There is perhaps no figure in world history more closely linked to smoking premium cigars than Sir Winston Churchill. After all, when a cigar is actually named after you, that speaks volumes right there. Sir Winston (a.k.a. “Winnie”) also consumed Johnnie Walker Red Label scotch whisky, Hine brandy, and Pol Roger champagne in equal measure, if not more so, as he was rarely ever without a cigar in his mouth, or alcohol in his bloodstream—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Sir Winston Churchill: The Early Years
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on November 30, 1874 into the aristocratic Dukes of Marlborough family; son to Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the
Exchequer. His mother was Jennie Jerome, an American heiress and socialite. His military schooling began early: Winston joined the Rifle Corps while attending the Harrow School, one of Britain’s leading boarding schools for boys. Rather than move on to college, he continued his education at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst – mainly because he hated math. In 1895 he received his first military commission, serving in the cavalry. That same year, he gained notoriety as a war correspondent reporting on the Cuban revolt against Spain. Other campaigns followed in Northwest India (1898), and in South Africa during the Boer War. It was during the latter conflict that he was captured in November of 1899, imprisoned, and eventually escaped less than a month later in December. News of his escape made him a national hero, earning him a seat in the House of Commons where he would spend the next 60 years.
“Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar, you’re gonna go far…” – Pink Floyd
Let’s rewind to November, 1895 when Sir Winston was in Havana covering the Cuban-Spanish War as a soldier/correspondent. Like the writer Ernest Hemmingway, another devout cigar smoker who many years later would become a Cuban resident, Churchill loved action; especially the action provided by a war. It was there that he developed his penchant for Cuban cigars at the ripe young age of 21. Winnie’s new daily ritual was most likely sealed when he and a fellow officer, Reginald Barnes, had to spend their first few days in a Havana hotel where they subsisted on little more than cigars and oranges before making it to the front.
Churchill’s cigars of choice
Before there was a “Churchill cigar” Sir Winston’s cigars of choice were Romeo y Julieta cigars, and the original, Havana-made La Aroma de Cuba cigars. (Later on he added
Camacho cigars to his rotation.) Some observers note that he was especially fond of big maduro cigars, but only smoked them about halfway down.
Sir Winston Churchill consumed anywhere from 6 to 10 cigars a day. This may also account for the fact that the Prime Minister kept a personal stash of three to four thousand cigars in a room near his study at Chartwell Manor, his residence in Kent, England. The cigars were also labeled “Large,” “Small,” “Wrapped” (with cello) and “Naked” (without cello).
So how did the “Churchill cigar” come to be? The Romeo y Julieta brand, introduced by Alvarez y Garcia in 1875, was sold to “Pepin” Fernandez Rodriguez in 1903, and it was Rodriquez, himself, who created the popular shape cigar smokers recognize today. The cigar measured 7-inches in length with a ring gauge of 47, and was christened the “Romeo y Julieta Churchill.”
Prime Ministers are human, too.
The record shows that Sir Winston smoked roughly 3,000 cigars per year and somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 cigars in his lifetime. Yet despite his zeal for cigars, Winnie wasn’t the neatest of cigar smokers, and he knew it. Though he had a number of cigar cutters, he didn’t cut the cap of his cigars. The Prime Minister’s “cutting” method of choice was to wet the head of the cigar and pierce it with the non-business end of a wooden match.
Churchill also had a favorite silver ashtray that he took everywhere with him (more on that later), but inevitably, most of his cigar ashes found their way onto his clothes, or the floor, often burning holes in the carpet. Moreover, he burned so many holes in his silk pajamas that his wife, Clementine, made him a special cigar bib to wear in bed! By today’s standards, Sir Winston may not have been the most welcome patron at the friendly neighborhood smoking pit. Imagine having to bounce the Prime Minister of England out of your cigar lounge!
