30. Roosevelt cocktail (and the Teddy Hat)

19 Sep

I have never drunk a cocktail or a highball in my life. With the exceptions hereafter noted, I never drank whisky or brandy except under the advice of a physician. […] I never have drunk beer, nor do I drink red wine. The only wines that I have drunk have been white wines—Madeira, champagne, or, very occasionally, a glass of sherry. […] Mint juleps I very rarely drink. At the White House we had a mint bed, and I should think that on the average I may have drunk half a dozen mint juleps a year. Since I left the White House four years ago, to the best of my memory, I have drunk mint juleps twice—on one occasion at the Country Club at St. Louis, where I drank a part of a glass of mint julep, and on another occasion at a big luncheon given me at Little Rock, Ark., where they passed round the table a loving cup with the mint julep in it, and I drank when the cup was passed to me.

— “What Roosevelt Told Jury”, New York Times, 28 May, 1913.

On 23 March 1909, shortly after leaving the White House, Col. Theodore Roosevelt (as the ex-president preferred to be known) embarked on an African safari that would last almost a year. This was no holiday in the sun. After all, Teddy (as the ex-president hated to be known) was famous for preaching what he called the “doctrine of the strenuous life”, the life spent not in “ignoble ease”, but in toil and manly effort. For it was it was only by refusing to shrink from strife, danger and hardship, he thought, that the individual could achieve greatness and the nation fulfill its imperial destiny (Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life”, in The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses [New York: Century, 1901], pp. 1-21 [p. 1]).

Roosevelt’s adventure in British East Africa played up to his image as a rugged outdoorsman and the embodiment of swaggering virility, but ostensibly it had a loftier purpose. His party, which included zoologists and his son Kermit, and was led by the Great White Hunter R. J. Cuninghame, had been sent, he later recounted, by the Smithsonian “to collect birds, mammals, reptiles and plants, but especially specimens of big game, for the National Museum at Washington.” (Theodore Roosevelt, African Game Trails [New York: Scribner’s, 1910], p. 3). At times, though, the trip resembled less a scientific expedition than a murderous rampage: Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped more than 11,397 animals. Tons of salted carcasses and skins were shipped to Washington; in fact, there were so many that it took years to mount them all.

Once the Dark Continent had been successfully emptied of wildlife, Roosevelt set out on a triumphal procession through the Old World, warmly greeted by the crowned heads of Europe, cheered by commoners and showered with honours and awards: first to Rome, then to Vienna, Paris, Brussels, The Hague, Copenhagen, Christiana, Stockholm, Berlin—where Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Colonel, “the world’s two chief exponents of the strenuous life” (Frederick E. Drinker and Jay Henry Mowbray, Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Work [Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1919]. p. 355), stood energetically shaking each other’s hand for almost a full minute—and at last to London.

When Roosevelt arrived back in New York after almost 15 months away, he was feted just as rapturously as he had been abroad: a welcoming committee of 2,5000 dignitaries, congressmen and senators had assembled in the harbour. A huge parade, led by ex-Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry regiment he had commanded with distinction in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, escorted him up Broadway and Fifth Avenue between the throngs of huzzahing citizens. Newspapers hailed his return, and Governor John Franklin Fort echoed their tributes when he called Roosevelt not only “the greatest citizen of the Republic” but “the greatest citizen of the world, and recognized as such, I believe, in every nation” (ibid., p. 406).

It was surely  inevitable that someone would invent a cocktail to celebrate, in the most American way possible, T.R. stepping back on native soil:

Inspired by the homecoming of Col. Theodore Roosevelt, “Pop” Harris, an eminent artificer of mixed intoxicants, announces to the world the birth of the “Roosevelt cocktail”, guaranteed to make a mollycoddle bite a malefactor of great wealth, or a milksop thrash a Rough Rider. The recipe, to which six nations contribute, is:

One half jigger of San Juan rum (Cuba).

One quarter jigger of vermouth (Italy).

One quarter jigger dry gin (England).

Dash of absinthe (France).

Dash of Kirschwasser (Germany).

Serve in Venetian (Austrian) cocktail glasses

— “A New Roosevelt Cocktail”, Baltimore Sun, 18 June 1910, p. 2.

There we have it: a cocktail drawing on spirits native to lands which Roosevelt had recently visited (but not, mercifully, all of them). The Venetian glass, though, is a bit of a cheat: Venice, which had been an Austrian possession, was absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Another recipe called for the drink to be served in “frapped in silver mounted cocoanut shells”, which represented the killing fields of Africa (“Latest Jambouree; Roosevelt Cocktail”, Mixer and Server, vol. 19:7 [15 July 1910], p.  18).

If you’re wondering what the rest of the Sun article is driving at, well, “a malefactor of great wealth” is what this presidential trust buster called the plutocrats of the time. And “milksop” and “mollycoddle”, along with “immensely”,  were favourite words of T.R.; a mollycoddle he defined as “nothing but a grown-up sissy—a grown-up sissy of either sex” (Drinkwater and Mowbray, p. 430). He used the term to describe pacifists and any other group symptomatic of the decadent effeminacy of the nation. When Harvard proposed abolishing football and other dangerous sports, Roosevelt bristled at the thought that his alma mater “should turn out mollycoddles instead of vigorous men” (“No Mollycoddles, Says Roosevelt”, New York Times, 24 February 1907). This cocktail, then, is definitely, not one for the ladies.

