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.
The Exhaustive Selection Process Explained
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.
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
Jack Kerouac: The undisputed champion boozer of the Beats, there is very little mystery about the hooching habits of author and poet Jack Kerouac. He tempered his mettle in the beat dives and roadhouses of mid-century America, he pounded bottles solo in the wilds of Big Sur, then honed his skills to a fine edge in the bars of Frisco Bay, leaving him with the beatific ability to chase a bottle of scotch with a tsunami of wine and still be able to recite poetry ‘˜til dawn. The only question is which Kerouac will show up: the footloose binger, the Big Sur boozer or the dilettante dharma bum?
The Build Up
Howard Cosell: It’s a match bathed in irony. On one side of the table we have an icon of the counterculture who was actually quite conventional in many ways, and on the other we have a staunch defender of law and order who was willing to break any rule you put in front of him.
Laurence Olivier: All true. I guess something should be said about the pre-match odds.
HC: It could have gone either way—because Nixon is such a wild card—but within minutes the odds jumped from dead even to a hefty 8-to-1 in favor of Nixon.
LO: They’ve done their research. For all his faults, Nixon possessed one of the most competitive personalities to ever show up on the world stage. And it doesn’t matter if it’s tiddlywinks, presidential campaigns or a drinking contest—Nixon does not like to lose and will rise—or stoop—to any extreme to get the win.
HC: Kerouac’s sensitive nature, on the other hand, has many tableside pundits comparing this contest to a bunny rabbit blundering into the den of a particularly vicious wolverine.
LO: Nixon’s enthusiasm is manifest: he showed up half an hour early and has since been moving through the crowd and pressing the flesh.
HC: Closely shadowed by a group of sharply-dressed and sharp-eyed young men who could be accountants. Or assassins.
LO: He pauses to give a quick speech to the crowd. He promises a short, victorious contest with honor. Big talk from a man who was a long shot to even participate in the tournament.
HC: His password into the contest—in my opinion—was the testimony of a single witness: Jack Gleason attested that after pounding Scotch with Nixon for eight straight hours the prez walked out “straight as a soldier.”
LO: That’s high praise indeed, considering Gleason won the last Clash rather handily. Hold on—there’s some laughter and groaning from the front of the room. And here comes Jack. Ten minutes late and trailed by a gang of what appears to be Buddhist beatniks, many wearing robes and all chanting some sort of —
HC: I can tell you where those groans are coming from: every bettor who took the long odds on Kerouac, hoping for any incarnation of Jack except the dharma bum you see before you.
LO: Take a look at the odds board! A last minute frenzy of heavy betting has locked in the final pre-match odds in at an astonishing 25-to-1 in favor of Nixon!
HC: Unprecedented! Kerouac and Nixon take their seats and the ref signals he’s ready to flip the coin.
(Kerouac wins the coin toss.)
HC: Did Nixon grumble something when it came up heads?
LO: It sounded like, “Coin flippers have always been against Richard Nixon.”And here’s another twist—after winning the toss, Kerouac unpockets his own coins and is now repeatedly dashing them on the table.
Richard Nixon: Put your nickels away, son, you’ve already won the toss.(Turning to his entourage) The kid’s hopped up on goofballs.
HC: Nixon doesn’t appear to realize he’s being recorded.
RN: What was that?
LO: Nothing, Mr. President. Done with his coin dashing, Kerouac consults a book. Ah. The I Ching. He seeks guidance from the Cosmos.
Jack Kerouac: (reading) “The Thunderstorm inseminates the swelling Lake, then moves on where the Lake cannot follow.”
HC: He parlays with his gang of hippies, there’s some impromptu chanting and bongo thumping, then—
Kerouac orders glasses of slightly-adulterated spring water.
HC: One minute into the match and it’s mauled by scandal—Jack Kerouac is trying to order two glasses of water.
LO: Outrageous behavior. He should be instantly disqualified.
HC: The ref tells him it has to have alcohol in it. Kerouac tells the barkeep to add one drop of pure grain alcohol to each glass of water.
LO: How very Zen. The contenders clink glasses and commence sipping.Water. A new low for the Clash!
Nixon orders bottles of Blatz beer.
HC: This could take a while.
LO: Compared to the last round this is a sledgehammer right hook.
HC: Nixon takes the tiniest of sips.
LO: Even more disturbing is the way he checks the level of the bottle after each sip, like he’s taking some sort of awful medicine.
