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Bartender-In-Chief: Abraham Lincoln Owned A Tavern

By Amy Cavanaugh in Food on Feb 12, 2013 8:00PM

Back before he was President, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. And before he was a lawyer, he was something else entirely—a bartender.

Holders of the nation's highest office have often had a close relationship with booze, as George Washington established the nation's largest whiskey distillery in 1797 and Thomas Jefferson brewed his own beer. Andrew Jackson's inaugural party in 1829 was so legendary that we still drink the orange punch partygoers consumed (and you can find it on the menu at Big Jones). But Lincoln was the only president who was also a licensed bartender.

Lincoln was co-owner of Berry and Lincoln, a store/drinking establishment in New Salem, Illinois, where he lived from 1831 to 1837. He first arrived there on a flat boat when he was 22 and en route to New Orleans. His boat got stuck there and after visiting New Orleans, he returned to New Salem and decided to stay. He worked as a store clerk, served in a militia, and unsuccessfully ran for office. Then, in 1833, he opened a small store.

In January 1833, he partnered with his friend from his militia days, William F. Berry, to purchase a small store, which they named Berry and Lincoln. Stores could sell alcohol in quantities greater than a pint for off-premises consumption, but it was illegal to sell single drinks to consume at the store without a license. In March 1833, Berry and Lincoln were issued a tavern, or liquor, license, which cost them $7 and was taken out in Berry's name. Stores that sold liquor to consume on the premises were called groceries.

So what did they serve? Half pints of French brandy for 25 cents, peach brandy for 18.75 cents, and apple brandy for 12 cents. Half pints of Holland gin cost 18.75 cents, while domestic gin was 12.5 cents. Wine cost 25 cents, rum was 18.75 cents, and whiskey was 12.5 cents. They could also sell food—breakfast, dinner, and supper were each 25 cents—and put people up for the night. Lodging was 12.5 cents per night, and horses could stay for 25 cents, with feed going for 12.5 cents. Takeout meals for stage passengers cost 37.25 cents, and they also sold beer and cider.

Lincoln's foray into the world of booze was short-lived—Berry was apparently an alcoholic and took advantage of the new liquor license to drink while he was working in the store. Lincoln spent more time dealing with customers and his down time reading, and they fell into debt. In April 1833, he sold his interest in the store to Berry and was appointed Postmaster of New Salem on May 7, 1833. Berry died two years later, and Lincoln assumed the debts from the business. It wasn't until 1848, when Lincoln was a congressman, that he was able to pay off the whole debt.

Lincoln remained in New Salem, and he studied law and earned a legal license. In 1837, he realized that his opportunities in New Salem were limited and he moved to Springfield, where he thought he'd have better luck with his law practice and have a chance to get involved in politics.

Once he got into politics, Lincoln denied selling alcohol by the drink. At the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Ottawa on August 21, 1858, Douglas poked fun at Lincoln's early job. Judging by the transcripts, these debates were hilarious.

There were many points of sympathy between us when we first got acquainted. We were both comparatively boys, and both struggling with poverty in a strange land. I was a school-teacher in the town of Winchester, and he a flourishing grocery-keeper in the town of Salem. (Applause and laughter.)… I met him there, however, and had sympathy with him, because of the up-hill struggle we both had in life. He was then just as good at telling an anecdote as now. ("No doubt.") He could beat any of the boys wrestling, or running a foot-race, in pitching quoits or tossing a copper; could ruin more liquor than all the boys of the town together. (uproarious laughter.)

Lincoln retorted:

Now I pass on to consider one or two more of these little follies. The Judge is woefully at fault about his early friend Lincoln being a "grocery keeper." [Laughter.] I don't know as it would be a great sin, if I had been; but he is mistaken. Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world. [Laughter.] It is true that Lincoln did work the latter part of one winter in a little still house, up at the head of a hollow. [Roars of laughter.]

Today is Lincoln's 204th birthday, so let's raise a glass of brandy to the President's days behind the stick.