Pop Harris’ creation was not the only Roosevelt-themed cocktail to make it into the papers. Two years later, when the Colonel tried at the Chicago convention to secure the Republican presidential nomination again, this time at the expense of his successor and incumbent William Taft, a story appeared in the Chicago Tribune describing how two national delegates of the rival Republican camps met over a couple of cocktails in bar of the Congress hotel. The waiter appeared with their order and dropped a piece of lemon peel shaped like a Rough Rider’s hat into each man’s drink; the Taft supporter peevishly fished it out:

“What’s that,”  he said, a bit sharply.

“It’s the new campaign drink—now, see,” he illustrated, “the rim of the glass represents the ring, and here’s where we drop the hat.”

“Fine work,” remarked the Roosevelt man.

“Huh! The drink’s fine, all right, but here’s where I show you how to get Teddy’s hat out of the ring,” responded the Taft man, somewhat grumpily. In a jiffy the lemon skin was on the floor.

The Chicago campaign drink is the invention of Charles W. Svendsen, manager of the Congress hotel’s liquor department. The inventor had been loafing around the Pompeian room an hour seeking the “psychological moment” to spring it on the public it looks like a winner.

Here is the way it is made: Use an ordinary mixing glass. Fill it with chopped ice, dash in a few drops of orange bitters. One-half pony of raspberry syrup, one pony of gin, one-half pony of dubonnet. Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass. Drop hat as you serve the guest.

“It’s the greatest scheme ever invented to tell a man’s politics,” said Svendsen. “If the hat stays the drinker belongs to Roosevelt. If the hat is tossed out he is a Taft follower.”

— “Like Cocktails? Try ‘Teddy Hat'”, Chicago Tribune, 11 June 1912, p. 5.

Roosevelt was not the only politician to be immortalized by a mixologist—his Vice President, the teetotal Charles Fairbanks, much to his embarrassment, was also thus honoured. But Roosevelt, too, despite the rumours of heavy drinking that had dogged him throughout his career, claimed to practise moderation in his habits of refreshment. Understandably, he had to tread carefully in the wake of the Fairbanks “cocktail incident”: at a luncheon in St Louis shortly after his deputy’s debacle, the organizers insisted that no cocktails be served (much to the chagrin of the chef, Jules Bole), because the city didn’t want “any political revolutions over this cocktail business” (“No Cocktails for President, New York Times, 2 October 1907, p. 1). That still didn’t stop a preacher lambasting him for “gulping” champagne at the function (“Roosevelt’s Drink Stirs Up Preachers, New York Times, 7 October, p. 6). It was unlikely, then, that he would have approved of either Harris’ or Svendsen’s bibulous tribute. He was so sick of the whispers, in fact, that in 1913 he instituted a libel suit against a Michigan newspaper editor who unwisely accused him in print of insobriety. Over five days, witness after witness testified that they had never seen Roosevelt intoxicated, and he himself took the stand to describe, in scrupulous detail, exactly how much alcohol had passed his lips during his life (the New York Times called it “almost a count of drinks”), before the defendant was forced to retract his claims. When Roosevelt admitted, though, that he had sipped part of a mint julep at the St. Louis Country Club (a city, it seems, in which he struggled to enjoy a quiet drink), the Post-Dispatch feared, with tongue in cheek, that he would “come very near losing his case”, especially when the julep in question was made by Tom Bullock, “than whom there is no greater mixologist of any race, color or condition of servitude”. (Yes, Bullock was black, hence the newspaper’s rather backhanded compliment.)

To believe that a red-blooded man, and a true Colonel at that, ever stopped with just a part of one of those refreshments . . . is to strain credulity too far. Are the Colonel’s powers of self-restraint altogether transcendent? Have we found the living superman at last?

When the Colonel says that he consumed just a part of one he doubtless meant that he did not swallow the mint itself, munch the ice and devour the very cup.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 May 1913; reprinted in Tom Bullock, The Ideal Bartender (St Louis: Buxton and Skinner, 1917), p. 3.

There is yet another Roosevelt cocktail listed in the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937), which consists of equal parts lemon juice, grenadine, gin and Jamaica rum; but, given the year of publication, and the general purpose of the collection, namely to showcase more recent creations rather than classic cocktails, I’ll assume that this particular concoction was designed to honour Teddy’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who entered office as the 32nd president of the United States in 1933.


One Response to “30. Roosevelt cocktail (and the Teddy Hat)”


  1. The presidential bar | The Presteblog - January 21, 2013

    […] to me that TR should be associated with something from Cuba — say, a Cuba Libre. Roosevelt also once claimed “I have never drunk a cocktail or a highball in my life,” admitting only to drinking […]

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