to the chagrin of his soldiers.
23. Barack Obama
Brewing official White House beer was pretty baller, especially given that Brewer’s Association honor he earned after the fact. Barry's open about his history with weed, and is said to have an impressive wine cellar back in Chicago. Plus, there’s his habit of settling beefs with booze, whether it’s the bourbon summit he proposed to Mitch McConnell or the beer summit that actually happened. Add in his collection of cool friends and you’ve got a solid contender, though he’s no match for the stalwarts we have coming.
22. Warren Harding
Harding would probably fit in well at a bar with Don Draper and Roger Sterling: he liked tobacco, and whiskey, and poker, and, uh, women who were not his wife. He also continued to serve liquor at the White House while ostensibly enforcing Prohibition nationwide. But he never went truly buckwild due to some weird allergies that kept his partying in check.
21. John Tyler
Tyler was a Southern gentleman, and as such kept two barrels of “Lieutenant Richardson’s” whiskey on hand, though it was allegedly to serve guests as he was a “de facto temperance man never drinking spirituous liquors himself.” But he admitted he had a thing for Champagne, and he threw a rager when he left office, allowing his friends to plunder the White House wine cellar. Unrelated (but maybe related?!?), he had 15 CHILDREN.
20. Herbert Hoover
Though we do know that Hoover liked to smoke cigars and have concrete arch-gravity dams named in his honor, he was president during Prohibition, and a staunch advocate of the Era of No Happy Hours. BUT there is an unsubstantiated tale that Hoover was actually a big fan of the martini, and would hit up the Belgian embassy at happy hour to legally have one on foreign soil. If that is, indeed, true, the history books need to reevaluate Hoover’s legacy immediately.
19. Grover Cleveland
Cleveland's partying cred can be neatly summed up in a single story. When he was running for the DA office of Erie County with one of his buddies, they made a pact that they wouldn't drink more than four beers a day on the campaign trail. Both quickly found this limit impossible, so they amended the rule. They couldn't have more than four tankards of beer a day. Based on their love of beer halls, we have to assume that meant the full-liter steins, which, in case you weren't aware, can hold an entire liter of beer.
18. John Adams
It’s widely reported that Adams drank a ton of hard cider for breakfast and that makes him kind of a boozehound. But in reality, he essentially just drank a couple shots' worth of hard cider to wake him up LIKE A NORMAL PERSON WOULD, and casually enjoyed Madeira, and beer and what not. Though he did party with Ben Franklin (who really seems like he’d have topped this list if he’d ever taken the time to be president) in France and had a party on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia while he was president in which tons of people sat around eating cake and drinking casks of wine laced with rum. So basically, what I’m trying to tell you is Adams was the first person to make jungle juice.
17. George W. Bush
As most people know, Dubya kind of separates out into two categories: pre-1986 fraternity president party boy, the guy who would challenge Australian tennis stars to drink-offs without using their hands; the guy who, as The Washington Post points out, boasted of liking to drink the “four B’s” -- beer, bourbon, and B&B, and then the post-1986, religious guy who likes to paint mediocre portraits of Tony Blair. And so it only seems right that his split life falls somewhat in the middle here.
16. Ulysses S. Grant
Ahhh, Grant. This man is complicated. You would think he was a partier, because he had a reputation as a man of the booze, but further research seems to indicate that this reputation was mostly cemented by his lightweight drinking abilities and predilection to show said state in obvious ways. He was also crazily superstitious, quiet, and modest, and seldom swore. But even as the Civil War broke out, the famous general of the Union had trouble finding a suitable army gig because of his rep as a boozehound. So what we seem to have here is more a quiet man struggling with a disease, and less a party animal. He did smoke 20 cigars a day though, and ordered tons of Champagne for parties at the White House, so that has to count for something?
15. Bill Clinton
Clinton wasn't a partier in terms of knocking back shots -- he never drank much, and says in his autobiography that he developed an allergy to all alcohol except vodka by the late '70s. (Convenient.) But dude knows how to have a good time. He rocked the sax, could get down with the kids on Arsenio and MTV’s "town halls," kept Socks as a pet even though he's allergic to cats because he's that goddamn metal. Plus we all know he "inhaled" plenty before his political career took off.
14. Lyndon B. Johnson
Two stories here, to help paint the picture. One involves him nicknaming his, um, thing, “Jumbo” and whipping it out at a reporter who’d inquired why US troops were in Vietnam. The other involves him puttering around his ranch demanding his Secret Service agents refill his Scotch and soda. You think a man who nicknamed his penis “Jumbo” and used his security detail as a bartending service didn’t party?!!?
