It is 9am. I pour myself a generous measure of Fernet-Branca, the Italian liqueur much loved by British chefs including Fergus Henderson (co-founder of the Michelin-star St John), who famously likes a stiffener before breakfast.
Wow. Fergus may call it a medicinal infusion of selected blossoms and rare aromatic herbs, but it’s 40% alcohol and tastes like witch’s mouth-wash.
I glance down at my muesli and feel a little queasy.
Welcome to my week of drinking like a Boomer.
The older generation has perfected the art of perma-drinking. A tot before breakfast, a brightener here, a livener there, and a snifter before supper. Nothing so inelegant as getting drunk, mind, but a steady infusion of sticky drinks, fine wines, and aperitifs. Each tipple complementing the next. Just enough to keep morale topped up.
I love the occasional boozy lunch (almost a dying art these days). But these days I prepare for it carefully, making sure I’ve hit all work deadlines first. I’ll fill up on the carbs, and stick to one type of drink. By 5pm I’m reluctantly sobering up and replying to shouty work emails.
Meanwhile, my Boomer friends (who I realise had far less wine than me at lunch) are hailing taxis and heading back to the flat for a nap, a snifter, then proper drinks somewhere fun.
They know how to pace themselves beautifully, while I feel slightly grubby as I take the Victoria Line.
So when I was asked by my editor to try out a week of perma-drinking alongside my normal work life, I faltered. Would the “medicinal” liqueurs, the robust timely wine, the warm hit of the digestif kill or cure? The clue is most perma-drinkers are retired on generous index-linked pensions. No one shouts at them any more.
There’s a proud history of perma-drinkers. Winston Churchill always had a glass of whisky by his side. The Queen Mother would start the day with a Dubonnet and gin. They died aged 90 and 101 respectively.
My mother (who celebrated her 87th birthday last week) always has a coffee table adorned with glasses of coloured liquid (orange-flavoured gin, Prosecco, brandy, the occasional Snowball) each covered with a table mat. I’ve never seen her inebriated. She barely finishes a glass. But she appreciates the sense of ritual.
But the king of the perma-drinkers was surely Lord Lawson. At his memorial last week, it became clear just how much the larger-than-life former chancellor enjoyed his retirement. Visitors to his house in Gascony recalled his cry “It’s floc o’clock” when their host would offer generous libations of the local fire water just after breakfast, not to mention copious quantities of vin rouge.
As he cheerfully told his doctor, his routine involved “two Pernods before lunch, then at lunch a few glasses of red wine and an Armagnac”. More Pernods in the afternoon, then some more red with supper and an Armagnac before bed”.
Told he was dying last April, Lord Lawson dined on figs with prosciutto and mozzarella with “several glasses of red wine, a final Armagnac before bed… and five minutes later he was gone”.
Respect, sir. Just reading the list of drinks makes me feel exhausted. Yet Lord Lawson had a neoclassical stone house with a swimming pool in south-west France. Everyone came to his gaff. He didn’t have to deal with late-night buses or expensive taxis home.
So for my perma-drinking test in Peckham, south London, I prepare like an athlete, buying bottles of green and amber liquid. I set my phone alarm every few hours to make sure I keep topping up. This is the drinking Olympics after all.
And a routine quickly emerges. After my 9am scented hairball, I sit down at my desk to work. I must admit I feel slightly invigorated but need to check the spelling on my emails carefully. When the alarm rings at 11am, I start guiltily. By now Fergus Henderson would be on to a glass of Madeira.
Lunch is a microwaved baked potato with a crisp glass of Sancerre. At first, I felt gleeful. But slowly I start to dread it. There’s something wonderful about delayed gratification. Now drinking is my homework.
I realise if I’m to survive I need advice from my older friends.
“Things that make you and everyone around you happy add to the gaiety of nations and are therefore a good thing,” declares food writer, Elisabeth Luard, 81 (author of 20 cookery books and now her Cookstory newsletter on Substack) who averages about 34 units a week.
“I’m a sybaritic drinker myself – give me a Negroni and I’m away on a beach in Sicily in the depths of a London winter. I’m perfectly capable of diluting a glass of Châteauneuf do Pape with a slug of water if that’s what works for me (usually because it’s the middle of the day and I have a deadline).”
These days she drinks for the memory as much as for pleasure. She also weight-lifts, does online Pilates and Zumba in the park and observes dry January. Don’t be fooled, the older generation has stamina.
Back in Peckham, I’m feeling lonely with my Fernet-Braca. I need company. So I call my friend Paddy Renouf, grey fox and cultural curator of London, who regularly squires Kelsey Grammer and David Soul about town.
Paddy suggests a glass of merlot at gentleman’s-club Boisdale Belgravia. As soon as we enter the Georgian townhouse, with its Scottish-themed decor and secret cigar terrace, I begin to understand the perma-drinking ethos.
