Who is the greatest boozer of all time?
We’ve posed that question before. In 2002 we resurrected 16 of the history’s hardest-pounding hoochers and squared them off in a ferocious, tournament-style, single-elimination, winner-walks-out-on-the-tab bottle-royale.
Legendary lushes like Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth crashed their vast appetites for booze into the cast-iron livers of monster inebriates Ernest Hemingway and W.C. Fields, and when the bar tabs cleared, a resurgent Jackie Gleason seized the crown from a stunned Charles Bukowski.
Controversy ensued: a great indignant yawp went up from our readers, demanding to know why so many of history’s finest boozers were left out of the contest, a roster that includes renowned soaks Andre the Giant, Oliver Reed, Jack Kerouac and Blackbeard the Pirate.
The exquisitely logical answer that there simply wasn’t enough room for the whole bloody lot of them was met with more yawps, so here we begin again with 16 fresh contenders, each eager to seize the crown of top toper. Then, once the winner emerges triumphant, we’ll pit him or her in a king-hell showdown with the original Clash champion, the aforementioned Jackie Gleason.
First off, living drinkers were excluded because their story is not fully told; for all we know they’ll join the Anti-Saloon League and start bad-mouthing sweet mother booze.
The Exhaustive Selection Process Explained
Backsliders such as Jack London, who did turn against the booze in his latter years, were also disqualified because winners never quit and quitters never win.
Lesser-known hard-pounders were also excused because everyone has an uncle who should be in the fight and we only have room for 16 contenders and we’d have to take you and your aunt’s word for it and we personally don’t trust either of you.
Personality was a deciding factor, because who wants to watch two stoic behemoths trade pitchers of Miller Lite for 12 hours?
Finally, since this is the second of the series, if you don’t see your personal drinking hero in the fight, odds are he or she participated in the first Clash.
One final note: this is a drinking contest, and like any contest, there are psychological elements involved. Having a superior capacity for alcohol will not always win the day.
So place your bets, pour yourself a strong one, and let’s get ready to stumble!
Tale of the Tab
The lead singer of the Doors is a wild card. His natural capacity for booze is the stuff of legend—in his final days, he was sinking three quarts of whiskey a day and managed to rack up drinking records at a bevy of NYC and LA nightclubs, effortlessly throwing back upwards of 25 shots of Scotch in a sitting. Furthermore, he preyed upon the full range of boozes, including wine, beer, liqueurs, cocktails and straight liquor—put it in front of him and this Dionysian shaman will make it vanish. He also seems to lack a strong self-preservation instinct, allowing him to push it all the way to the limit. All that said, his natural willingness to challenge authority and break rules means he could disqualify himself at any moment.
If Morrison is the raging sea of the implacable id, then McCullers is the ego’s immutable shore. Her sense of calmness and sangfroid, especially when deep in her cups, earned her the fascination and awe of the literary set of her day. Many proud men found themselves scuttled on her rocks, many seasoned drinkers sank to the bottom while she floated on to the rosy light of dawn. A close friend, notorious burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, claimed that the more Carson drank, the soberer she seemed, a quality that is likely to sap the confidence of any competitor.
The Build Up
Laurence Olivier: Geographically speaking, they’ve wandered similar paths. Both were born in the American South, then moved to large cities where they found fame. Both would spend time, and find death, in Paris. Jim found his own doom, while Carson’s husband found his.
Howard Cosell: Both also seemed eager to shock their respective generations with their words, and in Morrison’s case, his behavior.
LO: But that’s where their commonality ends. In person, Carson is a diffident Southern gentlewoman, while Morrison is the very personification of a giant finger looking for a button to push.
HC: There’s also the question as to which Morrison is going to show up: The psychedelic Dionysus, the insane Lizard King, or the bearded and beer-bellied Mr. Mojo Risin’?
LO: This uncertainty has chilled the odds board, which places them at dead even.
HC: Carson arrived five minutes early and without much fanfare, aside from a platoon of supporters who helped open a corridor through a crowd of mostly what I would call rock and rollers.
LO: And now she waits, calmly and quietly chain-smoking a deck of Luckies.
HC: No telling how long it’ll take Morrison—hold on, I hear shrieking from some of the younger members of the crowd. And here he comes.
LO: The crowd parts and he drifts to the table like he just wandered in off the road. And, my God, it smells like he’s been on the road for a very long time.
