Gary Barlow: ‘I learned quickly that I can’t drink and sing’

The Take That star tells Miranda Thompson about being late to the party in his teens, why he’s gone off milk – and shares his recipe for the ultimate negroni

My favourite drink as a child was a blue slush puppie. That was always the bribe for me to behave myself during our Asda shop, so I’d get a slush on the way out. We’d go to the supermarket every Thursday night, when my mum finished her shift as a lab technician at Chester hospital. I think the Slush Puppie cost about 15p – this was the 70s! I haven’t had one since.

I was late to alcohol. My friends were about 13, 14 when they started drinking, but I was never interested. At that age I was playing five nights a week in social clubs, so I was constantly seeing people drink and smoke all night. The other musicians I played with would get free drinks, but you know what it’s like – when something’s on your doorstep you’re not interested, and so it was with me and drink. I didn’t have my first alcoholic drink until I was 18. It was a summer thing – we’d been at the Silcock’s Amusements funfair, which was visiting Southport, it was a lovely day and I was thirsty, so I thought I’d try a shandy. It was gorgeous.

Take That educated me about red wine. If we were somewhere nice Howard [Donald] and Jason [Orange] would always order red wine. They’d sit back in their chairs, swirl it around and talk about it to each other. That was the first time I realised there’s a conversation around this – it’s not just people shoving it down. Because I used to see people drink all night, fall out of these clubs – it never looked that exciting to me. But when I saw Howard and Jason enjoying it, I wanted to get involved. I didn’t like the first one I tried, but Jason said, ‘You just need to keep at it until you find one you like.’ Two nights later, I tried a Châteauneuf-du-Pape – and it was delicious. I still order it from time to time. It’s a reward. I love a glass of it back at the hotel after a show. Even nowadays there’s a whole ceremony to it: to look at the bottle, the glasses… it’s more than the wine.

You should always end rather than start a show with a drink. We don’t have drinks on the Take That rider. I learned quickly that I can’t drink and sing. So I’ve never been able to go on TV or do a live show having had one – it just doesn’t feel right.

I used to be addicted to diet coke. I drank one every day for years but went on a big health kick a decade ago, just after my 40th birthday, and cut out refined sugars and processed foods. I was a real bore for about six or seven years after that, criticising everyone else. I used to drive everyone up the wall. I just feel that every decade you’re battling against some changes to your metabolism. Someone will have an explanation, I am sure, but I just seem to hit a new decade and ‘boom!’ everything moves and changes.

I’d like to take credit for negronis coming into fashion. I started drinking them about ten years ago – it’s my favourite drink. The key to a negroni is the sweet vermouth – there are many types and they all taste different. If I’m ever somewhere and they make a good negroni, I always ask them what vermouth they’re using. I’m fortunate enough to have friends like the barman at Dukes in London, Alessandro, who put me on to a British one I love. It’s called Sacred English and has a spice to it. Then I add Monkey 47 gin and Campari – you’ve got to have Campari, you can’t mess around with that.

I spend between £15 and £20 on a nice bottle of wine to drink at home. I get it online from Nemo Wine Cellars. My perfect birthday present would be a bottle of Pauillac [which costs from around £25]. In a West End restaurant, £20 for a glass seems about right, and should get you something quite nice. I know it seems crazy, but welcome to the modern world – everything’s gone through the roof.

Sir Paul McCartney and I have shared a glass. Take That did a concert for Children in Need in 2009 and he came into our dressing room. Mark and Robbie don’t drink any more, but the rest of us did and he had a slurp with us. He wasn’t there long enough – I could have taken another couple of hours of him telling stories. He was about to go to Australia and said he hadn’t been there for 25 years. I told him we were about to return there, too, and hadn’t been for 22 years. He couldn’t believe Take That had been around for 22 years. We bloody had!

One of the most memorable places I’ve had a drink was at our home in the south of France. We lived there for about nine years and I remember one night in 2005 particularly. We were sitting at the back of our house, it was a beautiful evening, the middle of August, and someone had brought us champagne. My wife Dawn and I were looking at our kids, taking in the setting with a glass in our hand, thinking, ‘This is as good as it’s going to get.’

I’ve gone off milk completely. Another decade’s gone past and milk has stopped agreeing with me. I always start my day with a coffee, but I mix it with oat milk now – I love the Oatly Barista brand.

My go-to song after a few drinks? It’s always Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. I’m big on that one. The last time I did it was pre-pandemic, on the last night of our Odyssey tour in Cardiff. We have a huge gang of people who travel with us: 20 dancers, a ten-piece band, production crew, managers. We came off stage about 11pm so it would have been back at the hotel at around 2am or 3am. We would have been on the cocktails – if it’s late, I like a Manhattan.

I’d like people to toast me with champagne at my funeral. Celebration all the way. I’m banning any form of tears at my funeral – I only want happiness. Happy that they’ve seen me go, and happy that they were there.

Gary’s organic wine range is available at Morrisons and from, from £8 a bottle. The red and white wines are also available at Asda, Ocado and Amazon.