Leadership

How Winston Churchill Drove Us To Drink

The British wartime PM was a stalwart drinker and supporter of drinking and the drinks industry, believing Prohibition an ‘affront’ to mankind.

Picture Post/Hulton Archive, via Getty

For many years, if you asked a bartender (or a drinks writer for that matter) when the Manhattan cocktail was created, you’d be told that it was first mixed up for a party that socialite Jennie Jerome threw in 1874 at the Manhattan Club for Samuel J. Tilden, who had just been elected governor of New York.

It is a nice story, save for one small problem: Jerome was in England on the supposed date giving birth to her son, Winston Churchill.

Fitting that Churchill, one of the world’s most famous drinkers, would figure so prominently in the legend of a cocktail as important as the Manhattan—and from the womb, no less.

It is difficult to picture the great statesman without a glass or a stogie clutched in his beefy hands; so much so, in fact, that it was big news in 1954 (including a short AP story) when, while speaking at the Conservative party convention, he sipped a glass of water and quipped, “I only do it to show you that I can.”

The remark is understandable given that his morning ritual for a time, according to The Last Lion, William Manchester’s three-part biography of Churchill, included sipping a generous Johnnie Walker Red Label and club soda highball.

The rest of the day he would enjoy a range of beverages. “There is always some alcohol in his bloodstream, and it reaches its peak late in the evening after he has had two or three scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball,” wrote Manchester. But he also insists that Churchill’s “family never sees him the worse for drink.” (Hard to believe that those two statements could both be true.)

As you can imagine, there are many brands that claim to have been Churchill’s favorite. For a time, Plymouth even considered running a campaign in the U.K. about how it was his gin of choice.

One tipple that really did hold his attention was Pol Roger Champagne; indeed, when he passed away in the winter of 1965, the house added a black mourning stripe to the label of its vintage bubbly.

In 1975, that Champagne was officially renamed the Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, which to this day bears his name and his portrait in gold foil. He supposedly called Pol Roger’s headquarters “the most delightful address in the world.”

Churchill wasn’t just a lover of wine and spirits. He played a pivotal role several times in spirits history, as well.

He first helped ensure America’s illicit flow of booze during Prohibition, a period that he told Collier’s was “an affront to the whole history of mankind.”

Working in the Colonial Office during the contentious period, according to Daniel Okrent’s excellent book Last Call, he denied America’s request to help curtail the liquor business in Britain’s Caribbean colonies or the Bahamas, since the U.K. didn’t have any prohibitionary laws.

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Just a few years later, as prime minister, Churchill gave the scotch industry a boost, which helped it to dominate in the 20th century.

In 1944, as World War II was winding down, Churchill had the prescience to ease the barley rationing for the scotch industry so the distilleries could start production. It was important to the British economy to begin distilling as soon as possible, since it would take years of barrel aging before the liquor would be ready to drink.

It would also create distillery jobs for returning veterans, as well as help the industry to compete with other types of whiskies and spirits.

At the time, it was forecasted that there would be a shortage of scotch for export to America for at least the next five years. Churchill’s move helped scotch to stay on course with American and Canadian whiskies.

In today’s society, which is so often obsessively focused on moderation, it’s hard to imagine as public and influential a person as Churchill being so honest about their love of drinking.

Perhaps his famous and often repeated quote about booze was actually accurate: “All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”