HC: Bedraggled. Maybe drunk. Like he woke up in a ditch. He wears a ragged leather ensemble and an odd smile.
LO: Has he been tested for drugs?
HC: It’s an honor system, Larry. He sits and grin meets grin. His wicked, hers winsome.
LO: Look at the board: not even a ripple. Still dead even. No one seems willing to take a chance.
Jim Morrison: I’m thirsty.
Carson McCullers: Me too.
HC: And here we go.
McCullers wins the coin toss.
McCullers orders pints of Yeungling Porter.
LO: This is how Carson started her day, with a ritual glass of beer.
HC: Morrison won’t mind. During a single recording session, he once sucked down 36 bottles of Tecate.
CM: Is this true?
JM: Beer gives me energy. I need a lot of energy when I’m in the studio.
CM: I find it helps me focus on the task at hand.
JM: Which is?
CM: Writing a story. Breaking you.
JM: A story called, “Breaking You?”
CM: That sounds right.
HC: You have to admire her frankness.
LO: Morrison sets the pace, lustily draining his bottle in three gulps. He was thirsty.
HC: McCullers, who seems to have been caught off guard, finishes on the six count.
LO: She probably preferred to sip that first beer of the day.
HC: Morrison was never much of a sipper.
Morrison orders Ramos Gin Fizzes.
LO: His standard hangover cure.
HC: He looks hungover. I wonder how many of these he had on the way over.
LO: Have you noticed how female the audience is? This has got to be a Clash record. A lot of young girls showed up for Jim.
HC: Carson has her own somewhat smaller cheering section. A rather surly-looking group of women sit behind her. Several are holding placards.
LO: What do the signs say, Howard?
HC: One says, “Equal Tabs.” Another says, “Cut Off the Patriarchy.”
LO: Powerful statements.
HC: The composition of the audience might be weighing on the odds.
LO: Oh? How so?
HC: Well, he’s twice her size and is known to have a much larger capacity, but I don’t think these dizzy teenyboppers are a betting crowd. Carson’s group, however . . .
LO: That’s just sexist. The whole capacity thing is a patriarchal meme and scheme designed to oppress women.
HC: I can’t tell if you’re joking.
LO: I’m woke, Howard. Eyes wide open.
HC: Still can’t tell. Have you noticed how down-toned Morrison is? He’s practically whispering.
LO: That won’t last.
McCullers orders Sonny Boys.
HC: This was Carson’s work drink. A large mug of hot tea and sherry. It’s what she kept by her typewriter. She’s approaching this bout as she would a new novel.
LO: Morrison has a taste. He doesn’t seem impressed.
HC: I don’t think he’s here to do anything resembling work.
JM: Hold on, hold on. Is that a crack against poets?
HC: He’s a poet now.
LO: It’s hard to gauge Morrison’s age, but it looks like he’s at his Contre-Rebel phase. About 25, starting to thicken up a bit. This is when he rebelled against the rebels, upsetting the hip crowd by largely abandoning pot and LSD for hard drinking and outrageous behavior.
JM: Oh, is that what I did?
LO: Yes, it is.
JM: And I thought I was just having a good time.
LO: Well, it’s plain you were Contre-Rebelling.
JM: Oh, well shut my mouth then.
Morrison orders Contre-Rebels.
LO: He just made this drink up. They’re triple moonshines topped up with grape Kool-Aid.
HC: I don’t grasp the metaphor. How do Kool-Aid and moonshine equate rebelling against—
JM: No, man, there’s no metaphor. It’s just a drink with a name.
LO: Okay, fine.
HC: Jim had a strong taste for moonshine.
LO: As did Carson.
HC: Jim sets the pace, but Carson is keeping up. I don’t get the sense that either is conforming to a strategy.
LO: They’re just doing their thing.
McCullers orders Sonny Boys.
LO: She’s waiting him out.
HC: A savvy move. Given time and tab, Morrison always starts breaking windows.
CM: What I’m doing is writing a book called Destroying Jim Morrison.
JM: I thought you were going to break me.
LO: She shrugs. She was always changing titles at the last minute.
JM: Do you think this whore’s spittle will cure blindness?
LO: Here we go.
JM: This sherry-crossed tea of yours.
CM: Drinking them is like slowly turning your face to the sun.
JM: Okay, mother dear. Let’s let the sunshine in.
HC: Let’s hope he doesn’t take that any further. You know about his mother issues.
LO: Pardon me, Howard, but the audience has begun chanting something. It sounds like, “Drink a Light My Fire.”
