Born to be on stage Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland – aka The Thinking Drinkers – have been twirling rather more of their thumbs than they would have liked over the last 18 months. But it has also given them time to write. A lot. They have pulled together a new live show – the Thinking Drinkers Quiz Show – that kicks off tonight in Lincoln and will travel around the country for the next eight months. They have also written The Thinking Drinkers Almanac, their own tribute to the wonderful world and history of alcoholic drinks, which also shows they do do actually know quite a lot about the drinks they have fun with on stage. Here Tom Sandham explains what it is all about.
Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland are drinks writers who are actually far happier talking than writing about drinks. Unless they have a chance to promote themselves, which we are very happy to let Tom Sandham do here…
We started the Thinking Drinkers back in 2009, we were writers but when we hosted tastings, we discovered adding a bit of theatre and comedy to our events helped them resonate. That led to a comedy theatre drinks project, which we launched at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, selling it out there and at the Soho Theatre in London in the first year. After nine more years of sell out shows all across the UK, we’ve put the live tastings at the heart of what we do.
Since then, we’ve performed in front of more than 200,000 consumers, got an army of followers who connect to our mantra ‘drink less, drink better’, are selling out theatres with our ninth incarnation of the show, Thinking Drinkers Pub Quiz, which launched this autumn and even have our own t-shirts. But we also write, consult, educate, make films, we’re happy doing anything in the world of drink really.
But it’s been an incredible turn of fortunes for us. I remember sitting in a huge Spiegel Tent pouring drinks ahead of a performance during one of our early runs at Edinburgh. The late-night cabaret performance in the venue was La Clique, and two beautiful Ukrainian dancers were rehearsing, just for us. The previous evening we’d been talking about absinthe with John Malkovich who had a show there. We’d just sold out a 400-seater show and been give our first five star review. That was the moment I realised we were completely getting away with life.
Obviously covid kicked our concept firmly in the swingers – theatres and bars are our bread and butter, so the last year has been tough. But not as tough as it’s been for others, so when the lockdown started we moaned for a bit, then used our time to prepare for life during or after it. We hosted some online tastings, and that was ok, there’s a future in that but only supplementing proper experiences. Then we started building a subscription business for the show fans and creating a new show. And all while writing a brand-new book, so this month, The Thinking Drinkers Almanac, will be in all good book shops, and undoubtedly some shit ones.
What’s it all about…
As per the Wikipedia definition, an almanac should be ‘an annual publication listing a set of current information about one or multiple subject’, and that is exactly what we’ve set out to do. We’ve discovered an interesting historical story, anniversary, or character to write about, for every day of the year, then seamlessly link this event to a drink.
To refer you to the blurb: “It’s a cocktail of cultural history, eccentric events, unlikely anniversaries, recipes and recommendations infused with all manner of ‘interestingness”, several dashes of drinking did-you-knows, fascinating facts, famous folk, unsung heroes, lesser-known legends from all walks of life and major weird, wonderful and well-known moments from our past.”
Why have we done this? Because a publisher let us, frankly, and it was a lot more fun to write than any of our previous ‘list’ books. Besides, it’s our view that while the stories, production and flavours around the drinks themselves are interesting, sometimes consumers like something else to bring them to a drink – and this is squarely targeting consumers. If we’ve learned anything from our own unique take on tasting experiences, it’s that the comedic and historic elements keep the audience engaged long enough to ensure they retain some of the drink information.
So, rather than another book purely about drink, we thought we’d write about some of the things we found fascinating, then link them to drink. Sometimes this was incredibly easy, like the story about how surgeon Serge Voronoff sewed a monkey testicle to a Frenchman to prove it could extend life – he was later ‘honoured’ for the experiment by a Harry MacElhone who created the Monkey Gland cocktail.
Working as one…
Being in the middle of a pandemic, surrounded by our own libraries of weird history books, and with 20 years of drinks knowledge in the bank, it was pretty straightforward, we simply divided the year in two and cracked on with it. The only rule was avoid anything that was boring really, and one of the benefits of our working relationship between the pair of us is that we find the same things funny. Also, while we are earnest in our love of drink, and really do know our cocktail onions, we’re both determined to bring fun to the subject of drink.
Which is why getting back out on tour is a beautiful thing. We’re bringing this book out on the same day our UK tour starts and in the opening weekend we’ll be going from a gig in London (September 15, Earls Court) and then driving up to another in Barnard Castle – a trip we’ll be doing with permission, while wearing our glasses. Edinburgh was impossible this year so we’ve thrown everything at the UK tour and the final weekend in May sees us do Brighton on a Thursday, Warrington Friday and Newcastle Saturday. It is quite literally length and breadth of England, we’re adding some Wales, and we’ll be back with this pub quiz concept in Edinburgh next year. It’s full tilt, more than 50 dates in eight months, while we do plenty of other stuff.
We also launched a film production company in the pandemic, called Blind Tiger, and have taken on a massive contract with the bartender app Freepour. So that’s going to take up a bit of time. We had brands asking us to appear in front of the camera, so we set up the production company to deliver more, and it means longer term we can get some other, fresher faces and some diversity in front of the camera while we step back.
We’ll also continue writing. We have a column with the Telegraph and regularly contribute to the Spectator, and can hopefully revive the trade writing with distilleduk.com which fell victim to the pandemic, and with the book tour, subscription business and other training projects for the industry, it’s going to be non stop.
All about experiences…
But what’s exciting for us is that the biggest trend for the drinks industry in the next decade will be experiences. Our fanbase is already expressing extreme annoyance with zoom, social media and screens – they’re desperate to get out. The screens are here to stay, the direct-to-consumer business model will evolve and be ever more crucial for brands, but there is a hunger for getting out there and seeing people again. Tasting things. Listening to experts. Learning in person. If anything positive can come out of this whole horrible mess, it’s that we all need shared experiences.
Simplicity is also going to be key, particularly in drink – people want a nostalgia bump and things they can make easily. My go-to drink is a martini, which is very easy for people to learn and is about the most important drink on the menu. We stir one using Warner’s gin in the show, the London Dry makes an exceptional martini, but we also have audiences tasting Warner’s Rhubarb gin and that’s a great example of flavoured gins. Warner’s Rhubarb actually tastes of gin and rhubarb, which is essential, consumers are wise to bad gins now.
(If you want to go and see The Thinking Drinkers live – here’s what you can expect)
And I say martini is the go-to, but if we’re lucky enough to travel again, I’d probably go for rum in Venezuela, since we serve Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva in the show, and that stuff is remarkable, it really converts our audiences to sipping neat rum. And if I was in Tokyo, well, Japanese whisky, we’re lucky enough to be using the Suntory range in the shows, extraordinary distilleries. If I was in a pub in London, probably a lager, but a quality craft lager, like Brixton’s Coldharbour, which we again use in the show, and link seamlessly to the story of the Camberwell Beauty butterfly – the butterfly drinks beer and it’s essential in the reproductive process. So, really, we don’t have a go-to drink as such, but if you want to know a rather sad truth, when it comes to quiet moments away from all these incredible drinks, there’s a serious hankering for cheap Sauv Blanc and Twiglets.
You can buy the book with the usual suspects – Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmiths – but even better, from our site www.thinkingdrinkers.com, and get tickets from your local theatres, but again it’s easier through our site www.thinkingdrinkers.com. And if you want to know where we are and what we’re doing then follow us on social, @thinkingdrinks for twitter, @thinkingdrinkers on Facebook and Insta.
- Find our more about The Thinking Drinkers and book up for their new UK tour here.