Who is the greatest boozer of all time?
I can tell you who isn’t. Last month, we saw an overconfident Jackie Gleason nearly bungle his eighth round victory over an unhinged Lord Byron, and witnessed W.C. Fields employ questionable tactics to demolish a disgracefully unprepared F. Scott Fitzgerald. This month, three storied British boozers and an L.A. wino mix it up: Fellow poets Charlie “The Battlin’ Barfly” Bukowski and Dylan “18 and Out” Thomas try to write each other out of the tournament, while thespian Richard “Double Bourbon” Burton attempts to upstage and outdrink veteran bar battler Winston “The English Booze Dog” Churchill.
Table Side Announcers: Howard Cosell and Sir Laurence Olivier
Ref: Bill “The Fox” Foster
“The Battlin’ Barfly”
“18 and Out”
(Odds: Dead Even)
Tale of the Tab
His is a Cinderella story—late in life he fought his way up from the the tough skid row bars of L.A. to seize international recognition as one of the finest hooch hounds of his generation. He couldn’t afford the best drinks to train with, but he did well with what he could beg, borrow and steal. There isn’t a hungrier or thirstier fighter in the tournament. His only weakness is his glass stomach: while he can hold his own with any man, he has the proclivity to vomit at any particular moment.
When this Welshman toured the States in the 1950s he burned down drinking records at every stop he made — right up to his 18-whiskey knockout at the White Horse Tavern in NYC. His capacity is immense, his tastes broad, but he has been known to go mad late in the session, sometimes attacking and even biting his drinking companions.
The Build Up
Howard Cosell: As you know, Larry, Bukowski’s camp protested the vomit disqualification rule when the tournament was announced.
Laurence Olivier: Naturally, Howard. They contended that vomiting is a natural part of the drinking process and their boy doesn’t even get warmed up until he’s given up lunch.
HC: We can expect Dylan to attack that weakness with some sweet drinks, perhaps even some exotic brandies. Bukowski is not known for drinking exotic or expensive liquors and they may disorient him.
LO: Bukowski on the other hand will probably try to prod Dylan into his “mad dog” mode. Once Dylan lays a hand on Buk, he will be disqualified. It has to be Bukowski’s best chance for victory.
(Bukowski wins the coin toss.)
Bukowski orders Veuve Clicquot Gold Vintage Liebfraumilch Reserve 1987
LO: That’s rather unexpected.
HC: I disagree. While Bukowski cut his teeth on street wines, in his latter, more monied years he switched to the good stuff.
LO: Maybe he’s attempting to keep things civilized. Or perhaps he’s trying to attack Dylan’s preference for hard liquor and beer.
HC: Dylan makes quick work of his, as is is style. He’s definitely a sprinter, while Bukowski is known for his long marathon bouts of drinking. Buk levels his glass on the seven count while Dylan impatiently waits. He wants to get down to business.
Thomas orders pints of Bullmastiff Son of A Bitch Ales.
LO: And his business is drinking beer and cursing. I believe he ordered those just so he could curse freely.
HC: “I’m just glad you didn’t order the Mother Fucker Stout,” Bukowski jokes and the men share a laugh. Characteristically, Dylan tips his down in under a minute and Bukowski is right there with him.
LO: I’ll wager this Welsh ale is something Bukowski hasn’t had before.
HC: Not that it matters. I bet he’d drink furniture polish if he thought there was alcohol in it.
Bukowski orders double well scotch and waters
LO: Surprises me as well, Howard. You would think Buk would be interested in pacing himself, considering Dylan’s reputation as a bull rusher.
HC: I’m beginning to suspect he is in awe of his opponent. Bukowski is known to be a great fan of the Welsh poet.
LO: And doesn’t wish to appear a lightweight in the eyes of his idol.
HC: That respect might cost him the match. If he lets Dylan dictate the pace, he’s in for a rough, fast ride.