13. Dwight Eisenhower
True to his campaign slogan, there was a lot to like about Ike. When the reporters covering America’s WWII military training needed a place to relax, drink, and gripe, they went to Colonel Eisenhower's tent. When Prohibition stopped the party at Camp Meade, he made bathtub gin for the boys (as his buddy Patton brewed the beer). And when Kennedy's state funeral forced him and Harry Truman together after years of feuding, the guys buried the hatchet over some whiskey. Granted, the proprietor of the bar where Eisenhower infamously punched a hole in the wall probably has some complaints, but that's a helluva story.
12. Harry Truman
Every morning, Truman would get up at 5am and walk around and then get a massage, take a shot of bourbon, and eat breakfast. He drank cocktails with his wife Bess in the evening, and had a regular stag poker game with his buddies “seldom returning home before midnight.” He apparently loved dirty jokes, and would do guy trips aboard the presidential yacht. Most importantly: HE HAD A SHOT OF BOURBON IN THE MORNING EVERY SINGLE DAY.
11. Andrew Johnson
Johnson was like that embarrassing uncle who comes to all your family parties boozy and ends up embarrassing you at the dinner table with stories about his sexual prowess during his college years. Anyway, he showed up sauced to his vice presidential inauguration and then went on for 18 minutes when he was supposed to talk for five, before they finally managed to pull him off the stage. And weirdly, there are other stories kind of like that. He did make his own suits, though judging from the pictures, those too were pretty embarrassing.
10. Franklin D. Roosevelt
One of FDR's greatest loves was the martini. He made fresh batches every day for his "children’s hour," where select members of his White House inner circle would gather to drink and gossip. He also made the drinks such a prominent part of international affairs that one official summed up US-Soviet relations as "four martinis and let’s have an agreement." (Coincidentally, Roosevelt served Stalin his first-ever martini. Joseph deemed it "cold on the stomach.") Even without all that cocktail lore, though, FDR easily makes the top 10 for ending Prohibition. It remains his greatest presidential achievement, other than all that economic and wartime stuff.
9. Martin Van Buren
Davy Crockett once described Van Buren’s appearance as such: “He is what the English call a dandy... laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say from his personal appearance whether he was a man or woman but for his large... whiskers.” But that dandy man could get down. His nickname -- for his ability to hold mass quantities of booze without it seeming to affect him -- was “Blue Whiskey Van.” It also sounds like a pretty cool band. He was charming, and courteous, and much sought-after at parties, which might explain why he eventually contracted gout and sought refuge at a spa in France, where he probably drank with Ben Franklin like everyone else.
8. Teddy Roosevelt
The man who once got shot while giving a speech in Milwaukee and still finished the damn speech with a bullet lodged in his chest used to drink mint juleps with mint he’d planted in the White House garden, so this whole urban gardening trend needs to stop pretending it's new.
Though he wasn’t known as much of a boozer, he did often find himself involved in awesome parties, like one author Mark Will-Weber details at the Gridiron Club in Washington, where his friends made fun of him for not shooting any bears on a recent hunting trip. They had two bears (one real, one a journalist dressed in a bear suit) stand in front of him chugging Champagne. The fake bear then explained that “the president seems to be having a hard time finding bears in Mississippi, and we thought we would come here and look for him.” And perhaps even crazier, the real bear DIDN’T END UP EATING EVERYONE. But yeah, Teddy is kind of the man.
7. Chester A. Arthur
You think a dude known as “Elegant Arthur” who owned 80 pairs of pants, and had four lady suitors try and get him to marry them couldn’t throw down? Arthur’s late-night feasts were famous, and certainly helped him add weight, as he gained nearly 40lbs in office. Sadly, his wife passed away from pneumonia before he entered office, and so he’d use his sister as the White House hostess, and basically led a bachelor existence while wearing myriad pants. He was known for having huge parties and turning a blind eye to his son, Chester II, aka “The Prince of Washington,” while he ran amok. But nonetheless, the Gentleman Boss (that was his other sweet nickname!) was one smooth, partying hep cat.
6. James Madison
All too often in history, First Ladies get hated on for being buzzkills, whether they deserve it (Sarah Polk) or not (Lucy Hayes). But in James Madison’s case, his baller wife was clearly the one leading the party. Dolley Madison hosted a bash at the White House every week for hundreds of people for eight years. The parties were called "Mrs. Madison’s Wednesday Nights" or "squeezes" and they were the place to be. Dolley was a real mensch about the whole thing, too. The only requirement for admission was that you be introduced to the Madisons personally or through letter of recommendation, meaning regular folks could attend along with members of Congress.
