Interview with Susan Elia MacNeal, author of “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary”

Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you. 

Susan Elia MacNeal‘s debut novel, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, was published by Bantam Dell/Random House on April 3, 2012, Winston Churchill Day. The sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, will be published in the fall of  2012. She is under contract for, and hard at work on, books three and four in the Maggie Hope series. She is also the author of two non-fiction books (including Infused: 100+ Recipes for Infused Liquors and Cocktails), and has written for The Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, Time Out New York, and Publishers Weekly. Susan is married and lives with her husband, Noel MacNeal, and young son in Brooklyn.

Drinking Diaries: What did Winston Churchill drink?

Susan Elia: Along with smoking Romero y Julietta cigars, Winston Churchill was known for always having a tumbler of Scotch and water at hand. However, many sources say it was more water than Scotch. His children called it the “Papa Cocktail” and said it was a splash of Johnnie Walker covering the bottom of a tumbler, which was then filled with water and slowly sipped throughout a morning or afternoon. He says (in My Early Life) observation that he learned the Scotch-and-water habit as a young man in India and South Africa where the water was unfit to drink and, “by dint of careful application I learned to like it.” His private secretary and right-hand-man Jock Colville said that Churchill’s “Papa Cocktail” was more like mouthwash than a real drink.

What else did he drink?

What else didn’t he drink? Churchill was known to have a glass of hock (a kind of wine) with breakfast. There was the Scotch and water, as mentioned. He drank different wines with lunch. With dinner, for example, it was not unusual for him to start with a dry Martini (Plymouth gin “with a bow towards France”). And then he would move on to wines with each course, Bordeaux being a favorite, Champagne (preferably Pol Roger), and then finish up with port or brandy. Dinner with Churchill by Cita Stelzer is a fantastic account of, among many other things, his eating and drinking habits.

Do you think he was an alcoholic? 

I’m not an expert of course, nor am I a doctor. However, I will say that most historians don’t consider Winston Churchill to have been an alcoholic. None of his colleagues have ever reported seeing him drunk (and those were the days when everyone kept a diary). He has a number of famous quips about alcohol and moderation, including, “My father taught me to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,” that while a glass of Champagne lifts the spirits and sharpens the wits, “a bottle produces the opposite effect,” and, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?

I like a glass of wine with dinner, and then a glass of champagne or a cocktail on a special occasion. I’m a working mom and have to get up pretty early in the morning, so I’m pretty careful about drinking.

I wrote a book called Infused: 100+ Recipes for Infused Liqueurs and Cocktails for Chronicle Books in 2006 — I will say that doing research for that was really fun. We’d have a bunch of friends over to taste-test each infusion, and then the cocktails made with it. I only sipped though, because I had to take notes and adjust the recipes.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

I received The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock a few years ago as a gift, and I’ve enjoyed going through and making a lot of the vintage drinks for special occasions. One of my favorites is the Pegu Club, which is 2 ounces of London dry gin, 3/4 ounce orange Curacao, 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice, 1 dash Angostura bitters, and 1 dash orange bitters. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Amazing.

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?

The best times I’ve had drinking have been at bars with my husband and wonderful friends, where the bartender really knows her or his craft. Some of the best times, and best drinks, I’ve ever had have been at the Clover Club, Fort Defiance, and Death and Company in New York, and Upstairs at Rules, the American Bar at the Savoy, and Milk and Honey in London. Drink, in Boston, is also amazing. When you can be with good friends and sip a drink made with that much knowledge, care and skill, life is good indeed.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?

I love The Thin Man movies from the 1930s. They’re based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett and are ostensibly about the detective team Nick and Nora Charles (played by the droll William Powell and effervescent Myrna Loy) — but they’re really just as much about witty banter and dry Martinis.

Consider this quote — Nick Charles: “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”

And then there’s poor Nora Charles, suffering from a hang-over, “What hit me?” Nick Charles, “The last Martini.”

And then there’s the classic: Reporter, “Well, can’t you tell us anything about the case?” Nick Charles, “Yes, it’s putting me way behind in my drinking.”

What do you like most about drinking?

There’s a quality of nostalgia about drinking vintage cocktails that I love. For instance, I adore antique coupe classes (which hold a modest two ounces, compared to today’s monstrous eight). I love the sound of the ice in the shaker. I love the taste of a perfectly mixed cocktail. It’s a bit of time travel in a glass, really.

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