It’s 3.15pm and gents in braces are leisurely sipping wine. No one is drunk, but everyone is merry. You simply can’t be miserable in a room that’s painted bright red and adorned with antlers and old Masters. Life outside simply falls away.
Paddy appreciates the “heightened Christmas Day morning atmosphere” of people indulging in very nice wine. “Provided you drink for the warm pleasure, the dopamine hit, rather than the results of stress.”
I wave Paddy goodbye and meet a 70-something friend for pre-drinks and supper (interesting how teens and Boomers are the only ones with the stamina for pre-drinks). She orders two flutes of champagne. But I notice she sips carefully, while I bolt mine in one.
Back home again, I’m longing for bed. But my alarm reminds me I need a reviving nightcap. The cat yawns.
After a week of this mild hedonism, my blood pressure has gone from “normal”, to Grade 1 hypertension. My 7am swims have fallen by the wayside. I’ve started eating truffles for elevenses. Booze always makes me crave sugar.
What has happened to my life? How can these older reprobates be so healthy with all this endless boozing? Nigel Lawson was 91 when he died so his daytime drinking habit didn’t seem to do him much harm; while Fergus Henderson credits his carefully honed drinking regime with helping him live with Parkinson’s.
What do health experts think? Is there a level (like a daily sherry) that won’t cause much harm? Is perma-drinking better than bingeing?
I turn to semi-retired GP, Dr Chris Browne, who is married to the writer and comedian Helen Lederer, so it’s fair to say he’s attended his fair share of parties. He has good news.
“There was a fantastically encouraging survey done as part of a research project from San Diego where they looked at people who were 85-plus and found that they could divide them into a group who regularly had a couple of glasses of wine a day, and those who had nothing.
“One of the results of the survey was that people 85-plus who drank two glasses a day were less likely to have dementia, or cognitive impairment than people who didn’t drink.
“But when you analyse the group they were relatively well off, with good nutrition, quite keen on health, so basically there were lots of other factors. But it was significant that this group did well. And so presumably, Nigel Lawson was in this group where drinking steadily, not excessively, enables you to function well.”
But before I celebrate too much, he hits me with the bad news.
“Alcohol is a poison. And one of the many functions of the liver is to detoxify poison. So if you take too much of it for too long, then obviously the liver can’t cope and ends up failing, or scarring, or you get fatty liver. The other big danger is that it seems to encourage irregularity of the heart. But of course, alcohol and its relationship with an individual is very individual.”
As a rule of thumb, he explains, most people will metabolise about one unit an hour of alcohol, bearing in mind that these days a medium glass of wine contains two units. And a large bottle of wine (nine units) will take 10 hours to get rid of. So it’s probably better to be a slow and steady drinker than bingeing once a week, although experts say giving your liver a total break from alcohol from time to time is also a good idea.
Perma drinkers never get hangovers, of course. Unless something has gone very wrong. But Dr Akhil Anand, an addiction psychiatrist with the Cleveland Clinic, admits he is alert to red flags. Why would a man like Lord Lawson need to drink so much?
“Drinking in the morning is always a red flag. Looking forward to those drinks could be craves. People who drink every day may not look tipsy because their bodies have become tolerant of their alcohol content. But even one drink can be a lot for older people. Your liver and kidneys slow down, you have different blood plasma levels.”
But many Boomers do in fact, practice moderation.
Jennifer Sharp, former restaurant editor of Harper’s Bazaar, often works as a secret diner, reviewing restaurants for guidebooks. She has clever tips to avoid getting blotto. She’ll order a carafe – rather than single glasses – so she can top up slowly herself. And she has no time for testing menus with paired wines.
“I drink less and better these days. I’m also very aware of the alcoholic content (ABV) of wine. Back in the day we’d go to wine bars and drink huge 250ml glasses of wine that was 14.5 ABV. Whereas these days, I’ll ask my wine merchant or the sommelier in the restaurant about the ABV because a lot of people don’t want to drink strong wine anymore.”
When so many workers feel they can’t justify a lunch break, it’s nice that a generation of bon viveurs still insist on a proper punctuation mark to the day.
Eating at your desk isn’t lunch, says Trevor Gulliver, who co-founded St John with Fergus nearly 30 years ago. “It’s just food intake.”
On a blue sky day, a peregrination around London’s Smithfield at noon with a glass of champagne is one of the sustaining joys of life, he insists. “Champagne isn’t just for weddings. It refreshes the spirits and gets you set for the day.”
The older you are, the more important these rituals become, he believes. “You meet old friends and mark the passing of those who are no longer at the table.”
So dear Boomers, after a week of following in your footsteps, what have I learned? That I need to drink slower and savour the moment, and that I’m probably not ready yet for the self-discipline of all-day drinking.
But, trust me, I’m grateful you’re out there paving the way.