How Much Did Winston Churchill Actually Drink?

The British wartime PM’s very expensive habit

Adam M Wakeling

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Churchill raises a glass of champagne (NPR)

II may be drunk, madam, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly” is a witty comeback commonly attributed to Winston Churchill. Like many of the quotes linked to him, he may have never actually said it. There is even a term for the way that pithy quotations end up attributed to Britain’s wartime Prime Minister: ‘Churchill creep’.

Ironically, despite his well-known fondness for whisky, Churchill was rarely the worse for drink. As Roy Jenkins wrote in his Churchill biography, he was “a sipper not a guzzler” and “did not drink as much as he was commonly thought to do”. His reputation for being a hard drinker was, in part, cultivated by himself to boost his tough public image.

Still, there is no doubt that Churchill drank a lot, even by the standards of the nineteenth-century British upper class from which he came. As Jenkins wrote, he remained a “fairly heavy and consistent imbiber”. By modern standards, his alcohol consumption was eyebrow-raising. Sailing to South Africa as a young war correspondent in 1899, he took with him sixty bottles of alcohol, including champagne, wine and scotch whisky. This habit continued into middle age and throughout his two premierships.

Churchill’s Routine

By the time he was living at Chartwell, his country home, in the 1930s, Churchill had settled into a routine which he would stick with throughout his public life. He was a late riser, and began each day with a hearty breakfast in bed. It would be accompanied by a bottle of orange juice and a cup of tea, the only non-alcoholic drinks Churchill seemed to drink consistently. He would have his first whisky and soda with a cigar immediately after breakfast at about 9am. It was mixed very weak, with the whisky just covering the bottom of the glass — it was sometimes called his “mouthwash”. His handwritten breakfast order from a 1954 flight from the U.K. to U.S. shows his typical breakfast, including both the whisky and the cigar. He would continue to work in bed, often having a “top-up” whisky and soda at about 10am and another after rising at around 11am. He always drank Johnnie Walker, with red label being his brand of choice, and always mixed his whisky with…

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Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at https://www.amwakeling.com/ and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.