Winston Churchill

Was Winston Churchill an Alcoholic?

"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 old scotch, 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."

Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill on portico of Russian Embassy in Teheran, during conference, Nov. 28 - Dec. 1, 1943

Photo: Driven to drink? Imagine the stress Churchill faced as the British leader during World War II. Pictured here with Franklin D. Roosevelt (middle) and Joseph Stalin (left) in 1943. Photo courtesy of US Library of Congress.

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 chosen a safe post at headquarters. But as a close friend pointed out: "Hard liquor was prohibited at Battalion HQ… and only sweet tea provided, a beverage 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 alcohol, Churchill declared the whole idea absurd and announced he would not be giving up drink just because the King had.

Simulation of Winston Churchill's signature on a letter with a drink on top

Photo: Drink loomed large over Winston Churchill's life—but how did it affect his leadership? (Simulated image.)

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 Cointreau instead. I disliked whiskey at first. It was only when I was a subaltern in India,and there was a choice between dirty water and dirty water with some whiskey in it, that I got to like it. I have always, since that time, made a 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." When the subject was raised with Churchill, he replied enigmatically: "Is alcohol a food?"

"Never the worst for drink"

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 another one 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 he has 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 drink."

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, different drinks contain very different amounts of alcohol, and the recommended weekly intake varies around the world; some countries quote different limits for men and women to take account of different body weights, biological differences, and other risk factors. During pregnancy, or while you're trying to become pregnant, you are recommended not to drink at all to minimize risks to your baby. For the best advice, tailored to where you live, consult official government/health websites, such as Rethinking Drinking (USA), NHS and Drink Aware (UK), and CCSA (Canada).

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."

Alcoholism: Some shocking facts and statistics

Generic illustration of alcohol abuse: bottles and cans in a recycling dumpster

You might find it amazing—or perhaps even slightly amusing—that one of the greatest leaders in history lived his life under the influence of alcohol. Churchill was lucky: alcohol didn't destroy him or the lives of the people around him; doubtless, on occasions, it helped him to cope with the incredible pressures he faced. Many other people aren't so fortunate: alcohol frequently turns them into abusive, violent monsters, tears apart their families and drives away their friends, before killing them, slowly and painfully, with a toxic cocktail of horrible diseases. Perhaps even more wretchedly, some alcoholics become drink drivers who kill, maim, and blight the lives of unlucky people they don't even know.

The statistics on alcohol abuse are shocking:


  1.    Global status report on alcohol and health 2018, World Health Organization, quoted in Alcohol: Key facts 21 September 2018.
  2.    Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders by J.Rehm et al, The Lancet, 27 June 2009. and Alcohol, World Health Organization.
  3.    Government expenditure on education, total (% of GDP), World Bank Databank, 2021.
  4.    [PDF] Alcohol and Crime: An Analysis of National Data on the Prevalence of Alcohol Involvement in Crime by L.A. Greenfield, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998. Violent Crime and Sexual Offences—Alcohol-Related Violence, Office for National Statistics, 2013/2014 Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW).
  5.    Alcohol, drugs, and crime: NCADD, 2018. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
  6.    Alcohol Consumption and Traffic Crashes by Professor David J. Hanson, Sociology Department, State University of New York. [PDF] Traffic Safety Facts: 2014 Crash Data Key Findings, US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, notes: "Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 31 percent of total fatalities" in the United States. The corresponding figure for 2019 is 28 percent.
  7.    Reduce your risk: new national guidelines for alcohol consumption: Australian Government, November 2013. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
  8.    Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study by Madlen Schütze et al, BMJ, 7 April 2011. Global alcohol-attributable deaths from cancer, liver cirrhosis, and injury in 2010. by J. Rehm and K.D. Shield. Alcohol Res. 2013;35(2):174–83. For a more general discussion, see Does alcohol cause cancer?, Cancer Research UK, March 31, 2021.
  9.    Alcohol and crime: by L.A. Greenfield, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998. [PDF file] The Greenfield study is still widely cited and definitive newer figures are hard to come by. Alcohol Related Crimes, Alcohol Rehab Guide/Delphi Behavioral Health Group, December 10, 2018.
  10.    Domestic abuse victim characteristics, England and Wales: year ending March 2020, Office for National Statistics, 25 November 2020. More than 40% of domestic violence victims are male, report reveals by Denis Campbell, The Guardian, 5 September 2010. According to a 2014 report on Alcohol, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault by the Institute of Alcohol Studies: "Typically between 25% and 50% of those who perpetrate domestic abuse have been drinking at the time of assault, although in some studies the figure is as high as 73%."
  11.    Statistics: how common is domestic violence?: Women's Aid, 7 August 2006.
  12.    How much money did you spend a week on alcohol?: forum discussion in 2009. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
  13.    Alcoholism Risk Factors: Mayo Clinic.

Find out more


Winston Churchill


Further information about alcoholism

Support groups

Please do NOT copy our articles onto blogs and other websites

Articles from this website are registered at the US Copyright Office. Copying or otherwise using registered works without permission, removing this or other copyright notices, and/or infringing related rights could make you liable to severe civil or criminal penalties.

Text copyright © Chris Woodford 1991, 2019. All rights reserved.

This article is part of my archive of old material. Return to the list of archived articles.