Was Winston Churchill an Alcoholic?
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: December 9, 2014.
"You, Mr Churchill, are drunk."
"And you, Lady Astor, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning."
Photo: Winston Churchill—courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.
This infamous exchange was the incident that confirmed Winston
Churchill's reputation as a heavy drinker. It
all started back in 1899. Churchill, aged 25, was a
correspondent on the Morning Post, covering the Boer war. Sent
out to the
front line, he took with him 36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of ten-year
and 6 bottles of vintage brandy (a drink he believed was essential to a
staple diet). Clearly Churchill had better access to alcohol than most
people on the South African front: his stores were said to contain "many bottles of whiskey, claret, and port."
Over the next few decades, Churchill's name came to be linked with
two things: drink and war. They were
often closely connected. In 1915, many people considered England's
future leader exceptionally brave
when he opted for the front line; as an aristocrat, he could have
safe post at headquarters. But as a close friend pointed out: "Hard
liquor was prohibited at Battalion HQ… and only sweet tea provided, a
by no means to Winston's taste."
Churchill could never have given up drink; that much was confirmed by
another wartime episode.
When George V set a personal example to the troops by giving up
Churchill declared the whole idea absurd and announced he would not be
drink just because the King had.
Even as Prime Minister, Churchill refused to moderate his drinking. He
believed Europeans liked
leaders who could hold their liquor, so he did nothing to discourage
rumors about his alcoholic excess.
Churchill admitted he relied on alcohol. He always had a glass of
whiskey by him,
and he drank brandy and champagne both at lunchtime and dinner.
Only when Churchill reached the age of 76, in 1953, were there signs
of change: "I am
trying to cut down on alcohol. I have knocked off brandy and take
instead. I disliked whiskey at first. It was only when I was a subaltern
India,and there was a choice between dirty water and dirty water with
whiskey in it, that I got to like it. I have always, since that time,
point of keeping in practice."
Some believe Churchill's heavy drinking caused his decline as Prime
Minister. As Lord Moran
commented: "It makes his speech more
difficult to understand and fuddles what is
left of his wits; and yet he does not attempt to control his thirst."
the subject was raised with Churchill, he replied enigmatically:
Photo: Drink loomed large over Winston Churchill's life—but how did it affect his leadership? (Simulated image.)
"Is alcohol a food?"
In the 10 years of retirement before he died, Churchill drank more than
ever. He never
missed having a bottle of champagne for lunch and very often had
for dinner. One visitor from the period noted: "There
is always some
alcohol in his blood, and it reaches its peak late in the evening after
had two or three scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two
brandies, and a highball… but his family never sees him the worst for
That was the most remarkable thing about Churchill: he always seemed
perfectly sober. Raised
as an aristocrat, he believed drunkenness to be contemptible and
disgusting, and a fault in which no gentleman indulged.
But was Churchill an alcoholic? He drank so much for so long that, in
the end, no-one
could really tell.
Sometimes we don't notice how much we're drinking...
Churchill was a prime example. No limit is safe for everyone, but the recommended
weekly intake of alcohol is up to 21 units for a man, 14 units for a
woman, and 6 units for a pregnant woman. (one unit is equivalent to half a pint of
beer, a glass of wine or sherry, or a single measure of spirits.)
But how you drink is more important than how much. Drink with meals and with company.
Don't get caught buying rounds – you can end up drinking six pints when
two would do. And if you plan a long drinking session, make every other
drink a non-alcoholic one. That way, as Churchill once said, you will "take more out of
alcohol than alcohol takes out of you."