Interview: The Thinking Drinkers | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Thinking Drinkers are award-winning drinks writers and comedy performers Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham. The duo is about to embark on a national tour with their brand new show, Heroes of Hooch, fresh from their run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Armed with their catchphrase ‘Drink Less, Drink Better’, The Thinking Drinkers raise a glass to the heroic men and women who have cunningly used alcohol to inspire them to achieve some truly great things… Oh, and they’re giving each and every audience member five free drinks!

Their first stop on the tour is at The Stand, Newcastle on Saturday 12th October, so we fired across some questions to find out more about the show and making a living from drinking.

How did you go from drink enthusiasts to writing/performing a critically-acclaimed alcohol-based comedy show?
We’ll level with you, it’s not been a conventional career path. We both did history at university and our background is in journalism and we’ve always had a healthy interest in drink but we first met whilst working on a newspaper called “The Publican” – which went to every pub and bar in the country

Ben was the drinks writer but also covered snacks… as you can see by looking at him. Tom, meanwhile, was a roving reporter who called landlords and asked them tough questions such as “How often do you host a meat raffle?” and “Can you tell me about your business rates?”. It was hard-hitting stuff.  

Soon after leaving there, we joined forces and wrote a book called “Good Beer Guide West Coast USA”, a discerning drinker’s guide to the craft brewing scene in California, Oregon and Washington. The “research” took us over three months, visiting every brewery and brewpub on the West Coast – it was brilliant fun and, having spent over 12 weeks in each other’s pockets, sleeping in hire cars and getting chased out of a bar in San Diego by some angry US Marines we thought we could certainly handle working together – so we set up “Thinking Drinkers”.

We soon realised that simply writing about drink was not enough – we needed to add a live element. So, having become disillusioned with deadly dull drinks tastings and after spending a few days up at the Edinburgh Fringe seeing lots of different shows, we decided to transfer our expertise from the page to the stage in 2011 -and turned our tastings into comedy shows where everyone in the audience gets five great drinks …for free!

It was a bold decision given that we hadn’t been in a play since Primary School and we had no idea what we were doing. But we wrote a decent script and were then thrust into a two-day acting boot camp with a very patient and talented director – who told us how to ‘do’ theatre.

It was a very, very, very steep learning curve but, don’t tell anyone, it’s not that difficult. You just have to pretend to be someone else and then remember your lines. That’s about it really. NO need for drama school. Benedict Cumberbatch – we’re coming after you. 

Anyway, within weeks we were performing “The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol” in a freight container at the Edinburgh Festival. And then within 12 months it had transferred to the West End before returning to the Edinburgh Festival for nine successive years with different shows and, rather than just muck about, performing on stage up and down the country is now our main job.

You’ve written about drink for a host of newspapers and magazines. What’s the secret to becoming a well-respected drinks writer?
Apart from hard work, charisma, breath-taking handsomeness and the ability to hold a pen the right way round, the secret to success is actually looking beyond the booze.

The way drink is made can be genuinely fascinating – and it’s important to appreciate the flavours (not to mention its ‘uplifting’ effects), but simply talking about drinks on its own can be rather one-dimensional.

As historians with a healthy interest in alcohol, we realised that the real interesting stuff emerges when you place it in a historical and cultural context, broadening it beyond the liquid into the past, the people and the places that have shaped it.

Historically, drinking and alcohol is the cornerstone of civilisation – always has been – and there are so many fascinating stories and interesting anecdotes linked to drink. The reason that monkeys were coaxed down from the trees and evolved into man was because of sweet-smelling fruit fermenting on the jungle floor. If it wasn’t for drink, we literally would not be here. 

What’s your best ever drunken thought/idea?
Well, our motto and mantra is “Drink Less, Drink Better” and we seldom get intoxicated. However, after a few pints the other night (and an unfortunate incident involving canine doo-doo), we found ourselves exploring the pros and cons of dog nappies. It got quite technical and involved scribbling prototypes on bar napkins. We’re thinking of taking it to Dragons Den and offering them 100% of the business for £10m – we’ll even throw in some ring-binders and an old bottle of Tippex. And then walk away…content in the knowledge that we won’t be soiling our shoes with dog muck.   

Where did your passion for drink come from?
We like to think that passion for alcohol is inherent in all of us but our enthusiasm springs from the belief that drink, when consumed sensibly, is one of life’s great pleasures and shouldn’t be demonised by society. 

Underpinning everything we do is our message of “Drink Less, Drink Better” and knowledge is key to that – the more people know about alcohol, the less likely they are to consume it in a daft way. The message is getting through, people are cutting down their overall consumption in the UK and starting to appreciate and ask questions about what’s in their glass.  

Apart from five free beers, what else can the audience expect from your show on 12th October at The Stand?
Well, actually, it’s not just beer – it’s spirits too. You’re welcome. As we muck about on stage and tell stories, audience members can enjoy the following: Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin  – An intriguing, innovative ruby-coloured Australian gin created by steeping whole Shiraz grapes from the Yarra Valley in Australia; Diplomatico Rum – a luxury Venezuelan sipping rum matured in tropical conditions to deliver a rich, chocolate taste; The Singleton of Dufftown 12 Year-Old – a deliciously smooth award-winning, approachable single malt matured in oak & bourbon casks; Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge – this legendary French liqueur from 1880 is a blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of wild tropical oranges; and Tetley’s Original, an iconic Yorkshire beer first brewed back in 1822 using half-a-dozen English hops and a famous double-yeast strain. A cult classic.

The show will slide you gently onto the barstool of discovery as we explore the liquid lives of history’s most extraordinary elbow-benders. It’s a hilarious and informative imbibing adventure that celebrates the men and women who have used alcohol to light a fire under the rocking chair of moribund ideas rather than those irresponsible imbibers who have given drink its devilish reputation.

These include Alexander the Great, Harry Houdini, Louis Pasteur and Albert Einstein, a moose that drinks lager, an astronomer with a metal nose, a Chinese pirate, Indian warriors and, last but not least, God – who liked a drink. Probably.

At a time when alcohol finds itself in the cross-hairs of the do-gooders gun, “Heroes of Hooch” proves that, contrary to common perception, a whole lot of life’s answers can be discovered at the bottom of a glass.

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