LO: A Light My Fire is a fruity mango drink with a topper of 151 rum which is set aflame. I think the Door’s guitar player invented it.
Audience: Drink it! Drink it!
JM: Fuck you!
LO: And now, as always, the audience is turning against Jim.
HC: He seems to like it that way.
Morrison orders double Screwdrivers.
LO: A Morrison favorite. He often had them for breakfast.
HC: He’s turning on his cruise control. He’d sit at a bar and drink 20 of these in an afternoon.
LO: But don’t forget his flip switch. He’ll appear perfectly sober for the first 20 drinks, then—wham!—he’ll go utterly berserk. He’ll keep drinking, but will become incredibly racist, sexist, obscene, a rabid beast who will viciously set upon anyone who falls under his gaze.
JM: Whoah, whoah, whoah. Let’s not get carried away.
HC: Yeah, but will we even get there? Can McCullers last 20 rounds?
LO: By reputation, she can. Drinking large men under the table was almost a hobby for her.
HC: Yeah, but those were literary-society types. So far she seems content to follow in Morrison’s wake. Jim sluices down the second half of his Screwdriver, and Carson slides in right behind him.
McCullers orders Sonny Boys.
HC: This match has become a classic Hare vs. Tortoise story. Carson plods along with her Sonny Boys, patiently waiting for Morrison to shoot off the track and crash and burn via disqualification.
LO: That sounds a little sexist to me. Why is everything she does a construct of what he does? Why can’t she order what she wants without it being shaded by the patriarchy?
HC: I’m saying she’s employing a strategy.
LO: Oh? Well, why not pass the mic to the woman instead of just making presumptive comments?
HC: I make comments because I’m a commentator.
CM: There’s no grand strategy. Just my usual drill.
JM: Oh, is this a drill?
CM: We’re just drinking.
JM: No, man, I get it. I know what the drill is. Isn’t that what we have here? The drill?
CM: Sure, let’s call it that.
JM: Well, I don’t like drills.
HC: Here we go.
LO: Morrison rises to his feet. He’s going to walk! The crowd is in turmoil! He can’t compete on a level playing field. He’s just not a competitor!
HC: No, but he is a stone egotist. He might not care about winning, but surely he wants to be the winner. If you know what I mean.
LO: I don’t.
CM: He’s saying Mr. Morrison doesn’t want a blue ribbon, but he wants everyone to think he deserves a blue ribbon.
HC: He’s sitting back down.
JM: You know, I do deserve a blue ribbon.
Morrison orders Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts.
HC: I guess he showed us.
LO: It was all just an ego play.
HC: We used to call that sort of thing “strategy.”
CM: You like the limelight, don’t you?
JM: You like the shadows. How does that make you better?
LO: This time Carson takes the lead, drinking down the pint in four swallows and planting it on the table like a flag.
HC: Morrison smiles, waits for the seven count, then pours it straight down his neck.
LO: I think he’s starting to realize he’s in for a fight.
McCullers orders double Old Crows, neat.
LO: Between book deals, during bouts of poverty, this is how Carson kept warm when there wasn’t any wood for the stove.
CM: Nothing is so musical as the sound of pouring bourbon for the first drink on a Sunday morning.
JM: (holding up his glass) What’s this story called?
CM: “Pillaged by Fire.”
HC: Is this a wise move? If you’re waiting for someone to careen off the tracks?
LO: Why are you always second-guessing women, Howard? A train needs a headful of steam to jump the track.
HC: Morrison just inhaled his glass of steam. Carson follows.
CM: You drink like the cabby’s outside honking his horn.
JM: Well, you never know when it’s going to be your last drink.
HC: Oh, I think we have a few more on deck.
Morrison orders triple Old Crows on the rocks.
HC: He sees her double and raises a triple.
LO: He was a known sexist. Always has to one-up the woman.
HC: This is a drinking contest.
LO: Yes, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be equality.
HC: Equality in what? Drink orders?
LO: I can’t explain it to you. Women have long—
CM: Stop speaking for me.
LO: I’m an ally, I’m just—
CM: I have my own mouth. I can put words together all by myself.
HC: Hah! Larry’s a sexist!
JM: He’s just trying to make the scene. He doesn’t actually believe in anything.
LO: To hell with all of you. I don’t need this.
McCullers orders triple Old Crows on the rocks.
HC: She calls his triple.
LO: Who cares?