HC: All high-level American politicians drink that way. At least in public.
LO: Well, it’s disgusting. It’s making my stomach turn.
RN: Nothing like a little beer to take the dust off a parched throat.
LO: Yes, because that’s why we’re here, right? For fuck’s sake, what the devil are we doing with these pussy willows? Couldn’t we find any milkmaids who wanted to have a go at the title?
HC: Settle down, Larry. Nixon doesn’t feel challenged yet, that’s all. It’ll heat up once he—and look, Jack finally has a taste of his beer. And another.
LO: That second “taste” took down half the bottle.
HC: Nixon, who never put his bottle down, puts it to his lips as Jack tilts his up for the kill.
LO: Nixon somehow manages to finish first. I swear to Christ he never tilted the bottle. He just sucked the beer out.
HC: Here goes Jack with his coins again.
LO: What shall the Cosmos order this time? Lemonade?
JK: (reading) “The Superior Person holds an inner Fire that ignites passion in every heart it touches, until all the world is enlightened and aflame.”
LO: That actually sounds promising.
HC: There seems to be some disagreement as to what that passage means. Kerouac squabbles with his dharma bums, then finally cuts them off with a sharp chop of his hand.
Kerouac orders triple Johnny Walker Blacks on the rocks.
LO: That’s more like it! The Cosmos asks for fire, and Jack rains down triple Johnny Bs!
HC: Johnny Bs?
LO: Get hep, Howie.
HC: Huh! Well, both men were hep to Scotch.
LO: Jack’s entourage plainly is not, judging by the grumbles and angry finger snapping.
HC: They probably consider it bourgeois. And I thought finger-snapping was like clapping.
LO: HoCo, you are the end.
RN: That’s a fine choice of liquor for a man of your appearance.
JK: My appearance?
RN: Don’t get me wrong, son. I have great respect for the unemployed lumberjacks of America. Even the ones who smell like a hen house.
HC: You know, he could be mistaken for an unemployed lumberjack. Both men take the final measure from their glasses. Nixon sighs theatrically.
RN: Well, you don’t win campaigns with a diet of dishwater and milk toast.
Nixon orders Silver Bullets.
HC: Dick Nixon is furious!
LO: He asked for Silver Bullets and the bartender brought back cans of Coors Light.
HC: Hold on—I’m getting word from our research team that Silver Bullets are what Nixon called his very dry martinis.
LO: Further complicating matters, Jack Kerouac has already chugged his Coors Light.
HC: While Nixon refuses to drink his. The ref is counting. Six, seven—
RN: You won’t get away with this!
HC: I agree with Nixon. A man should get the drink he wants, not what the bartender thinks he—
RN: Bartenders have always been against Richard Nixon!
LO: Nine! Ten! It’s over! The ref reaches for the right hand of Kerouac, who seems to have started in on Nixon’s Coors Light.
HC: The fix is in! Don’t let them kick you around, Dick!
LO: The ref is surrounded by Nixon’s fixers.
HC: Kill the ref!
LO: Good heavens! Calm down, everyone! Can we get a ruling? Where’s the rules committee?
HC: They’re drunk at the bar! Chaos! Riotous chaos!
(An emergency meeting of the Clash of the Tightest Rules Committee is held. Kerouac’s win is rescinded and the round restarted with Silver Bullet martinis.)
LO: In my opinion, Nixon should be made to drink two Coors Lights.
HC: Hold on now. It wasn’t Nixon’s fault the bartender is in cahoots with the liberal establishment. And who told Kerouac to drink Nixon’s beer?
LO: Kerouac’s not complaining, so the point is moot.
HC: Whew. That would’ve started a riot. Now, these are very dry martinis. The olives have been marinated in vermouth but otherwise these are chilled Plymouth gins neat.
LO: I expected them sooner. Nixon was a martini fanatic while Kerouac thought them staid and boring.
RN: Have a drink of that, son. That’ll put a button in your collar. No, no, you’re supposed to sip it.
JK: Walk slow in winter? Who does that, alley cat? Walk fast in winter, walk slow in summer.
HC: And with that Kerouac gives the coup de grÃ¢ce to his badly wounded martini.
RN: Damn kids.
LO: Nixon—again he’s using some kind of lip-suction maneuver—sucks his glass dry without tilting it.
HC: Once again Kerouac tosses his coins, though less enthusiastically it seems to me.
JK: (reading) “Thunder fills the Heavens with its awful roar, not out of pride, but with integrity; if it did less, it would not be Thunder.”
