Winston Churchill’s drinking habits have been catalogued, debated and disputed down the decades, all the while delighting those of us who are conservatives and of the opinion that to drink, most of the time sensibly, is to live. Or, as the philosopher Roger Scruton put it: “I Drink Therefore I Am.”

Did Churchill really drink quite as much as is reputed? It seems unlikely, unless he went through the Second World War permanently pissed, in the British sense of that vulgar word. Strong spirits may have been watered down on the quiet, progressively weakening what was in the tumbler while making it appear as though the great man were guzzling gallons of the stuff.

There were certainly moments of inebriation. His wartime CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, recounted quite a few such episodes in his diaries. In one of the most amusing incidents, with Churchill dressed in a light blue “romper suit”, the Prime Minister decided to demonstrate his “drill” skills by marching up and down the ancestral hall of Chequers, the PM’s weekend retreat, clutching a rifle fixed with a bayonet. All for the amusement of his guests after dinner. Alanbrooke recalled wondering what Hitler – a poor advert for teetotalism – would have made of the scene.

We do know Churchill did not care for red wine. Red Bordeaux – or claret as the British call it, from a Scottish derivation – held no appeal, which seems like a rare taste failure on Churchill’s part.

Champagne was a different matter, and he did have a special link with one Champagne house. Pol Roger sent him a case each year, and Churchill, who was always amenable to free drink, talked it up. And no wonder. Pol Roger is one of the delights of Western civilisation. 

Did Churchill really drink quite as much as is reputed? It seems unlikely, unless he went through the Second World War permanently pissed, in the British sense of that vulgar word. Strong spirits may have been watered down on the quiet, progressively weakening what was in the tumbler while making it appear as though the great man were guzzling gallons of the stuff.

A couple of years ago I had cause to revisit Épernay, home to Pol Roger, where Patrice Noyelle hosted a series of small lunch parties to mark his retirement. A different vintage was poured for every course.

As the boss, Patrice had steered the place through a sympathetic process of gentle modernisation and marked commercial improvement. As Tancredi Falconeri says in The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa:  “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” At Pol Roger, Patrice’s vital work is continued by his successors.

At the end of the retirement lunch that day our host produced a bottle of claret on the condition that we blind-taste it and try to guess the year. “Is it pre-War?” asked my friend the famous wine critic. “Ah, yes it is,” said Patrice. “The question is, which war?”

It turned out to be Chateau Malescot-St-Exupery, a Margaux, from 1873. Wine that old should have turned to vinegar, but it was nothing of the sort. To our astonishment, after 140 years it was still beautifully balanced and perfectly drinkable. The founder of Pol Roger had bought a large quantity in the 1870s and laid it down. Looked after carefully, not shaken about or disturbed unnecessarily, it evolved and endured. It retained its essential characteristics, giving pleasure to later generations. If only we nurtured political institutions and good government according to the same principle. •