Thomas orders pitchers of Budweiser
LO: Well, that’s something.
HC: It’s a little known fact Dylan drank quite a bit of Bud on his American tour. The pitchers make sense.
LO: Yes, but Buk drinks cheap American lager by the case. It won’t make much of a dent. One of them needs to take control of this match or we’ll be here all night.
Rounds Five through Ten
Bukowski orders three pitchers of MGD, Thomas orders three pitchers of Budweiser
LO: We may well be here all night.
HC: It’s turning into a beer bust. They’ve traded pitchers for seven rounds and neither seems willing to stop.
LO: They’re getting a little too cozy if you ask me. Dylan thinks he’s at his local pub and Bukowski seems content to bask in his hero’s light.
HC: Here’s some movement! Dylan gets to his feet to deliver a soliloquy: “I like the taste of beer. It’s live, white lather, its brass bright depth. The sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam on the corners.”
LO: He’s right about the tilted rush but lies about the slow swallowing as he tips his pitcher down.
HC: And Bukowski’s pitcher hasn’t been touched! His corner howls at Buk, trying to wake him from his reverie!
LO: The crafty Welshman hypnotized his admirer and left him in a pickle indeed!
HC: Bukowski snaps out of it and starts to chug, but he’s already on the five count!
LO: Six! Seven! He’s only half done!
HC: If he comes up for air he’s finished. Nine and—
LO: The last drop slides down his neck and the ref says he made the count. That’s as close as I’ve seen it!
LO: Buk wipes his mouth and you can tell he—
HC: Dylan’s treachery has awoken the beast in Bukowski! The kid gloves are off!
Bukowski orders Night Train Fortified Wine
LO: Bukowski returns to his skid row roots.
HC: His wino style attack has leveled many opponents. If the high alcohol content doesn’t get them—
LO: The horrid taste will. Dylan, drink in hand, rises to make another proclamation: “I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression.”
HC: And this time it’s Bukowski who slams his drink in the middle of the speech and Dylan who must play catch up!
LO: He tips on the six count and finishes on the nine.
HC: That was very disrespectful of Bukowski. Dylan was trying to explain his previous bad behavior and—
LO: Not as disrespectful as what Buk says next: “You mean a bastard, an asshole and motherfucker don’t you?”
HC: Dylan is livid! He flexes his hands, I believe he wishes them around Buk’s throat!
Thomas orders double Swn y Mor Blended Whiskies
HC: And again Dylan rises to his feet to make another florid speech. The man loves his speeches.
LO: I suspect he’s trying to lull Bukowski back into complacency.
HC: This time Bukowski gets to his feet and cuts him off, saying: “Genius is the the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way. Which makes you an idiot.” He downs his Welsh whisky, puts his glass on the table and remains standing, fists clenched, ready to brawl!
LO: Dylan downs his, tosses his glass to the side, runs a hand through his hair and tries to contain himself. “You pup,” he growls, “you sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
HC: They’re trying to incite each other into disqualification! Whoever strikes the first blow is out!”
LO: Buk lets loose another verbal barrage, saying, “I outlived you, I out-fucked you, and, by God, I out-drank you!”
HC: Dylan draws back as if to lunge. Then—what’s he doing?
LO: He’s unbuttoning his fly. Good God, he’s taking out his member!
HC: And pissing in Bukowski’s glass! “Drink that!” Dylan bellows and the ref steps in! He’s disqualifying Dylan! A controversial finish!
Bukowski wins by disqualification.
Post Fight Interview:
Thomas: “That pretender wasn’t fit to drink my piss, and I proved it.”
Bukowski: “I’ve seen that trick before.”
“The British Booze Dog”
(Odds: 6 to 1 in favor of Churchill)
Tale of the Tab
Known to drink up to four bottles of vodka a day, this accomplished boozer can take the hard stuff in waves. Kept in fine drinking shape by his hard-drinking wife Liz Taylor, Burton can drink a pub full of miners under the table then recite Hamlet word for word. Like fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas, however, his temper grows shorter as his bar tab grows longer.
