Drinking with Churchill
(As a disclaimer, please do not attempt what I have written about here at home. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal and is not a joke. Additionally, I am not the first writer to attempt this so intellectual credit probably belongs to Henry Wallop.)
Churchill’s appetites were famously glutenous, a master’s course in excess. The quantities of intoxicants he ingested daily are simply staggering, and all but ensure he was a functioning alcoholic. Or, to put this another way, he drank like the future of the free world rested on his portly shoulders – and if one reads their history properly, it very well might have in the final analysis. Alcohol and I have a rather pleasant relationship. My tolerance is terrific, hangovers are exceedingly rare, and after reading extensively about Mr.Churchill’s voracious consumption, I thought it would be fun to follow in his wobbly footsteps.
My lineage, of course, originates from somewhere in Europe, either in Germany or England. Our bloodline, as my mother puts it, comes from a line of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) that goes all the way back to the Mayflower. While I don’t think I could match Churchill shot-for-shot, my genetics are likely not too far removed from his.
Genetics, as it happens, plays quite a large role in what most of us refer to as alcohol ‘tolerance.’ Alcohol dehydrogenases, in addition to other variables like body mass, make up our individual ‘resistance’ levels to alcohol. Tolerance should not be conflated with an immunity to intoxication; scientifically, four ‘units’ of alcohol will create slurred speech, blurred vision, and delayed reaction time in nearly all of us. Without straying into the specifics of biochemistry, a tolerance to alcohol probably manifests itself in a better-than-average ability to conceal the symptoms of drunkenness. Before diving headlong into Churchill’s fermented world, a softening of tone is in order. Alcoholism isn’t a joke – especially to the millions of people who have lost loved ones to it – and approaching this topic with glibness isn’t my intention in the slightest.
But I am fairly well acquainted with the world – and business – of spirits. I spent several years writing for Boozeblogger, a website co-authored with a good friend of mine many years ago. In exchange for a free review on the site, countless alcoholic beverage manufacturers shipped us products to review for free. From protein-infused vodka for bodybuilders to boozy whipped cream, I have tried nearly every alcoholic thing on the market.
So what, exactly, did Churchill drink?
“Churchill’s favourite whisky was, perhaps surprisingly, not a single malt but a blend. Johnnie Walker Red Label formed the basis of his daily whisky and water; a drink which his children called a ‘Papa Cocktail’. This consisted simply of a tipple of Johnnie Walker covering the bottom of a glass, then filled with water and sipped throughout the day.
Churchill enjoyed a range of high quality brandies, from Hine, through l’Hertier de Jean Fremi-court (which he drank as an older man), to Prunier (which Churchill served at Potsdam). In 1942, Stalin gave him a bottle of Ararat Cognac from Armenia.
Churchill often drank brandy in the evening after dinner and when he visited the White House for Christmas in 1941, President Roosevelt instructed his wife to make sure they were stocked up on brandy. Churchill reportedly said that the four essentials of life were “Hot baths, cold champagne, new peas and old brandy”.
Churchill loved champagne. He was fond of saying that a glass lifts the spirits and sharpens the wits – but “a bottle produces the opposite effects.”
Yet of all champagnes, his favourite was Pol Roger. It had been his choice from the 1920s, so that when he attended a lunch at the British Embassy in Paris in November 1944, after its liberation by the Allies, he and Odette Pol Roger became fast friends for the rest of his life.
Each year on his birthday, a case of Pol Roger would be sent to Chartwell. When Churchill died in 1965, Pol Roger placed a black border around its labels, and in 1984 Pol Roger’s new prestige champagne Cuvée was named after Winston Churchill.” [The Telegraph]
Right off the bat, Mr. Churchill and I differ wildly on matters of taste. I am a son of the American Midwest, and as such, I am predisposed to single-barrel bourbon, rather than scotch. Blended whisky, in most enthusiast circles, is a four-letter word. In the interest of full disclosure, I am about as anti-blend as they come. I take my whisky neat (no ice, no water), while Winston preferred to mix his scotch with soda. Brandy was another staple of Churchill’s alcoholic diet, but I cannot stand it. Champagne, on the other hand, is a spirit we both love. Like ginger ale, champagne is the perfect ‘sometimes’ drink that tastes best after you’ve forgotten it existed for a few months.