Often, while Churchill was contemplating world affairs, or writing one of his many books, his cigars would go out, so he turned to chewing them. Sometimes he purposely let his cigar so out so he could chew on it. Soon the head was a frayed mess saturated with tobacco juices and saliva. To solve this problem, Winnie took a strip of brown paper, put a little glue on one end, wrapped it around the head of the cigar, and dubbed it the “bellybando.” It worked like a charm, and may be one of the reasons Sir Winston was able to smoke up to 10 cigars a day.
Close-up, but no cigar
After World War II ended, LIFE magazine published a cover photo featuring one of the most famous portraits ever taken of Sir Winston Churchill. It was taken in December of 1941 by the prominent Canadian portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, shortly after the British Prime Minister delivered a speech to the Canadian House of Commons. Hired by the Canadian government to take the picture, Karsh had only minutes to get the shot. Mr. Churchill, who was already annoyed that he had not been told about the photo op, sat in the chair provided and said, “You have two minutes. And that’s it, two minutes,” then summarily lit a cigar and began puffing away. Next came the ballsiest thing Karsh probably ever did: he asked the Prime Minister to remove the cigar from his mouth. Churchill refused, but the photographer, under the pretext of getting a light level, walked up to him, and as Karsh himself told it, “I stepped toward him and without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, Sir’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant I took the photograph.”
Karsh must have earned some instant props from Sir Winston for having the guts to take such a chance with his sacred cigar. Then, with a smile, he told Karsh he could take another. But the first shot is the more famous for having captured Churchill’s imposing countenance.
Churchill Trivia Highlights
Towards the end of World War II, prior to the July 1945 election, The Times of London prepared an editorial suggesting that Churchill campaign first “as a non-partisan world leader,” and secondly, “retire gracefully soon afterward.” When Churchill was informed of this by the editor, he responded by saying, “Mr. Editor, I fight for my corner, and I leave when the pub closes.”
Sir Winston was so addicted to cigars, he had the Royal Air Force create an oxygen mask with a special hole in it so he could smoke during high-altitude flights. Think about that. An oxygen mask used for smoking! Now that’s brave.
Most of the Prime Minister’s cigars were purchased at the Dunhill cigar shop. After the Nazi blitz on London in 1941, German bombs all but blew the famed store to pieces. At two in the morning, Alfred Dunhill, himself, telephoned Sir Winston to say, “Your cigars are safe, sir.” (Talk about your “preferred-client” status!)
Speaking of WWII, Hitler and Mussolini were dedicated non-smokers while the “Big 3″ of the Allied Powers, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, were all avid smokers.
Sir Winston would usually smoke his cigars down to a couple of inches. During his later years, the butts would be collected and given to his gardener to smoke in his pipe. (Lucky gardener.)
Churchill spent a lot of money on his cigars. As one of his valets, Roy Howells, wrote in his book, Simply Churchill, “It took me a little while to get used to the fact that in two days his cigar consumption was the equivalent of my weekly salary.”
As noted earlier, Churchill had a favorite silver ashtray. It was shaped like a pagoda with a little saddle at the top for resting his cigar. This ashtray was always at Churchill’s side and even had its own special little suitcase for traveling.
“There was always a certain ritual with the silver ashtray whenever he was away from home,” wrote Howells in Simply Churchill: “On the Riviera it was ceremoniously handed over to the head waiter of his private dining-room each day before lunch, and then returned with great decorum after dinner.”
In February of 1945, Sir Winston hosted a luncheon in honor of King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia. Just prior to the affair, an interpreter advised the Prime Minister that neither smoking nor alcoholic beverages were allowed in the King’s presence. Later, in one of his memoirs Churchill wrote the following about this particular request:
“I raised the matter at once and said to the interpreter that if it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be, during all meals and in the intervals in-between.” Churchill certainly had a way of telling others who’s the boss, because, as Churchill added, “the King graciously accepted the position.”
Churchill: The Life Triumphant by H.A .Grunwald, (American Heritage, 1965)