This iconoclastic inebriate not only beat the Blitz, he managed to beat up on more than a thousand bottles of hooch during the same time period. Rumored to have stayed drunk the entire war, he can take whatever his opponents throw at him: wine, bubbly, whiskey, gin, vodka, you name it, he drinks it. Possessed of remarkable wit, iron will and and a stomach to match, he’s one of the odds-on favorite to take the tournament.
The Build Up
LO: Burton showed up 15 minutes late, but to his credit he walked in with a drink in his hand.
HC: He was a big believer of having a few before going on stage. Surely he can’t be underestimating Churchill.
LO: Winston seems to thinks so. “If this were war time and you were a general, sir,” he says, “I would sack you on the spot.”
HC: “If this were war time,” Burton fires back, “I’d be dive-bombing your house.”
LO: What a pity. With so much in common, I thought they’d be civil.
(Churchill wins the coin toss.)
Churchill orders extra dry Plymouth Gin martinis
LO: Sir Winston starts off true to form with his trademark libation, made by pouring the gin and nodding in the direction of France in place of using vermouth. A habit he picked up during the war, when the Nazis were hogging all the French liqueurs.
HC: Burton prefers his martinis with vodka and his vodka with tonic, but he doesn’t seem to mind too much.
LO: They sip them like gentlemen and one has to think this will be a very long affair. Neither has any weaknesses, they both drink anything and everything.
HC: And in vast amounts. It’s a case of the bottomless glass versus the infinite bottle. Both of these men could have easily advanced to the next round, had they not been matched up.
Burton orders Cristall Vodka and tonics
HC: Burton doesn’t offer up any surprises either, sticking with his standby.
LO: Churchill seems scandalized. “So far you have at least one thing in common with Josef Stalin,” he quips, having a taste.
HC: Burton responds with some tangled Shakespeare: “Come, come, good vodka is a good familiar creature if it be well used: exclaim no more against it.”
LO: Then knocks back his familiar creature.
HC: “That’s another thing you have in common with Stalin,” replies Churchill in a tone drier than his trademark martini, then finishes his on the seven count.
Churchill orders Johnny Walker Black and waters
LO: That’s mother’s milk for Churchill. I think they both realize it’s going to be a long bitter fight, the drinking equivalent of trench warfare, so they’re choosing old comfortable weapons.
HC: Churchill has a sip while Burton insolently drinks his glass dry. Churchill makes a hurumphing sound, then puts his down shortly after. “Where gentlemen sip,” Churchill announces, “savages guzzle.”
LO: “Your dry wit parched me,” Burton replies, rather disingenuously.
HC: An ironic curtain has descended between these men, and I suspect it’s going to get worse.
Rounds Four Through Nineteen
Burton orders eight rounds of Cristall and tonics, Churchill orders eight rounds of Johnny Walker Black and waters
LO: What a titanic and grim struggle. Have we heard crueler wits cross swords in the tournament?
HC: I would say no. It brings to mind two Goliaths beating each other over the head with clubs, both believing they can wear the other down with sheer might.
LO: Yet neither has even so much as raised a bump on the other’s head.
HC: Someone’s skull is going to have to crack sooner or later.
Burton orders Schloss Schoenborn Rhine Wine
HC: Finally, a breakthrough! Burton storms out of his trench and attempts to maneuver around Churchill’s formidable defenses.
LO: The fact that the wine is from Germany is no mere coincidence, I think.
HC: Neither thinks Churchill, who comments, “Too bad you weren’t born earlier. Hitler had work for men of your tastes.”
LO: “He kept you employed,” Burton replies, reminding the former Prime Minister of his dismissal by peacetime Britain.
HC: “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without effect,” Churchill snipes then downs the wine. Burton follows, his expression unsettled. He knows he’s in for a fight.
