Drinking in the Bar Where Winston Churchill Ran Up a $100,000 Tab
Gin in Marrakech
I had never, nor have I since, experienced so heady a sweep of history and atmosphere entering a hotel lobby as I did when I first crossed the threshold of La Mamounia in Marrakech. It was 1985, and unless you were a Getty or a Rolling Stone, Morocco was a quirkily far-flung place to travel, especially for young ladies from Boston like me. I had ventured to Marrakech on my parents’ coattails. My father is a cardiologist whose work, at the time, allowed him the privilege of traveling periodically to the kingdom. So they invited me, their youngest daughter, to join them for a week at the Mamounia.
When I arrived, I swooned at the dusky interior light, the fountains that spilled into pools strewn with rose petals, the pomegranate-red Berber carpets and the detailed woodwork on the lobby columns. I headed to the bar and in a brazen act of heartfelt cliché, ordered a coupe of the house champagne; Taittinger, I believe. My parents soon joined me. Dad is a Coca Cola kind of guy, but Mom ordered a gin and tonic.
I had read Edith Wharton’s On Morocco and a couple of books by Paul Bowles, the indisputable bard of the far western reaches of the Maghreb. But it was not them I channeled as I sipped in the Piano Bar. It was Winston Churchill.
Some hotels are forever graced by the presence of its most illustrious guest, and Churchill’s spirit lives on at the Mamounia. He fell in love with the place in 1935 and wrote beautiful descriptions of the snow-clad Atlas Mountains visible beyond his room. “The hotel [is] one of the best I have ever used. I have an excellent bedroom and bathroom with a large balcony twelve foot deep, looking out on a truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives,” he reflected in a letter to his wife Clementine. He returned often to paint the changing light on the mountains, setting up his easel in the Mamounia gardens amid rosebushes and 400-year-old olive trees. In 1943, he brought Franklin Roosevelt to see his favorite haunt when they escaped to Marrakech following the 1943 Casablanca Conference. Most notably, Churchill decamped to La Mamounia in 1947 to work on his memoirs. His entourage occupied an entire floor for five weeks, and their drinks bill exceeded $100,000. Years later in the Piano Bar, I pretended I could discern a faint remnant of Sir Winston’s cigar smoke, and we saluted him that day.
I returned to Morocco many times after that first trip and fell in love with the country. When I recently stayed there after almost twenty years, the hotel had been beautifully renovated. At last, La Mamounia has become what it was meant to be when it was built in 1923: impeccable, glorious, grander than ever.
After a walk through the beautifully unchanged gardens—20 acres of orange blossoms, bougainvilleas, and Barbary figs—I head for the Piano Bar. Only now, it’s the Churchill Bar, a lush space with an elegant barman behind the comptoir, above which spanned original 1930s frescoes of jazz musicians, dimmed perhaps by eight decades of smoke. With a dish of salty Moroccan almonds to urge on thirst, I order the obvious: The Sir Winston Churchill Cocktail.
The drink is made with gin strained over crushed marjoram from the Mamounia garden, shaken and poured into the glass. The bartender pours champagne over the herb-infused gin. The result is fresh and smooth, and the marjoram a delicate surprise. “It symbolizes Morocco and its aromatic richness,” Nicolas Everrard tells me later. He oversees the Mamounia bars and created the Winston Churchill Cocktail for the hotel’s 90th anniversary in 2013. “I chose this herb for its finesse, its subtlety, and for its ability to complement gin.”
I ask Lahcen, the bar manager, if he will show me the herb garden. It is just past dark, the air is scented with the honeyed perfume of flowers, and he leads me to a row of plants near the patio. He plucks bits of rosemary, geranium, and the potent marjoram, and I rub the leaves between my fingers. I am intoxicated by the aromatic plants, from the first sips of my cocktail, from the balmy dusk, but also from memory. I thanked Lahcen and he leads me back to the bar and my half-full glass.
I lapse into reflection. I am 30 years younger and my parents are, too. We are toasting my arrival, somewhere on this spot, with champagne, gin, and Coca Cola. We celebrate us and Sir Winston, who adored this place, its splendid location, its palm trees that floated over the gardens. I am alone this time, but I raise my glass anyway. To the grand hotel: may it never change.