HC: Are you sulking? Don’t you want to commentate?
JM: Pass the mic and let Rover take over.
HC: Have at it.
JM: Well, Howard, it looks like Carson has decided to step out of the sad shadow of complacency and ride the golden Crow highway. How far does that highway go? Are there dangerous curves ahead?
HC: A little fruity, but not bad.
JM: Hup! Here we go! Mr. Morrison has just let slip the triple Crows into his craw: Caw! Caw!
HC: And with that, Morrison lets slide the triple down his throat, and Carson, after a beat, tips hers up. And down!
JM: Looks like she only got half of it down on that first try, Howard. Will she try again?
HC: She does and gets it down on the eight count.
JM: Well done, my dear, now get this.
Morrison orders tall triple Chivas Regal and Cokes.
CM: Chivas? Why Chivas?
JM: Because Chivas is the best.
LO: Then why mix it with Coke?
JM: Because Chivas tastes like shit.
CM: My God, it’s exhausting drinking with you. Everything is a put-on.
LO: Contre-Rebel. Even with himself.
CM: You can get pretty twisted up playing that game.
JM: They love you because you’re a rebel, until you rebel against their brand of bullshit. Then you’re an asshole.
LO: A Contre-Rebel.
JM: I don’t remember them calling me that. It sounded more like “asshole.” Something sounds like . . .
LO: What was that? He’s mumbling. Has it been 20 drinks?
HC: Depends on how many he had before showing up.
LO: His whispers become muffled as his head lowers into his lap. Hold on! Is he done? Is he passed out?
HC: The ref leans in to check. It doesn’t look good.
LO: The Lizard King has gone into hibernation. The crowd slips into a stunned silence. Will the ref wave him out or—
JM: WAKE UP!
LO: Holy Christ! He just sprang out of his chair and shrieked like a satanic jack in the box! A chorus of dropped glasses shattered the silence as drinks leaped out of a hundred startled hands!
HC: Everyone jumped except Carson, who lights another Lucky and studies Morrison like he’s a spider somehow crawling from under her heel.
HC: I think he just flipped his legendary switch.
LO: Carson has to play it very coy now. All Morrison needs is a little room to run amok and disqualify himself, then the match is hers.
HC: Still standing, Morrison raises his glass and pours it down his throat.
LO: He’s going to throw the glass! Look out, Carson!
HC: Hold on. He catches himself and sets it on the table.
LO: And the ref’s already on the three count! Four!
HC: Carson, who, let’s be frank, is getting a little glassy-eyed, grabs her drink and practically throws it at her mouth.
REFEREE: Nine! Ten!
LO: She got it down. The ice almost choked her, but she got it down on the ten.
HC: I’m not so sure. The ref was going to call her out but her entourage sprang to their feet and screamed at him with a mighty roar. He hesitated just long enough. This is why the Clash needs instant replay.
LO: So, was Morrison’s crazy act just a ruse, from start to finish? Did he try to trick her?
HC: I wonder.
McCullers orders triple Old Crows, neat.
HC: She keeps up the pressure. Again, is this a wise move?
LO: Why nudge the crazy train off the tracks when you can blast it off with dynamite?
HC: Jim jumps to his feet. Expect another ruse.
JM: We want the bar and we want it . . .
HC: Wait for it.
JM: . . . NOW!
LO: Says the guy with a wide-open tab. What’s he going to demand next? Air?
JM: Hey man, hey plastic man, let me tell you something.
JM: No, just let me tell you something. Something pure and true.
LO: All right, go ahead.
JM: Just consider this: I’m ready to put in my order.
LO: First you have to finish—
HC: And he finishes it in one massive gulp!
LO: This time Carson is ready. She takes down a third, then another third, then the last of it on the seven count. He wasn’t going to surprise her this time.
HC: Yes, but she seems a little shaken. I don’t think gulping down booze is her usual style.
CM: It’s no sane person’s style. I’m drinking against a madman.
JM: Drinking Against a Madman. Best title yet.
Morrison orders PBR pints.
LO: It’s the most extraordinary thing, Howard. He rages forward, like a rabid dog frothing at the mouth, then pulls back at the last instant, as if he’s chained to something.
HC: His id chained to his super-ego, perhaps?
JM: Yeah, yeah, that’s it. My id is chained to my super-ego. You got it, man.
LO: A demonstration of his acting skills, more likely.
HC: Well, his drink order is clear enough. The mad dog is trying to catch his breath.
