This week I’m reviewing H.W. Brand’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant who, unfairly, is the US President most closely associated with booze. Figuring out what Grant actually drank, however, is a bit difficult. One clue comes from this famous, almost certainly apocryphal account:
After the failure of his first experimental explorations around Vicksburg, a committee of abolition war managers waited upon the President and demanded the General’s removal, on the false charge that he was a whiskey drinker, and little better than a common drunkard. “Ah!” exclaimed Honest Old Abe, “you surprise me, gentlemen. But can you tell me where he gets his whiskey?” “We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?” “Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.”
Yeah so that sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. Another dubious claim is that the General favored Old Crow Bourbon, which you can still sip to this day. Old Crow has a fascinating history featuring the hallmarks of any good American story: bankruptcy, mad doctors, and sour mash. In summary, Dr. James Crow, a failed physician, fled to Kentucky in 1823, learned the science of distilling, and went to work. I found this wonderful pictorial of Old Crow’s home distillery, which was abandoned in 1987 when the company was bought out by Jim Bean. Spooky but beautiful.
While Old Crow’s history is well substantiated, its ties to President Grant are less so. In this superbly well-researched spirit history, researcher Jack Sullivan determined that the claim is based on a single source who recounted that Grant slammed down a goblet of Crow outside Vicksburg. Good enough for Old Crow’s PR people, who quickly incorporated Grant (as well as Sam Houston and Daniel Webster) into their advertisements.
So, how does it taste? Well, I thought booze writer Will Gordon, who ranked it as one of his top ten cheap bourbons, was close when he said it “smells like candy corn and sweet orange tea, and it tastes like margarined toast.” Intriguing. I definitely felt it was a light bourbon with tea-ish heft and notes, along with wood on the nose. The cut is extremely forgiving and quick – gulp fast and you might miss it. That thinness and levity is dangerous – flighty and without much of a bang, it seduces you, convincing one to up the intake to prolong the burn. Perhaps that was Grant’s problem – hungry for a more resonant bourbon taste, he kept guzzling. So, Old Crow is cheap bourbon that takes like cheap bourbon. Not bad, and you get what you pay for it.
Because this isn’t some spirit blog, I was duty-bound to throw Old Crow into some cocktail glasses. Doing a little internet sleuthing, I found two cocktails that employ Old Crow including the wonderfully named “Murder of Crows” which was excellent: the light crow actually blends well with the thicker, lustrous pineapple juice. I also liked how fresh orange juice pairs with the pale bourbon, making for an ultra enjoyable summer cocktail. The same can’t be said for “A Crow Left of the Murder” which substitutes cranberry for orange. That switch makes a big difference, as this was far less pleasant and oddly stringent compared to the orange variant. Would not recommend.
Murder of Crows
- 2 oz Old Crow bourbon whiskey
- 2 oz orange juice
- 2 oz pineapple juice
A Crow Left of the Murder
- 2 oz Old Crow bourbon whiskey
- 2 oz cranberry juice
- 2 oz pineapple juice
If you’ve read HW Brands before you know he has a gift for storytelling, and his wonderful biography of Ulysses S. Grant is another showcase. The book, particularly its first and second act detailing Grant’s difficult early life and his phoenix-like rebirth in the Civil War, is engrossing. The book’s third act, recounting the trials and tribulations of the Grant administration, is frequently weighed down by overlong digressions, but still offers interesting insights into the post-conflict south, the Indian Wars, and America’s volatile economy. Throughout the fascinating story Grant comes across as one of the more sympathetic and starkly human Presidents; vulnerable, extremely shy, and hostile to show and politics, Grant was that rare leader who habitually avoided glory in favor of relentless competency.
This approach came at the perfect time in American history and did very much “save the Union.” But Grant’s eventual success would not have been predicted in the first three decades of his life; I was stunned at how the combination of poor luck, hostile in-laws, and the occasional whiskey brought Grant so low. Penniless and depressed, he seemed destined for a forgettable life of alcoholism and poverty.
But history is not a straight line. Ironically, the same qualities that hurt Grant in business–namely his quiet, professional demeanor and modesty–helped him become one of the more effective generals in American history. Some historians have unfairly claimed that he relied on a simple strategy of bludgeoning the rebel armies with his superior resources. Not so, says Brand, who details Grant’s aggressive and creative approaches to offensive operations, which allowed him to regularly outmatch his Confederate opponents including Lee. Perhaps more importantly, Grant excelled in selecting and unleashing brilliant field commanders like Sherman who had little time for campfire politics and pursued victory above all else.
Many history-buffs view President Grant as a kind-hearted fool manipulated by corrupt and savvy advisors, but Brands does much to dispel this. Beset with some incredibly complex problems including an unregulated economy and simmering Southern insurgency, Grant was a welcome stable hand. President Grant was a brave defender of black rights in the South when it was politically unpopular, and was surprisingly compassionate to Native Americans. Unwilling to dive into the political game, he frequently disappointed his allies and granted the advantage to his opponents, who mercilessly used the corruption of his advisors to paint his agenda in a bleak light. But history shows that Grant’s principled policies were ahead of their time and, had they won out, would have helped the US avoid some painful missteps.