It comes as little surprise that Mr.Churchill, like most heads of state, had expensive tastes that few of us could afford. A single bottle of “entry-level” Pol Rogers costs about $50 USD (a writer for the Telegraph estimates he polished off 42,000 bottles of Pol Rogers over his lifetime.) Winston’s preferred brandy – Hine cognac – retails from anywhere from $48 to $60 USD. Johnny Walker is a notable exception; a bottle of Red Label can be had for about $20 USD. This leads us neatly into what is perhaps the most stunning aspect of Churchill’s drinking; the sheer volume of his intake:
“After losing the 1945 election, he went on holiday to stay at Lake Como, with Sarah, his daughter, and Lord Moran, his doctor. Between them they polished off 96 bottles of champagne in a fortnight; Churchill also drank six or seven whisky and sodas a day, as well as three daily brandies.” [The Telegraph]
Arithmetic was never my strong suit, but a 750 milliliter bottle contains approximately 25 one-ounce shots, which means Churchill, by drinking 6 or 7 whisky and sodas, in addition to 3 daily brandies, is nearly drinking half of a bottle of spirits per day. If we throw in the sherries and the pints of champagne at lunch, this amounts to a level of intake that would likely result in an emergency room visit for nearly all of us.
One is compelled to wonder what, if anything, the drinking gave Churchill. Did it, as the new film, Darkest Hour, seems to imply, infuse him with the swaggering belligerence needed to swat away the notion of peace talks with Hitler? Did it steady his hand on the wheel while the Lutwaffe dropped bombs all around his island? Or was he simply an elite member of his society with extravagant tastes?
In my view, Churchill is to the British what Abraham Lincoln is to Americans; deified, revered, and widely understood to have held together their respective nations at the very moment where their destruction seemed inevitable. In Bible college, we were told that more books have been written about Lincoln than Jesus – this may not have been entirely true – but indisputably, these are two figures that cast an especially large shadow over the horizon of human history.
About a month ago, I read Rob Riemen’s new book, To Fight Against This Age. It is an absolute firecracker, the sort of page-turner one is unable to put down once picked up. In it, he argues that Americans – by default – are too cautious to call fascism by its true name, and in so doing, create the most ideal conditions for it to spread:
“While the Second World War is ravaging the European continent, far away in the North African city of Oran, a doctor finds a dead rat on the landing one spring morning. He tells the concierge, and while he realizes that it is an unusual discovery, he doesn’t pay much attention to it. This changes the next day, when he finds three dead rats. The concierge swears to him that it must be a boyish prank: “There are no rats in this house!” However, in the ensuing days, not only does the doctor come across more and more dead rats across the city, but a surprising number of patients in his practice suffer from the same symptoms – swellings, rashes, and delirium – leading to death within forty-eight hours…the authorities most of all, will deny the truth for as long as possible. “This can’t be true; we don’t have anything like that anymore; we don’t live in the Middle Ages; would you please stop panic-mongering.” But denial won’t change the facts, and once the epidemic has the entire city in its grip, the phenomenon has to be named: the bubonic plague!” [Riemen, P14]
We have a profound aversion to using the word ‘fascism.’ As Riemen points out, we will call it ‘populism’ or ‘nationalism’ or ‘demagoguery’ but almost never ‘fascism.’ This is a wholesome caution, at least in part. The horror of the Holocaust was generally taught exceedingly well to American schoolchildren in the decades that followed the Second World War. We went to the museums. We watched, with muted and somber expressions, the shaky frames of gruesome extermination camp videos. We read the diaries of Anne Frank. This very much was the correct way to teach this era of history, but as a result, it set the bar for what we would later feel comfortable calling ‘fascism’ quite high.
The resurgence of American fascism is nothing more than a renewed flirtation with ideas fished out of the stinking dumpster of history. Inwardly – and intellectually – we all know where hard-line nationalism and tribalism lead, but the lure of being the chosen race is far too sweet a song for many of us to ignore. And so, as the dead rats begin to spring up on our doorsteps, we take care not to say the wrong thing first. We remain cautious. We don’t want to cause alarm. Meanwhile, white imbeciles with tiki-torches march on Charlettesville whilst exclaiming that the Jews will not replace them. We continue to deny the problem while the rats multiply.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need a new Churchill. I will drink buckets of scotch and champagne if it will give me his recalcitrance towards fascism. We need a new infusion of righteous stubbornness; we need that sacred indignation that screams fuck you, we’ll fight you in the streets.
