My life in drinks: JJ Chalmers


Growing up, JJ’s family would jump in the car and drive from their home in Scotland to the South of France 

The last time he went out with Prince Harry he only had one Guinness

The last time he went out with Prince Harry he only had one Guinness

JJ and Harry were at an Irish bar in the Hague when he only had one Guinness

JJ and Harry were at an Irish bar in the Hague when he only had one Guinness 

Port is the Marine drink , because JJ is part of the Navy, and there are lots of big rules and traditions

JJ has a coffee first thing in the morning before he has drunk water or had any food

JJ has a coffee first thing in the morning before he has drunk water or had any food 

Growing up, my family would jump in the car and drive from our home in Scotland to the South of France. Twenty-four hours, nonstop in the back of the car with dodgy air-conditioning. 

We’d spend a good three weeks down there. I remember a little town square in Nyons, where we’d have a coca fraise – which is a glass of Coke with a bit of strawberry syrup in it. That was a proper treat. I remember watching the 1998 World Cup final there when France won – in the town square, eating pizzas in the bar and drinking coca fraise.

The last time I went out with Prince Harry he only had one Guinness, whereas the rest of us went for it. It was this April at the Invictus Games. We were in an Irish bar in the Hague and we kept saying, ‘Come on, mate,’ but he had to give a speech the next day and said: ‘No, no, I’ve got a job to do tomorrow.’ The wonderful thing about Invictus [J J won gold and two bronze medals in 2014 and went on to present the games] is that we’re just old friends catching up. With Prince Harry, I’m not sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, this is a famous person I’m having a drink with’ – I’m just sitting having a drink with a mate.

I was 16 when I first had a drink – my dad let me have a stubby beer. I remember trying to convince myself I liked it. I love it now – on a hot day it’s perfect, and you can drink it out of a bottle. I’m a snob – my festival days of drinking lukewarm Strongbow from a can are behind me.

My dad and I always end an evening together with a dram of whisky. We recently spent a week together visiting my in-laws [J J’s wife is Polish] and my parents came with us to see where my wife grew up. We nursed our way through a bottle of whisky as we closed out the night.

We had a bottle of vodka on every table at our wedding. If you find yourself at a Polish wedding, you’re in for a good time. The rules are that it’s bad luck to run out of vodka – in Poland, there is always a room that the best man has a key to which is full to the gunwales with vodka. As soon as a bottle is finished on a table, it’s his job to put a full one back down.

Port is the Marine drink, because we’re part of the Navy, and there are lots of big rules and traditions. You must always pass it to the left, because that’s the port side. The decanter can’t be lifted off the table – you have to slide it. And the men always pour for the ladies.

I have a coffee first thing in the morning – before I’ve drunk any water or eaten any food. I’ve got a Nespresso machine at home – don’t worry, I recycle my pods! I make myself a latte and start my day with that.

I buy my wine in the supermarket. Aldi has a fantastic selection. I’d probably spend around a tenner. I wish I was more of a connoisseur but I’m perfectly happy with their reds – they go well with my steak or spaghetti. For white, you can never go wrong with an Oyster Bay from New Zealand.

My ‘job done, I’ve earned this’ drink is a gin and tonic. I like the Edinburgh Gin company – they are really good. I like a straight-up gin, tonic and lime. I don’t really go in for cucumber – but maybe some berries as we grow raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants in our garden. My wife often mixes them all up with vodka too and they’re lethal – you don’t taste the spirit, so you’ve got to watch it.

Some of my happiest memories are in the north of Scotland, on the top of a munro [a mountain over 3,000 feet] or out for a walk in the valleys, and stopping to have a drink out of my hip flask. Sitting on a rock looking down on the beauty of Scotland – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I couldn’t drink in Afghanistan. I was on operational deployment, and our job was to remain vigilant at all times [in 2011, J J suffered life-changing injuries while serving there]. But I’ve had some good adventures going away on exercises around the world – in Belize, America and Germany. There’s always a good night out to be had.

Marine history is kept alive in the mess bar. Whatever part of the military you’re in, the reason you have such pride in it is because you believe in the history of it. Especially if you’re drinking with old-timers – guys who had fought in the Falklands, or even D-day. To hear their stories, to buy them a drink, learn about what they did and why they did it, that’s how we have what we call our ‘commando spirit’. That’s why it’s important to share a drink as you realise it’s a pretty special club we’re part of.

I’d most like to share a drink with a guy called Jason Leitch [national clinical director for the Scottish government]. During Covid he had the job of telling us what was going on and what the rules were. And he was wonderfully empathetic and knowledgeable and did a fantastic job of giving us all the bad news. I thought he handled himself with such grace in really difficult circumstances. And I’ve always said, if I’m ever in a room with him, I’ll buy him a beer.

Port has to be the toast at my funeral because I will be laid to rest in honour like I’ve laid my friends to rest in the past. But there will be whisky too, and vodka – the holy trinity in my world. Then by the end of the night the Marines will be mixing all three together.

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