Kerouac orders water glasses of Thunderbird wine.
HC: Okay, that makes a kind of sense.
LO: And no real surprise—Jack had a fine appreciation of the proletariat charms—and price—of street wines.
HC: Wading right in, Kerouac nonchalantly sloshes down half of the tall glass.
JK: Glug a slug from that jug, ya big lug.
LO: Nixon rushes to catch up—
HC: He has a taste and he draws back with horror, his face twisted with disgust.
JK: The lug don’t like that jug. No, he don’t want no slugs from that jug.
LO: Nixon fancied himself a connoisseur of fine wines. Kerouac may have stumbled upon a tactical advantage.
RN: I’ve spent some time on the road myself, Jack. Did you know I’m the only president to visit all 50 states during his presidency?
LO: He’s stalling
RN: Where did you say you were from, son?
JK: I grew up in Lowell, Mass.
RN: (leaning to an aide) Get Kissinger on the horn. Tell him to order a B-52 strike on Lowell, Mass.
LO: A very un-Zen flash of anger lights Kerouac’s eyes.
JK: Bomb my mom? Don’t bomb my mom. My mom voted for you.
RN: Bomb your mom? I’d never do something as despicable as that.
Nixon orders B-52 Strikes.
LO: He has a rather black shade of humor.
HC: And a willingness to try new things. The B-52 Strike is the traditional B-52—Gran Ma, Kahlúa and Baileys—topped with Bacardi 151, set aflame and dropped into a half-filled pint of cider—in this case local favorite and aeronautically-correct Glider Cider.
LO: I’m trying to imagine how these taste.
HC: His eyes full of steel, Nixon sinks his with a single tip of the glass.
LO: Kerouac be-bops along right behind him.
Rounds Seven through Twelve
Kerouac orders three water glasses of Thunderbird wine, Nixon orders three B-52 Strikes.
HC: Kerouac’s cheap-wine guerrilla raids, which initially seemed to offend Nixon’s palette, are now just quiet interludes between the rumbling bomber strikes. Someone’s got to crack.
LO: This brutal form of warfare is definitely having an effect.
HC: On both sides. Kerouac’s getting blurry, Nixon’s getting slurry, but neither are having any trouble laying them back in one go.
LO: They’ve become addicted to war!
HC: And here’s another first for the Clash: Protest chants and signs have arisen from Jack’s entourage. “Ban the bomb!” and “Stop the Bombing!” seem the most common messages.
LO: One sign, whose bearer looks suspiciously like one of Nixon’s fixers wearing a wig and a sort of hippie outfit, says, “Redact Jack’s Flak Attack!”
HC: Are the signs and chants part of a grand Kerouac strategy? They do seem to be having an agitating effect on Nixon.
RN: Once again the press gets it wrong. I’m just trying to end this conflict with honor, and this dingbat just keeps drawing it out. If he’d just stop this Thunderwine nonsense we could go back to normalizing relations.
Kerouac orders B-52 Strikes.
LO: Jack strikes back! His guerrilla air force takes flight.
HC: He seems to have developed a taste for the drink.
JK: It’s poetry in a glass.
HC: It’s bad news for Nixon.
LO: Glass in hand, Nixon has slipped into the crowd where he launches into an impromptu speech.
RN: Once this war is over, I hope you good Americans will let Richard Nixon buy the drinks for the rest of the night. You just put them on Richard Nixon’s tab.
HC: The crowd roars, drowning out the bongos and beatniks. That’s one way of getting the citizenry on your side.
LO: He’s crafty. And generous. Looking at this mob of juiceheads, it’ll be a tall tab.
HC: I get the feeling that Nixon just doesn’t want to win, he wants everyone to want him to win.
Nixon orders double Maotais neat.
LO: Only Nixon can go to China, as they say, and he brings back a high-proof powerhouse.
HC: The name might bring to mind a Chi-Com Tiki drink, but it is in fact a 110 proof member of the baijiu family of Chinese liquors.
LO: This is a gamble on Nixon’s part. He has some experience with this crazy juice, but wasn’t it’s biggest fan. Hence the large charge.
HC: Large charge?
LO: Doubles, HoCo. Turn up your stereo, man!
HC: So, do you just jump on every bandwagon that happens by?
RN: It so happens I have a great appreciation for this . . . uh . . . maotai. Me, Mao and good ol’ Zhou used to knock back this stuff by the pitcher.
