Despite his penchant for food, liquor and cigars, Winston Churchill reached the ripe old age of 90. While we wouldn't suggest consuming the goodies listed in this article in one go, we reckon dabbling in the odd one or two should be fine. It's also an apt, biannual way of marking the life of this great man — a dabble for his birthday on 30 November and again on 24 January, the date he died.
One non-boozy liquid that Winston adored was soup. He'd eat a bowl of cold consommé before bed, even if he'd just returned from a slap-up dinner at The Savoy. Thin, non-creamy soups were what Churchill hankered after — and that applied to his turtle soup too. This, he once served up to President Roosevelt, after a Commander Thompson spotted a couple of tins in a Piccadilly grocers, and took the rare commodity back to Number 10. Turtle soup is even rarer in London these days (extinct, even), although the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill still has one in stock.
The corpulent PM would regularly round off dinner with a cheese platter. And there was one London fromagarie he regarded above all others: "A gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield," said Churchill once. Fortunately for the gentlemen (and women) of today's London, Paxton & Whitfield is still in business. So when you go in, what should you order — a ballsy cheddar? A patriotic Red Leicester? Apparently not. Although you might think the flavour was a tad on the neutral side for Winston, we have it on good authority that his cheese of choice was a Swiss gruyère.
Churchill also adored his Indian curries (so there are plenty of places to commemorate him all across the capital). However, he wasn't keen on Chinese (sorry, Chinatown), or sauerkraut (apologies Herman ze German).
Dessert was never at the top of Churchill's gourmet agenda, but there was a notable exception in his 79th birthday cake, served up in the Cabinet Room. This was covered in edible sugar book spines, representing the many tomes he'd written when not busy with war duties. If you don't quite have those credentials, try baking a cake in the form of some of the recent books you've read. It's almost as good.
History is giddy with anecdotes of Churchill's drinking. You may think a man who started the day with a whisky or brandy must have been a raging lush — but Churchill's morning tipple was heavily diluted (you should still only attempt this if you're off work for the day), and many historians say he was rarely actually blotto.
That's not to say he didn't get through gallons of booze. According to historian Sir David Cannadine, Conservative politician and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rab Butler had no fewer than eight huge meals foisted on him at Downing Street during 1955, all washed down with libations of brandy. So much brandy, that Butler was forced to pour some of it down the sides of his shoes. Whether the dinner guest had to squelch his way out of Number 10, is not recorded.
Champagne was Churchill's greatest weakness, or strength, as he liked to put it. "In success you deserve it and in defeat, you need it," he quipped. The champagne on Churchill's rider was a very specific one — Pol Roger — and Churchill tended to buy it from Berry Brother & Rudd on St James's Street, where you can still pick up a bottle today (although the cheapest still comes in just under £50).
As with cream soups, Churchill felt distinctly antagonistic toward anything vaguely resembling a cocktail. So he almost certainly wouldn't have been caught partaking in one of London's cocktail masterclasses. It's strange then, that to mark Churchill's 90th birthday, Joe Gilmore — one of the longest serving barmen at The Savoy's American Bar — invented the Blenheim cocktail. It's a rather sickly sounding tincture combining brandy, Lillet Blanc and orange juice, and although it no longer sits on the American Bar menu, there's nothing to stop you asking the bartenders if they'd consider a recreation. If not, you could always raise a toast with Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Vintage instead. A steal at £90 a glass.
Winston fell in love with Havana cigars when he was a journalist in Cuba. Back in London, he eagerly put in his first order for imported Cubans at Robert Lewis on St James's Street. Nowadays, that shop is James J Fox — and that very same order can still be seen written in a big ledger, recently perused by Churchill's great grandson Jonathan Sandys (photo below).
Incidentally, as Nic Wing — former cigar journalist — wrote: "This first delivery of cigars was made to the bachelor flat which he stayed in on his return from Cuba. It is above what, ironically enough, is now a cigar store; Sautter, in Mount Street, Mayfair."
Nic reckoned that Churchill smoked in the region of 200,000 cigars in his lifetime. Although to be fair, he likely chewed his way through half of them. In fact, Churchill would usually slobber through just half a Cuban, before chucking it. If you want proof of how quickly he got through his smokes, check out the industrial sized ash tray we discovered next to his bed in the Churchill War Rooms.
On the town
Hosting dinner parties was a forte of Churchill's that ranked alongside his diplomatic skills. But he liked to dine, drink and smoke out, too. The Savoy opened when Churchill was 24, and he was frequenting it soon after. As this video shows, he didn't stop frequenting it until close to his death. It was at The Savoy that Churchill, along with Lord Birkenhead, formed The Other Club — a political dining society where Winston would glug expensive brandy, shoot the breeze with his compatriots, and according to Cita Stelzer in Dinner With Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table — re-enact battles with salt and pepper shakers for hours at a time. You can still book the Other Club's hangout, the Pinafore Room, at The Savoy today. Although they probably won't let you muck about with the condiments.
Stelzer's book also includes some fascinating insight into how Churchill had no qualms questioning his bills. A 1934 correspondence between Churchill's private secretary and The Savoy begins with a letter that claims:
"Mr Churchill is surprised at the amount of this bill, which works out at almost £3 a head."
The overcharging is subsequently blamed on a bottle of port that was only half drunk, to which The Savoy replies that the remainder is:
"...being kept at the bar for Mr Churchill's use next time we are honoured with his patronage."
Among other Churchill haunts you can get to is Claridge's — room 212 of which he briefly declared Yugoslavian territory, so that Prince Alexander II could be born on his own country's soil. There's also Browns Hotel on Albemarle Street, which was frequented by the PM so often, it's rumoured they built a bomb shelter for him in there (although when Nic Wing checked with the concierge on Londonist's behalf, he couldn't confirm this). The bar here does a Churchill Martini (essentially a glass of gin with an olive on it). If you don't want to splash out at Browns, there are more frugal options at one of our recommended gin joints. Browns is also renowned for its afternoon teas, although Churchill himself thought that particular English tradition was an abomination.