Churchill orders two Johnny Walker Black and waters
HC: Winston doesn’t take the bait and remains in his Johnny Walker bunker.
LO: He’s a stubborn brute. And surely he doesn’t want to give the impression Burton is controlling the course of the contest. One imagines Burton as the Luftwaffe buzzing around a deeply entrenched Britain.
HC: It worked for Churchill once, why not again? Burton drops a Bard buzzbomb on him, saying, “Come, thou monarch of the vine, plumpy Bacchus with pink eye! Drink like a king!”
LO: “There are those gentlemen,” Churchill responds, “who climb up on stage, and never again climb down.”
HC: “The next time I’m in a play I’ll invite you to the premiere,” Burton salvoes back. “Bring a friend. If you have one.”
LO: “I don’t think I can make the first performance, but I’ll attend the second,” Churchill says. “If there is one.”
Burton orders double peppermint schnapps
HC: That’s not right.
LO: Still working the German angle.
HC: Churchill doesn’t seem happy, but I’m not certain if it’s the politics or the peppermint.
LO: “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” Churchill quips, then drops the double down his throat. “Where’s that wife of yours?” he then inquires. “You know, the one who drinks you under the table.”
HC: “Shagging your mother, I’d imagine,” Burton nastily reposts.
LO: It is getting rather nasty. I’m glad I’m not sitting at the table.
HC: You’d be under it by now. Burton downs his schnapps on the eight count. I have to say, they’re both starting to show their cups now. Churchill’s head is bloating and Burton is beginning to slur.
Rounds Twenty-Three Through Thirty
Churchill orders four Johnny Walker Black and waters, Burton orders four double shots of peppermint schnapps
LO: Burton continues with his schnapps blitz against Winston’s Black bunker and both are bloodied but as yet unbowed.
HC: The schnapps is having an awful affect on Churchill. His face is flushed, his eyes are watering, he keeps trying to smoke the wrong end of his cigar.
LO: Burton’s isn’t fairing much better, his witty repartee has degenerated into muttered remarks about Winston’s parentage. The next few rounds, I suspect, will decide the contest.
Churchill orders Moet champagnes
LO: Finally, 30-plus rounds in, Churchill abandons his bunker.
HC: And what a telling choice. Churchill always believed in the stimulating effects of champagne and he’s in dire need of stimulation. This may be a last ditch effort to stay afloat.
LO: If he can last a few more rounds, he may yet wring a victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s sheer will that’s keeping Burton from taking the inky plunge.
HC: Both men drink their champagne slowly. Churchill stares at something inches from his eyes, Burton slumps in his chair, staring through heavily lidded eyes at his opponent.
LO: We’ve witnessed a clash of titans tonight. Two bloody champions facing each other across a shattered battlefield. The toll has been terrible, yet they continue. This is what imbibing is all about.
Burton orders double peppermint schnapps
HC: The terrible onslaught continues.
LO: Burton picks up his drink and rises unsteadily to his feet, gazing darkly down at Churchill, who fumbles pitifully with his shot glass.
HC: “Surrender your castle, dying king,” Burton intones in the voice that won him the stage. “You fought like a lion, but the battle is lost.”
LO: “Never!” Churchill mumbles. “I will fight you in the pubs, I will fight you in the clubs, I will . . .”
HC: And his head drops to his chest like a hammer striking an anvil! Incredible! The British Booze Dog has been put down!
LO: A stunning upset!
HC: Burton salutes his fallen enemy, finishes his schnapps, then — great God, he’s staggering to the bar for a night cap.
LO: A rank underdog before the match, now one can only wonder: Who can stand before Richard Burton’s proven might?
Burton wins by PO.
Post Fight Interview
Churchill: “It was not my finest happy hour.”
Burton: “I laughed him out of patience; and ere, in the twelfth hour, I drunk him to his bed.”