THE WIT OF WINSTON CHURCHILL #8
From a book compiled by Dominique Enright
AN INERADICABLE HABIT: DRINK
Whether or not Churchill had a 'drink problem' seems to have been
for long a favourite topic for discussion. That he enjoyed
alcohol - especially whisky, brandy and champagne - is beyond
doubt, but that he was a drunkard seems quite unlikely. His
slight speech impediment, slurring S's into Shs and Zhs, might
have suggested to those who did not know any better the speech of
a drinker - and it could well have suited Churchill from time to
time to give the impression that he was the worse for drink, that
his brain was perhaps not working as acutely as it actually was
... In general, the alcohol issue fed his sense of mischief while
he had a proper respect for fine brandies or champagnes, it
amused him to talk about his drinking habits, and to tease
teetotallers. (And apparently after Churchill's car accident in
January 1932 in New York, Dr Otto C. Pickhardt wrote a
prescription for him . . .'the use of alcoholic spirits at meal
times ... the minimum requirement to be 250 cc'.) Drunkenness, on
the other hand, was not on: 'I have been brought up and trained
to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,' he wrote
in My Early Life.
Churchill's reply to Field Marshal Montgomery's smug statement,
`' neither drink nor smoke and am a hundred per cent fit,' was
inevitable: 'I drink and smoke and I am two hundred per cent
'When I was a young subaltern in the South African War, the water
was not fit to drink To make it palatable we had to add whisky.
By diligent effort I learned to like it,' he said, according to
Anthony Montague Browne, his last Private Secretary.
'I neither want it [brandy] nor need it, but I should think it
pretty hazardous to interfere with the ineradicable habit of a
'No one can say that I ever failed to display a meet and proper
appreciation of alcohol.'
A letter to his wife Clementine in 1924 when he'd just moved,
ahead of her, into the newly acquired Chartwell suggests that
wine played an important part in his daily life; he clearly wants
to assure Clementine that he is suffering no great hardship
(though what he means by 'buckets' is debatable): 'I drink
champagne at all meals & buckets of claret & soda in between...'
In 1939, however, when Picture Post decided to support a campaign
in favour of Churchill's return to office, the magazine's picture
editor related, when the camera was set up Churchill put the
brandy glasses under the table and covered them up with a napkin
in case readers got the wrong impression.
On hearing, during a lunch with the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn
Saud, that the king's religion forbade drinking and smoking,
Churchill couldn't resist announcing (though presumably not to
Ibn Saud's face): 'I must point out that my rule of life
prescribes as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also
the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all
meals and in the intervals between them.'
'Always remember, Clemmie, that I have taken more out of alcohol
than alcohol has taken out of me.'
'Good cognac is like a woman. Do not assault it. Coddle and warm
it in your hands before you sip it.'
'When I was younger I made it a rule never to take strong drink
before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.'
It is related that when Churchill was First Lord of the
Admiralty, he was approached by a temperance group suggesting
that he should reconsider the maritime tradition of christening a
ship by breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow (they felt
that the practice added an undesirable glamour to champagne).
'But, madam,' Churchill replied to the group's spokeswoman, 'the
hallowed custom of the Royal Navy is indeed a splendid example of
temperance. The ship takes its first sip of wine and then
proceeds on water ever after.'
The diplomat Lord Harvey remarked in 1942 of Churchill's desire
to fly to India '. . . how gallant of the old boy himself? But
his age and more especially his way of life must begin to tell on
him. He had beer, three ports and three brandies for lunch today,
and has done it for years.'
According to Major-General Ian Jacob of Churchill's wartime
Defence Staff (later Sir Ian Jacob, Governor of the BBC),
however, 'He always had a bottle of champagne for lunch.' John
Peck, one of Churchill's Private Secretaries, pointed out that
Ian Jacob had rarely had lunch with Churchill, and that in any
case the PM only ever have had a glass or two - that the rest of
the bottle would go elsewhere. John Peck also declared firmly,
'I never saw him the worse for drink. The glass of weak whisky,
like the cigars, was more a symbol than anything else, and one
glass lasted for hours.'
Certainly the view Churchill expresses here seems that of a
connoisseur, not that of a mere boozer: 'A single glass of
champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are
braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become
more nimble. A bottle produces the contrary effect.'
Lord Hailes who, as Patrick Buchan-Hepburn, had also been a
Private Secretary to WSC, corroborated this: 'I never knew him to
get drunk. He sipped coloured water all day, from morning to
night: there was hardly any whisky in it at all.' While yet
another Private Secretary, the diplomat and writer Sir David
Hunt, said, 'He certainly drank the weakest whisky-and-soda that
I have ever known.'
Having a bottle always on the table had other uses, in any case.
One of Churchill's frequent visitors in the years before the war
was Major Desmond Morton, a former member of the government's
secret Industrial Intelligence Centre. When, after the war, Jock
Colville asked Churchill outright if Morton had been giving him -
when he was 'in the wilderness' - more information than the
government would have approved, Churchill's answer was, 'Have
another drop of brandy.'
As a pleasing footnote, a token of champagne's appreciation of
When many of the trees at Chartwell were lost in the 1987
'hurricane' a large number of them were replaced by the Pol Roger
family. It is said, too, that during the Second World War, Madame
Pol Roger had two cases of champagne for Churchill, which she
kept hidden from the Nazis. Needless to say, Pol Roger champagne
was Churchill's favourite.
To be continued