Without much further ado – as Space Ghost says – let’s drink until our hearts stop. I’ve written the first half of this piece sober, and will have written the second half while matching Winston Churchill’s enormous alcoholic diet. Here goes whatever is left of my liver.
I must admit – my morning routine is far too ingrained to part with it entirely. I always take coffee after my morning shower, and Churchill took these ‘mouthwash’ scotch-and-sodas while he was still in bed. Starting any day with alcohol before anything else is a Churchillian quirk I simply cannot replicate. Rest assured, I still find a way to down three drinks before 10:30 in the morning.
Each individual ‘mouthwash’ – especially from my perspective as neat-bourbon drinker – hardly feels like a drink at all, tasting mostly of soda water with a tinge of scotch (the measure of which was often referred to as a ‘tipple.’) The buzz is impossible to deny after four of them, however, and I suspect the maintenance of said buzz was very much the point for Mr. Churchill.
I head out for brunch (with my spouse driving, of course) at a local hipster restaurant. I order some egg and chorizo tacos and wash it down with half a pint of front-till champagne. This represents my fifth drink, and by mid-day, I am feeling just a bit toasty. We run a couple of errands and head back home, where I consume two more scotch and sodas and open the $50 bottle of Pol Rogers.
This – by far – is the best drink of the entire day. Much to the annoyance of my wife, I have never really taken to wine. She rather enjoys a nice malbec from time to time, and I never developed the taste for it. Champagne was never heavily analysed at BoozeBlogger; we were always drawn to spirits and never really found a reason to dig into anything else. But even the entry-level Pol Rogers is probably the finest champagne I’ve ever tasted. Limited-edition bottles (especially from the Sir Winston Churchill signature line) can be pricey; ranging anywhere from $146 to as high as $300.
The drinks get difficult to count after eight. Between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon are my sharpest hours; that particular deftness of mind dulls after three or four o’clock. Everything starts to taste a bit musky after five hours. The repetition becomes loathsome, and the prospect of drinking another scotch and soda seems about as appealing as stacking a heap of mothballs on my tongue. By five o’clock, I’ve retreated to a can of Stella for comfort. I begrudgingly choke down a single glass of brandy, and substitute the remaining two brandies on the docket for another two cans of Stella.
I can understand Churchill from drink number one through to drink number ten. Those units were lively and enjoyable. It’s drink twelve through fifteen where the storied Prime Minister loses me; these tots blur together joylessly, and by seven in the evening, I’d quite like to feel sober again. When bedtime rolls around, I have completely surrendered, finishing the day-long binge by drinking a quart of Pedialyte.
All told, I have managed to drink six scotch and sodas, two pints of champagne, one glass of brandy, and three cans of Stella Artois in about twelve hours. The Centers for Disease Control defines binge-drinking as the consumption of five (for men, four for women) drinks within the space of two hours.
If we accept this definition – and I see no reason to reject their findings – then Winston Churchill was likely on a permanent bender. Or, to put it more simply, he was a high-functioning alcoholic. Some historians regard this as a slur, but after spending a day quaffing with greatness, I think any other conclusion is misguided. Churchill went to great lengths to preserve his supply. Fearing lack of access on a state visit to the Prohibition-era United States, Winston had his doctor draw up a script for ‘indefinite’ amounts of alcohol. One must wonder – in light of his military service – if he was stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and drank to cope.
I don’t know if being sauced for an entire day brings me any closer to Winston’s perspective, and I can’t say for sure that I learned something valuable from the experience. What I can say is that I have re-discovered the importance of belligerence. Anti-intellectualism in the United States has risen yet again, and this is nurtured by, as Isaac Asimov wrote, “the false notion that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Like many of you, I focus on when I am wrong, I speak with caution, and I spend so much time on this earth second-guessing myself. “The trouble with the world,” Bertrand Russell said, “is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.” If we are to mimic Churchill, perhaps the best thing to copy is his confidence in the face of adversity, his certainty in the midst of doubt, and if a stiff drink is needed to obtain this, then by God, go and get one.