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Winston Churchill

“He himself had always ignored dietary rules and rarely paid a penalty for it, and he drank whatever he wanted, usually alcohol, whenever he wanted it, which was often. Harry Hopkins (Franklin Roosevelt’s most trusted adviser and go-to man) entered Churchill’s bedroom one morning to find the prime minister in bed, wrapped in his pink robe, ‘and having of all things a bottle of wine for breakfast.’ When Hopkins commented on his breakfast beverage, Churchill replied that he despised canned milk, but had no ‘deep rooted prejudice about wine, and that he had resolved the conflict in favor of the latter.’ Furthermore, the Old Man told Hopkins, he ignored the advice of doctors because they were usually wrong, that he had lived almost seven decades and was in perfect health, and that ‘he had no intention of giving up alcoholic drink, mild or strong, now or later.’

His normal wartime regimen included a glass of white wine at breakfast (taken as a substitute for tea during the war, when only canned milk was available). Then, a weak scotch and soda, refreshed with soda throughout the morning. At lunch, perhaps a port, always Pol Roger champagne, a brandy or two (likely Hine, and bottled in the previous century), sometimes a beer. After his nap and before dinner he’d nurse another whisky (Johnnie Walker Red Label was his favorite brand). At dinner, more champagne during the meal, followed often by ‘several doses of brandy’ in the latter stages. He loved his meals as much as the libations that accompanied them… Another such drinker would recoil from food, but Churchill’s appetite was unaffected, and he rarely lost possession of his remarkable faculties…

Despite his prolonged, consistent, and prodigious consumption of alcohol, Churchill was not a drunk. But neither was he a moderate social drinker, as some of the memoirs and protestations of his close friends and private secretaries maintain… On occasion he would go too far, such as described in Jock Colville’s account of taking the Old Man up to bed at around 3:00 A.M. after a brandy-fueled evening. Both Colville and Churchill thought it hilarious when Churchill, attempting to settle into an armchair in order to remove his shoes, missed the chair entirely and fell onto the floor in a jumble of legs and arms. ‘A regular Charlie Chaplin,’ Churchill offered as he struggled to regain his footing…

The British essayist C. P. Snow encapsulated the paradox of Churchill’s drinking when he remarked, ‘Churchill cannot be an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.’ It could of course be argued that had he exemplified the ideal of moderation — more exercise, less drink, less reckless behavior, fewer cigars — he might well have lived a full and rich life for many years beyond the ninety he was granted.

Churchill once summed up his relationship with drink thus: ‘I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.'”

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Excerpted from The Last Lion: Winston Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

More:

  • From the same biography: a stunning account of Winston’s energy
  • Christopher Hitchens’s golden rules of boozing
  • The greatest ever description of a hangover, from the inimitable Kingsley Amis

Winston Churchill