While there, guests might enjoy some drinks or even partake of Dolley’s snuff box, which her friends said had a "magical influence." Yeah. So pipe down about how you drank a pint of whiskey a day, James. Your wife totally won this one for you.
5. George Washington
Our first president was a pioneer in plenty of ways. He started the proud American tradition of bribing voters with booze (you're welcome, William Henry Harrison) when he passed out 144 gallons of hooch during his bid for the Virginia House of Burgesses. He also gave the US whiskey biz a major boon with his Mount Vernon distillery, which was the largest in America by the time of his death. And he was the Founding Father of ridiculous celebration receipts. The tab from the farewell party his troops threw him in 1787 makes Mark Cuban’s receipts look frugal, but it’s no wonder the guys went all out for General Washington. The dude was highly supportive of their daily whiskey ration, which is a real thing our military used to have.
4. John F. Kennedy
Even if you don’t know the JFK stories, you probably feel like you know the JFK stories. It wasn’t so much that Kennedy was into the drinking, though he did reportedly enjoy Bloody Marys and imported German beers, as much as it was the getting together with the ladies. His biographer Robert Dallek called him “a compulsive womanizer,” Senator George Smathers said “he was a great chaser,” and Congressman Frank Thompson said he got with “a smorgasbord of women.” It was anyone -- Wheaton College students, Marilyn Monroe, LA socialites connected to the mob, airline stewardesses, etc. JFK partied with them all, whether it was swimming in the White House pool with the interns, or having parties in Hyannis Port.
Though, I should also point out, he gets even more points for hanging out at a dinner party with Ian Fleming and spending the time drinking and brainstorming how to kill Castro.
3. Thomas Jefferson
The first American wine snob, Jefferson was reported to know more about wine than anyone else in the United States. After spending time learning about vineyards in France, he got very into all of the French wines, spending thousands and thousands of dollars on them for parties and himself, even when he didn’t actually have thousands of dollars. He built two vineyards at Monticello, basically just to mess around.
He would always drink three glasses of wine a day, though he didn’t like to pair them with food, so he’d have beer or cider with his meal, and then get down to it. He even had dumbwaiters set up in his home just so he could pull wines up from the cellar with minimum effort. His wife, on the other hand, brewed beer at Monticello, and believed that it “softens the cheeks, cheers the spirit, and promotes health” when consumed in moderation. But he didn’t just stick to the French stuff: as a recent article in Garden and Gun points out, “during his presidency alone... Jefferson spent the current equivalent of $42,000 on Madeira.”
2. Andrew Jackson
Jackson enjoyed quite the reputation in his early days. The man was such a legend in North Carolina (where he studied law) that one local issued this surreal statement: "Andrew Jackson was the most roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow that ever lived in Salisbury."
By most accounts, he had calmed down by the time he got to Washington, but he still knew how to show his friends a good time. His infamous inauguration rager got so out of hand, his staff had to put buckets of punch outside the White House so the hordes of revelers (who were not exactly upper-crust) would go home. And we have to imagine he was a good dude to have around in case of bar fights -- when Richard Lawrence tried to assassinate him in 1835, Jackson beat him so savagely with his cane that his aides had to tackle Lawrence partially for his own safety. Jackson was 67. God bless.
1. James Buchanan
Leave it to the nation’s only bachelor president to show DC how it’s done. He once scolded a liquor merchant for bringing tiny pints of Champagne. He spent most of his Sundays going to church... and then swinging by Jacob Baer’s distillery for provisions. He thought the Russian nobility were lame lightweights, while the lower classes were his kind of crazy. And of course, there was journalist William Forney’s incredulous rant about the president, which should be printed in all history books: "The Madeira and sherry he has consumed would fill more than one cellar and the rye whiskey that he has 'punished' would make Jacob Baer’s heart glad... More than one ambitious tyro who sought to follow his... example gathered an early fall."
That last part refers to hangovers, which Buchanan apparently never got. Unlike those ambitious tyros, we’re sure we can’t emulate him. But we can admire his tireless efforts to bring the party all day, every day.
(We'd like to extend a special shout-out to a few sources that were particularly useful for this piece, including Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, many presidential biographies and autobiographies, and of course, Davy Crockett's The Life of Martin Van Buren.)
Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's Food/Drink executive editor, and hopes to get to a point in his life where a massage and a shot of bourbon before breakfast seem acceptable. Follow his attempts to sneak into the Gridiron Club: @Kalexander03.