HC: Maybe so, but he still hasn’t brought it anywhere near his mouth.
RN: It’s a Chinese custom that the guest should always drink first.
HC: Jack ventures the entire glass into his mouth.
LO: And nearly spits it up! His body shakes like a machine with a broken sprocket.
HC: The liquid fire is stalled in his mouth. His body’s natural reflex against swallowing poison chokes his throat while sheer determination keeps it from shooting out his mouth like a geyser blast! Nixon jumps to his feet and shoots V signs into the air.
LO: Cool your jets, Dick. Even if Jack spits, you have to finish your hit to make the scene.
HC: Kerouac, his eyes awash with bitter tears, squeezes, squeezes, squeezes it down his throat. He did it!
HC: Five! Six! Seven! Now it’s Nixon who’s paralyzed with fear! No chance he’ll get that poison down in one go. So long, President Nix—
LO: Nixon knocks it back! His face flushes bright, his
eyes squeeze tight, his jowls get in a fight! He looks like a meanly-drawn caricature smeared with blood, he—
HC: A small, brave smile creeps onto his face then vanishes. He raises a single thumb. It’s not coming back up. Nixon survives!
(In between rounds, Nixon proposes and both combatants sign a Strategic Liquor Limitations Treaty, banning neat drinks over 100 proof.)
Kerouac orders bourbonaroonis.
LO: Kerouac’s name for a double bourbon and ginger ale on the rocks, a roadhouse favorite.
RN: I don’t mind these.
JK: After those glasses of kerosene it tastes like dew off the melon.
RN: That’s right, son. You know, you’re not such a bad fellow. You’ve just fell in with a group of . . . uh. . . hoodlums, and they turned you into a hoodlum.
HC: Have you noticed nearly everything Nixon says is passive-aggressive? And look here: the hippies have put away their protest signs and now sit on the floor, hands linked and ohming.
LO: Why not? Nothing else has worked, they might as well try to meditate their man to victory.
RN: Don’t trust those bums, Jack. People are only your friends if they think you can do something for them. Or to them.
HC: And Nixon should know.
RN: Here’s the thing, Jack—you kids are looking for the Big Truth in your screwy religions and crazy drugs when all the time the Big Truth is right in front of you.
JK: It is? Well, lay it on me, bodhisattva. What is the Big Truth?
HC: Nixon spreads his hands in front of him. Now, is he saying booze is the Big Truth or—
LO: Or is Richard Nixon jiving that Richard Nixon is the Big Truth?
JK: (laughing) Nixon, Nixon, Nixon—does Nixon know why the caged bird sings?
RN: Uh, does it want some bird seed, Jack?
JK: No, no, no, Nixon. The bird sings because he wants some bird, see?
RN: Yes, bird seed.
JK: No, bird. See? There’s your Big Truth.
RN: (turning to an aide) Damn kid has lost his mind. Let’s see if I can set him down the straight path.
Nixon orders triple 20-Year-Old Ballantine Scotches neat.
RN: You probably won’t recognize this high note, young man.
LO: Silly Babbitt. Jack x-rayed Scotch as the ginchiest—
JK: I recognize you now!
RN: Well, good for you, son. Maybe you’re not as—
JK: You’re the Holy Goof of D.C.! I saw you snouting down Pennsylvania Avenue, snooping in garbage cans, looking for that last good drop of belly wine.
LO: Go, man, go!
RN: (to an aide) I’m telling you, the kid’s hopped to his eyelids on goofballs.
JK: Yeah, yeah, you showed your belly to the goat man, and ol’ goat man said, “Why show your belly when all I wanted to see was your mind?”
LO: Yeah, why, wine belly?
Kerouac orders wine-spodiodis.
HC: This is turning into a Dr. Seuss story.
LO: It’s an old jazz-man standard. It’s port wine and a large charge of whiskey.
JK: No, no, that’s not it. Here’s how you do it: you put some port in your pail. Then you wish whiskey would follow and it does. Then you finish that gone sandwich with another slice of port, see? A nice jacket for all that bad whiskey.
HC: What difference does—
LO: Let it go, HoCo. You’ll never get it.
HC: And you do?
LO: I x-ray all, Paul.
RN: I want to file a formal protest against the bartender. I have never witnessed such outrageous, vicious and distorted drink-mixery in all the days of my life.
HC: That is a very serious charge. This is the first time in the history of the Clash that anyone has challenged the character of our bar staff! Are you suggesting he made your drink stronger than—
RN: No, I am saying he made it weaker.