JM: I’m not talking about no demonstration, no revolution. I’m talking about having a good time.
HC: He stands up and faces the crowd.
JM: (shouting) First thing we’re going to do is take over the bars! Then we’re going to burn them down! Then . . .
LO: Yeah, that makes sense.
HC: The crowd roars, and Morrison stands trembling in the eye of the hurricane, directing the madness around him like a rattled storm king.
LO: The bartenders are starting to look a little rattled themselves. And then there’s Carson, calmly reposed in the eye of the storm, untouched and untouchable. And crafty. She just sank her beer.
HC: Morrison’s pint is still on the table! The ref is counting!
REF: Three! Four!
LO: Can Morrison even hear him above his own caterwauling?
HC: The crowd is screaming at him to turn around and finish his beer but he seems oblivious.
LO: It’s the perfect ending! Captivated by his own reflection, Narcissus does not hear the tiger! Six! Seven!
HC: Morrison pirouettes, snatching up his pint and—
HC: —sucks it down on the ten! That was razor close!
LO: Too close! The ref should have called him out.
HC: There would be a riot. Consciously or not, I think the ref was making amends for the 12th round. It was just another shuck by Jim, though a dangerous one.
JM: I’m at 25. Think I’ll make it to 30?
LO: Now we know how many he had before he got here. Eleven.
HC: For the first time, Carson seems upset. Like she’s finally a character in her story, instead of just a disinterested observer writing it down. She thought it was over.
LO: This is what he does. He pushes every button you have and sees if you light up or lock up. It looks like Carson’s starting to light up.
McCullers orders The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter cocktails.
HC: How literary.
LO: Named for her first, some say best, book. But what’s in it?
HC: Gin and sherry, shook up and poured over ice.
JM: Some people just call that a Sherry Martini. Listen, do you like people?
CM: (shrugging) Not habitually.
JM: I hate them. Don’t need them. Okay, I need them to make whiskey. But otherwise—highly overrated.
LO: The rock-star misanthrope. Makes you wonder why he got in the business.
HC: Have you noticed how both of their accents keep moving southward of the Mason-Dixon?
LO: And Morrison sounds like a child learning to read?
CM: Drinking always takes you home.
HC: She’s getting slurry. They’re like TVs with increasingly bad reception.
LO: Right! Except Carson’s signal is analog, she’s getting fuzzier and more out of focus, while Morrison’s signal is digital: he freezes up, he jerks spasmodically, his voice weirdly modulates.
HC: So who loses reception first? Who disappears into white noise? I honestly can’t decide.
Morrison orders Ramos Gin Fizzes.
LO: His hangover cure again. Is he winding down? Is Mr. Mojo Risin’ starting to set? Is the music over?
HC: I don’t think so. He smiles and casually sinks half his Fizz. While Carson . . . what is Carson doing?
LO: She’s fading out of focus. Her eyes are just slits.
HC: Have you noticed that Morrison suddenly seems . . . soberish?
LO: Carson’s entourage suddenly rises to their feet. They’re shouting in unison!
HC: They’re chanting, “Hurting! Hurting!” What could they mean?
LO: No, you sexist fool, they’re shouting, “Her turn! Her turn!”
HC: To order? She has to finish her drink first.
LO: I think they mean it in a broader sense.
HC: Broader? Broad-er? Who’s sexist now?
LO: That’s it. I’m done.
HC: Oh, sit down.
JM: I’ll take it from here, Howard.
HC: You might as well.
JM: You know what, Howie? I don’t think Morrison had 11 pre-match drinks. I don’t think he had any. He never flipped because he’s still four drinks away from 20.
HC: What about when you said, “I’m at 25, think I’ll make it to 30?”
JM: I think Jim was talking about his age, Howard.
HC: Morrison holds up his empty glass to the ref and, startled into action, he starts counting. Carson—well, Carson doesn’t seem to notice.
CM: For me, drinking . . . like writing . . . is a search for God.
HC: Well, she must think God is under the table because she just slid out of her chair to have a look.
JM: Nine! Ten! The referee waves her out! Jim Morrison has won! Oh boy!
McCullers: He fooled me. He got me to overcommit early. I thought I had a solid strategy, but he beat me with a brilliant bit of acting. The name of this story? “The False Idol and the Fool.”
Morrison: Carson thought she was writing a short story about me, but she was actually writing the most exciting chapter of her autobiography. Yeah!