Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Saturday, 17 May 2008 10:01 UK

Another kind of presidential race

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Tallinn, Estonia

As Hillary Clinton battles to stay in the race for the White House does Tallinn hold the truth of an old legend that the former first lady once had a vodka drinking contest with her rival US presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain?

Picture the scene: August 2004, a congressional delegation from the US is visiting the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Hillary Clinton sips a glass of water
Hillary Clinton's normal tipple is more likely to be water than vodka
The group includes two future presidential hopefuls - Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

After a long day of official meetings, the senators want to relax.

And what better way to do that, in the Baltics at least, than with a few good shots of vodka?

One thing leads to another and a contest develops - which Senator Clinton wins.

At least, that is according to Terry McAuliffe, chair of Mrs Clinton's presidential campaign.

The cobbled streets of Tallinn's walled old town are certainly picturesque. And there are plenty of pavement cafes, bars and restaurants, pulling in the punters.

But the alleged incident took place nearly four years ago, and my inquiries among the waiters and waitresses were getting me nowhere.

Rumour or fact?

Somebody pointed me in the direction of Molly Malone's Irish Bar.

Exterior of Gloria, in Tallinn
Was it inside this establishment that the fabled contest took place?

It seemed like a highly unlikely venue to me, but worth a try.

Inside I found Johan, an off-duty barman, sipping apple vodka with lime and ginger ale.

"I've heard they had a drinking match or something," he told me.

"And that at the end of the day, John McCain said about Hillary Clinton that she could really hold her drink."

It was a start but I needed an eyewitness, and Johan could not tell me where this fabled contest might have taken place.

It was becoming clear to me that I was not going to find what I was looking for by methodically trawling the many bars and restaurants of Tallinn.

So I paid a visit to the ministry of economic affairs.

Chef and owner of Gloria Dimitri Demjanov
I don't give information about my big customers
Dimitri Demjanov, Chef and owner of Gloria restaurant

The minister, Juhan Parts, was prime minister at the time, and he met the delegation.

They drank coffee, he told me, and even tasted some Estonian sweets. But there was no vodka contest.

"If there was something like this, it was definitely after their meeting with me, because I think they were very fresh and concentrated on the real topics."

My next stop was the harbour. The senators were taken on a sailing trip round Tallinn Bay. The skipper that day was Capt Alar Volmeri.

Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain seemed to get on well together, he recalled.

They probably had little choice, cooped up with around 16 others on a 49ft boat.

But still no vodka.

Back in the centre of town, right opposite the ministry building, there is a restaurant called Gloria.

I had heard this place mentioned as a possible venue for a senatorial drinking contest.

Fuelling the hunt

So, I went to see the chef and owner, Dimitri Demjanov.

The place was certainly plush. I was ushered into a secluded booth. Behind a velvet curtain, the table was set for two. A waitress brought a plate of Baltic herring.

"Should I wait for Mr Demjanov?" I asked. I was told to go ahead - he would be with me shortly.

I was finally summoned downstairs.

Mr Demjanov, in a vast chef's hat, was jovial but firm: "I don't give information about my big customers," he told me.

Something told me I was very close. I had to give this my best shot.

"If I ask you a series of very simple questions, you could give me a yes or no answer," I suggested.

He did not object.

"So," I began, "in August 2004, did John McCain and Hillary Clinton have dinner in your restaurant?"

"Yes," came the one-word answer. Was there any vodka drunk? The answer, again, was: "Yes".

I wanted to know how much. The chef said he could not remember. I jogged his memory, and it turned out they had downed four shots - each.

And then the crucial question: who won?

"Hillary won," he said, without hesitation.

After four shots, he told me, she was still standing.

So what about John McCain?

There was a long pause. Mr Demjanov thought hard, and then concluded that Mr McCain had also remained standing.

This raised more questions than it answered: by what criteria had Mrs Clinton won the contest?

But Mr Demjanov had had enough. He laughed, but would divulge nothing more.

You can hear more about this on BBC Radio 4's PM programme at 1700 BST on Saturday 17 May.

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