Nixon orders glasses of ChÃ¢teau Lafite-Rothschild 1918.
HC: Speaking of Dr. Suess, I think Nixon is probing for Jack’s Green Eggs and Ham.
LO: Martinis made Jack drink fast. B-52s Strikes boomeranged back. Scotch plays like hay for a horse. Maotais swing like a pendulum do, but who’s bubbly going to bum to?
HC: Are you doing some kind of beat poetry thing?
LO: You are not only square, Howie, you are cubed.
HC: Nixon is laughing at you.
RN: It’s a 1918, you idiot. 1918.
LO: Okay, now I dig it. Super Square here ordered the sharpest cardboard sword in the world.
RN: (to an aide) Tell Haldeman to work up a file on this Laurence Olivier guy. I’m starting to think he’s a pinko.
Kerouac orders Desolation Angel cocktails.
HC: A Kerouac favorite, it consists of orange juice, ginger ale and moonshine.
LO: We do not need to consume the moon. Just lick the dust from it’s face.
HC: Thanks for the insight, Larry-O. Both men are in bad shape. Kerouac’s face has gone slack, while Nixon’s has tightened up. Either could head south at a moment’s notice.
Nixon orders glasses of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1918.
JK: The wheel of the quivering meat conception turns in the void, expelling ticks, porcupines, elephants, people, stardusts, fools, nonsense.
LO: Right! Right!
HC: Nixon seems—
LO: No, no, nothing else needs to be said.
Kerouac orders double Knockando single malt scotches neat.
HC: Huh. I wonder if Kerouac knows that single malt scotch from the Speyside region was Nixon’s traditional nightcap, the signal that is was time to go beddy-bye.
LO: Kerouac knows the night! Kerouac goes—
HC: Sheer luck would be my bet. Well, look who’s standing behind Kerouac. Your old friend Hunter Thompson.
LO: Nooooooo! I will not continue until that lunatic leaves!
HC: Don’t blow your stack, Larry-O. The Doc is a real gone dude.
LO: The hell you say.
HC: And . . . scene!
HC: You dropped your beatnik act.
LO: I’m dropping everything until that madman vacates the premises.
Hunter S. Thompson: Larry! I thought we had an understanding.
LO: The less I understand about you the better.
HC: Hunter’s got something in a brown paper bag. Is he sneaking Jack a jug of street wine? Or is it drugs?
LO: Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s a huge pistol. Hunter Thompson is trying to slip Jack Kerouac a massive revolver.
JK: I’m sick! My soul is sick!
HC: The ref seizes the gun. I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that he’s trying to pass a competitor a loaded pistol, or how clumsy the attempt was.
HST: So it’s okay for Nixon to slip that psychopath Doc Holliday a shiv, but I can’t arm this defenseless poet with a .44 magnum? Is that what you’re telling me?
HC: That’s what we’re telling you.
JK: My soul is sick! I’m as low as the lowliest river lagoon. Bring down the apocalypse, level this shanty flat!
RN: You heard him. You heard what he said.
Nixon orders triple Maotais.
HC: He’s violated his own treaty!
LO: Is that legal? They both signed—
HST: Are you fucking kidding? Do you think a stone-cold thug like Richard Nixon cares about legalities?
LO: Gripping the table tightly, Nixon rises to his feet. He’s giving some kind of rambling Patton-style speech.
HC: He was a big fan of the movie.
LO: And he throws the triple down his throat! Boom!
HC: Do you know what this is? It’s a general calling a nuclear strike on his own overrun position, hoping it kills his attackers before it kills him.
LO: Nixon is frozen solid. Is he alive? Someone check his pulse!
HC: Dead or alive, the ref is counting. Three! Four!
HST: Goddamn it, Jack, drink your medicine! You can’t let this fucking mutant win!
LO: Jack unsteadily grips his glass.
HC: Eight! Nine!
LO: Kerouac sinks it on the ten count! It’s down!
HC: And so is he!
LO: He’s up! He’s wrestling with his chair, he—
HC: He’s down again! Kerouac is flat on the floor! Nixon collapses into his chair, more or less alive! The President stops the poet cold in the twenty-second round!
Richard Nixon wins by PO.
RN: It’s not suicide if you’re tougher than the bullet.
JK: Stop slapping me. Take a five out of my wallet and go get me a poor-boy of Tokay wine. I’m ready to read my poems.