How much did Churchill really drink?

The short answer is, we don’t know. It isn’t possible to work out how much he drank in restaurants and clubs. We do have his wine merchant’s bills, and cellar book records, but that alcohol was obviously for the household, not just him. And Chartwell was busy.

That said, we can put together a reasonable picture from the information we have. I have taken the numbers about his spending from Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke (US link), an excellent book about Churchill’s writing career (although it has a terrible index). The information about the daily routine is from The Last Lion by William Manchester (US link), a vivid, epic biography. All of this focusses very much on the 1930s, which is perhaps the most interesting part of Churchill’s life anyway.

The first thing to know about Churchill in relation to drink is that he was luxuriant. He bought his house for £5,000 and spent £18,000 renovating it. This was not a man who took pleasure lightly. All of the champagne he bought was vintage.

As F.E.Smith said, ‘he was always prepared to put up with the best of everything.’

The second is that he was not a man of compromise, which is precisely why the 1930s are such an interesting part of his life. It was a time when he was on the losing side and simply refused to give in. Of course, personalities disinclined to moderation tend to made flamboyant biography subjects, hence the endless mythology about Churchill’s drinking.

Churchill drank a lot by modern standards, but hardly as much as the myth suggests. Manchester says his family never saw him the worse for wear. That can’t be true: he nursed serious hangovers in Downing Street. However, he drank partly for his image. People wanted leaders who could hold their booze and he was a sentimentalist who cried a lot.

Churchill drank, but he also exaggerated how much he drank as a political prop. Whisky and soda was to him what a handbag was to Margaret Thatcher.

In 1935 he spent £515 on alcohol from his wine merchant, Raymond Payne. This was the equivalent, Clarke says, to ‘three times the earnings of a male manual worker, or enough to employ half-a-dozen female domestic servants at Chartwell.’

It was 6% of his disposable income, and the equivalent of about £500 a week in today’s money. At this time, he earned £360 a year as an MP, which only covered 70% of his annual wine merchant’s bill. His alcohol bill was now double what it had been before the first war.

Churchill’s day started with breakfast in bed – orange juice and a full English with an additional cutlet, steak or chicken leg – and a bath. After that he got into bed to work all morning (his valet stuffed sponges under him to prevent bed sores) and started his day’s drinking with a weak scotch and soda, ‘in the tradition,’ Manchester says, ‘of Palmerston, Pitt and Baldwin.’

He always drank Johnny Walker Red. Spirits accounted for 30% of what he spent at his wine merchant. In 1935 he bought enough to average three bottles of brandy and whisky a week.

The next drink is at lunch. Manchester tells us, talking about 1932, ‘In his ten years as squire of Chartwell he has yet to pass a day without confronting a shining bottle of champagne, always at dinner and often at lunch also.’ Clarke says his purchases average a bottle a day for Chartwell in 1935.

Half of all the money Churchill spent at Raymond Payne was spent on champagne, all of it vintage. In 1935 he bought a hundred bottles of Pol Roger 1921, another two-hundred-and-forty pint bottles and ten magnums. He also purchased Vin d-Ay Sec 1906 as well as Krug, Grulet, Perrier Jouet, Clicquot and Lanson.

As Clarke says, the quality is as impressive as the quantity.

Before lunch, he has a glass of champagne, then wine with the meal, port with cheese and then a brandy. Brandy was essential to a stable diet, he thought. (On days when he built the brick wall, he had beef sandwiches and beer.) Of the money spent at Raymond Payne, 10% went on port and sherry and 6% on wines.

At this stage of the day, according to Manchester, ‘although uninebriated, he becomes more genial, more affable, more expansive.’

After lunch, he went outside to feed the fish and sit by the pond looking at the view, with another weak whisky and soda.

And dinner involves more champagne, wine, port and brandy. It was then that he often went upstairs to do three or four hours’ work with his researcher and secretary. Despite his drinking in this period, Churchill produced a giant four-volume biography of the Duke of Marlborough alongside all of his speeches about India and his well-known campaign in the press and Parliament about the rising power of Germany.

Imagine a modern MP achieving or drinking as much over a decade, let alone doing both.