“Churchill: A Drinking Life” Is a Booze-Soaked Tour Through History
A new book on Winston Churchill busts some drinking myths about the former PM, who preferred low ABV and bubbles to martinis
Famous figures known for their liquid appetites tend to flame out early: Think Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hunter S. Thompson, just to name a few. But Winston Churchill managed to become an icon of imbibery while leading his nation to victory in WWII, sounding the alarm on Soviet communism and serving twice as prime minister (although we can certainly debate his overall legacy). This begs the question: Are all the booze anecdotes about Winston Churchill’s drinking, from whisky sodas in the early a.m. to shaking a bottle of vermouth in the direction of France merely romantic myth? Or was he really the world’s most functional alcoholic?
In Churchill: A Drinking Life, authors Gin Sander and Roxanne Langer find that neither answer is completely correct. Compared to the doorstopper-sized tomes regularly published about the former prime minister, this new work is a relative breeze at just under 150 pages—close to half of which are devoted to cocktail recipes inspired by Churchill’s life, drinking companions and favored watering holes.
Rather than drawing from standard biographies, Sander says she looked to the memoirs and diaries of Churchill’s staff for the bulk of her research.
“When Churchill is writing his own thoughts, or when historians are describing him, they are focusing on his leadership qualities,” Sander says. “When his staff is describing a day, they are focusing on more routine matters, which would include how often they had to refresh his drink.”
By drawing on primary sources including longtime aid Jock Colville, nurse Roy Howells and daughter Mary Soames, Sander has burst the bubble on a number of Churchill-related myths while providing a richer understanding of the man, who famously once proclaimed “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” Below, a few drinking truths about the former PM:
Churchill drank martinis only for diplomatic reasons
You’ve likely heard the chestnut that Churchill made his martinis “in the presence of an unopened bottle of vermouth,” or some other variation on an ultra-dry, gin-exclusive preparation. But the truth is that Churchill was not disposed to cocktails generally and did not drink gin at all — a revelation that distressed the author.
“As a devoted gin martini drinker myself, I really was crushed to learn that wasn’t his preferred drink,” Sander says.
She did learn that Churchill only partook of martinis while visiting FDR, who was known for mixing a questionable iteration with plenty of olive brine (which you may attempt — if you dare — courtesy of an included recipe).
His appetite for bubbly knew no bounds
While the wartime leader’s association with gin proves to be faulty, his spectacular thirst for Champagne is well-documented and legit. Sander estimates that Churchill consumed 42,000 bottles of bubbly in his lifetime and presents the anecdote that while staying at an Italian villa owned by British Field Marshal Harold Alexander, Churchill and a half-dozen family members drained 96 bottles from the owner’s Champagne cellar in under three weeks.
Churchill was micro-dosing before it was cool
But not on LSD. Rather, Churchill would pour just enough whisky — typically Johnnie Walker Red — to cover the bottom of a glass and fill the rest with soda. It’s a habit he picked up from his youthful army service in India and would continue to practice for the rest of his life at almost all hours of the day.
“It so boggles the mind that he could consume so much and still function so well under the most dire of circumstances,” Sander says. “However, it must be pointed out that what he was sipping throughout the day, his Johnnie Walker Red and soda, was a very, very weak drink. Not at all the same sort of strength that a bartender would ordinarily pour if you ordered that drink in a bar.”
His drinking was a marathon, never a race
While there’s plenty of evidence that Churchill drank on a daily basis, there are very few firsthand accounts of him experiencing intoxication. Rather, Churchill approached his drinking slowly and methodically, preferring to nurse a highly diluted whisky and soda over several hours, and would rather waste good whisky than see it thrown back too quickly.
If we are to take inspiration from Churchill’s still-legendary drinking reputation in 2022, this surprising capacity for moderation might be the best place to start.
From Churchill: A Drinking Life, a recipe called (natch) The Churchill, created by bartender Joe Gilmore at the Savoy in London for Churchill’s 80th birthday:
Prep Time: 5 mins
Total Time: 5 mins
- 1.33 oz Johnnie Walker Red
- .5 oz Punt e Mes Carpano (red vermouth)
- .5 oz Cointreau
- 2 drops fresh lime juice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously.
Strain into a tumbler.
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