No More Champagne (or Jack and Cokes): Winston, Lemmy and the Search for a Constant Buzz

Tucked into a new book on Winston Churchill there is the following accounting for the consumption of spirits in the Churchill households during the spring of 1949.

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As you can see, May was quite a month at Churchill’s beloved country estate Chartwell, with the great man and his guests polishing off a nifty 27 fifths of Johnny Walker Black, more than three dozen bottles of port and about ten cases of champagne. Presumably the summer gin and tonic season was not yet in full swing, as only five empty bottles of gin went out with the recycling.

It should be noted, this booze fest took place when Churchill was 75 years old, and in between his two stints as British Prime Minister — and there is every reason to believe that the big guy himself likely accounted for a significant chunk of this drinking.

“No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money,” by David Lough, is an entertaining journey through the financial ups and downs of the historic figure’s extraordinary life, a cash-flow odyssey which was far more valley than peak. It is a novel and noteworthy contribution to the endlessly-expanding library of works on the legendary politician and Allied wartime leader who faced down Hitler, always with fresh whiskey and soda in hand.

Indeed, even a book on Churchill’s personal economics reminds us of the man’s incredible capacity for alcohol.

Gretchin Rubin’s 2003 “Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill” is a splendid entry in the Churchillian canon, with, you guessed it, 40 short chapters covering topics like “Churchill as Father: A Good Parent?” and “Churchill the Imperialist: His Cause.” Chapter 21, “Churchill the Drinker: An Alcoholic?” argues both sides of the question:

Churchill drank all day long, every day. He’d have his first whiskey and soda – his signature drink – soon after breakfast and kept drinking until he went to sleep. Liquor of several sorts flowed at lunch and dinner… This behavior certainly demonstrates a marked and unhealthy dependence on alcohol.

The contrary view:

Much of his relish for drinking was for show. Churchill exaggerated his enjoyment of whiskey and champagne to create one of his most distinctive characteristics – an idiosyncrasy that everyone recognized and smiled over and that helped make people feel closer to him. As one associate observed, “The glass of weak whiskey, like the cigars, was more a symbol than anything else, and one glass lasted him for hours.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 3.02.36 PMIn celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the PM’s death, British journalist Harry Wallop (great name!) recently went about recreating the daily imbibing schedule of Sir Winston, who – along with his iron liver – passed away after 90 fairly eventful years.

A miracle, considering he had drunk an estimated 42,000 bottles of Pol Roger champagne through his life; he thought nothing of starting the morning with cold game and a glass of hock and ending it at 3am with the best part of a bottle of cognac.

To get a flavour of his extraordinary lifestyle, one formed during the Edwardian era, I set myself the challenge of spending the day drinking what he drank in a typical 24-hour period.

This may sound like one of the less arduous journalistic tasks, but I can assure you that it was surprisingly difficult – not just to physically consume what he put away, but also to pin down how much he really did consume.

As with so many aspects of the great man, his alcoholic intake is subject to a few myths, some burnished by Churchill himself in his own lifetime.

Alluding to Lough’s research, Wallop points to confirmatory receipts from the corner liquor store:

There are, however, details that emerge from wine merchants’ invoices that hint at a monumental appetite for, in particular, whisky, brandy and champagne. After losing the 1945 election, he went on holiday to stay at Lake Como, with Sarah, his daughter, and Lord Moran, his doctor. Between them they polished off 96 bottles of champagne in a fortnight; Churchill also drank six or seven whisky and sodas a day, as well as three daily brandies.

Watching Wallop’s valiant – but ultimately futile – efforts to keep pace with the PM brings to mind Howard Cosell’s legendary Ali-Frazier call, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes… Wallop!”

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 3.03.51 PMAnother Brit who could really pack the hooch away was the recently departed Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, legendary frontman of the metal band Motörhead.

Reporting on a celebration of the hard-living rockstar’s nearly 70 years, one J. Bennet of Vice explains it was the kind of affair that would have made Lemmy proud:

By two o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, I was already covered in whiskey and coke. I’m not sure how it happened, but I suspect Lemmy would have wanted it that way. As the vocalist, bassist, and mastermind of Motörhead, the baddest rock band in the land, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister loved his Jack Daniels, his uppers, and his favorite watering hole, the Rainbow Bar & Grill, located on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

Bennet goes on to recount Lemmy’s appetites for speed and Jack Daniels that probably could have kept him toe-to-toe with his countryman Churchill deep into a boozy evening. 

Just how hard Lemmy lived cannot be overestimated. “Lemmy lived the rock star life every day,” Singerman said. “Keith Richards is known for partying heavy, but Keith Richards doesn’t live it every day. Most people can’t because they’ll die. Lemmy went 70 years like that. I’m talking about a half gallon of Jack a day since the 1960s; two to three packs of cigarettes a day, plus speed daily. I’ve been with him 25 years and I’ve never, ever not seen him on all that stuff…He had a lifestyle that nobody could keep up with. But he always maintained—always showed up, never f…. up.” (this is a family website)

It’s telling that Lemmy’s favorite drug was speed. Speed requires a commitment that other drugs do not. A line of coke might wear off in 15 or 20 minutes before you want another, but a line of good speed can keep you up for 24 hours. And Lemmy was nothing if not committed—to his fans, to his lifestyle, to rock n’ roll itself.

Cheers!

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