The wine of kings: a history of dissolute despots

Inebriated emperors, sozzled caesars and pickled pharaohs. Many of history’s legendary rulers were also fabled drinkers.

With empire-builders, it would seem that an insatiable thirst for power is often accompanied by an equally limitless thirst for booze.  

Alexander the Great’s drinking feats were almost as famous as his military derring-do. The Macedonian king, who built an empire stretching from Greece to India, once killed a friend with a spear during a drinking bout. After he sobered up, he wept for three days for what he’d done. Most of us are acquainted with such drunkard’s remorse, although very few of us (luckily) would have it on such a scale. 

Macedonians were legendary drinkers, even among their contemporaries. They drank their wine undiluted with water, a practice their Athenian neighbours considered decidedly uncouth. At that time Greece produced the best wines in the world, so Alexander had his pick of the crop.

As a way of promoting good relations with the conquered Persians, Alexander organised a wine-drinking competition between his soldiers and the locals. Of the 40 contestants, 35 died during play so to speak (probably of alcohol poisoning). Promachus, one of Alexander’s foot soldiers, was declared the winner after downing four gallons of wine. He too died soon after.

Not surprisingly, academics think Alexander was a raging alcoholic, which ultimately cut his life short at 32. He came down with a fever (which some historians attribute to a massive drinking session he had with one of his admirals); but, rather than glugging water to slake his thirst while ill, he insisted on having wine instead. Soon after he was an ex-emperor.

The rollin’ Romans

Julius Caesar was partial to a glass of wine, and, perhaps not surprisingly, his favourite was mamertino, considered to be the soldier’s wine and named after Mars, the God of War.

Ancient Romans took their love of wine from the Greeks, whose culture they revered. Caesar also encouraged the establishment of vineyards, for defensive purposes. Not because he hoped their produce might waylay attackers, but because he thought farmers would so hate the thought of losing their vines, on which they’d worked so hard, that they would defend them to the hilt – thereby showing himself to have an uncanny insight into the average winemaker’s psyche.

Caesar’s one-time mistress Cleopatra also enjoyed a tipple. She and her lover, Mark Anthony, established a wine club in Alexandria called the Inimitable Livers, which was known for its hedonism and debauchery. It had nightly feasts and wine binges, after which the two would don disguises and play pranks on people in the street – a precursor to the Bullingdon Club?

Here come the hungover hordes

Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan’s favourite tipple was arkhi, a distilled version of kumis –  fermented mare’s milk. They used to drink it like their mother’s milk, which might explain why they were so angry. But it certainly made them tough, as the Mongols created the largest empire in the world. Attila, however, died from a nosebleed suffered on his wedding night – to his sixth bride admittedly.

Bismarck – as big as a battleship

“The Iron Chancellor” had enormous appetites, including drinking wine with every meal – even breakfast. He was also a notorious hypochondriac, but the diet he was put on by his doctors wasn’t exactly ascetic, consisting of ‘only’ soup, a fish, roast meat, and three large seagulls’ eggs – all washed down by lashings of Burgundy.

He was a champion of German wine and would unwind from forging modern-day Germany by drinking barrels of fine Rhine wine before fasting. But he drew the line at sekt, his country’s sparkling wine. At a dinner with Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bismarck took a sip before swiftly putting down his glass, declaring that he couldn’t drink any more. But drinking sekt is patriotic, the Kaiser said. "Your majesty," Bismarck replied, "my patriotism stops at my stomach."

Napoleon – little man, large thirst

Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps the epitome of the wine-loving empire-builder. “Not tonight Josephine” certainly didn’t apply when it came to his enjoyment of fine wines.

He, like Winston Churchill, was a Champagne devotee and once remarked: “In victory you deserve Champagne; in defeat you need it.” Who could disagree with him?

Bonaparte loved Burgundy wine. I can appreciate why: a bottle of Fixin Premièr Cru “Clos Napoleon” 2015 from Domaine Gelin, drank at one of the village’s restaurants within touching distance of the vines, was one of my wine highlights of last year.

Boney was also partial to Chambertin wines, claiming that “nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.” I wonder if he uncorked a bottle after the Battle of Waterloo? 

During his final exile on the island of St. Helena, the former French emperor and his staff whiled away their days getting well and truly sozzled, it would seem. They enjoyed a daily allowance including a bottle of Champagne, 10 bottles of claret, half a bottle of Madeira, and 31 bottles of “Cape Wine” – showing he was an early advocate of South African wines. Napoleon adored Vin de Constance, the sweet, nutty dessert wine of South Africa’s Constantia region. He had had nearly 300 gallons of it shipped to him yearly and it was the last thing to touch his lips on his deathbed.


Drink like a despot

If you fancy tasting life as a dictator, in liquid form at least, then you have plenty of choices.

Kweichow Moutai. This brand of baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquor made from fermented sorgum was Mao Zedong’s favourite drink. It’s not meant to be a pleasant experience: it’s reputed to smell like paint stripper, while most who drink it screw their faces up in pain, while some even yell out involuntarily.

Mateus Rosé. Portugal’s most famous export after Cristiano Ronaldo, it became synonymous with British dinner tables in the 1980s and was Saddam Hussein’s favourite drink.

Johnny Walker whisky. A firm favourite among dictators. Muammar Gaddafi couldn’t get enough of it, while 500 bottles of it were ordered for Robert Mugabe’s 85th birthday – along with 2000 bottles of vintage Champagne.

Hennessy cognac. Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s autocrat, loved this so much he spent £700,000 on bottles of it each year.

Bordeaux. Pol Pot, former leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, was partial to vin rouge while a student in Paris. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un boasted of having drunk ten bottles of Bordeaux during one dinner.

Khvanchkara. Stalin was reputedly given a vodka-soaked blanket instead of a dummy as a baby. But, it was this semi-sweet red dessert wine from Georgia that was meant to have been his favourite drink and was obligatory at parties he threw – guests knew better than to say no when the drinks tray came around.


  • Word on the grapevine