Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland otherwise known as The Thinking Drinkers are busy people, and when we say busy we mean BUSY! From writing for top publications to touring in their own theatre show, there really aren’t many people working as hard as these 2 in trying to make the world a better place to drink in. They recently picked up the Imbibe ‘Educator of the Year’ award and Giffard managed meet up with them for a ‘very serious’ chat about the awards and what The Thinking Drinkers are all about:
Giffard Syrups & Liqueurs: Tell us a bit about yourselves. How did you get into the drinks industry?
Tom Sandham: We spent a lot of time in bars and were writers (both trained journalists with stints on local newspapers and the like) so decided to combine the interests. It made a lot of sense.
GSL: When did you guys first meet and how did the Thinking Drinkers come to about?
BM: We didn’t meet in a bar, we met in an office. In Croydon. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We were both working for a pub newspaper, the Publican, now defunct due to our departure. I fell in love with Tom, it was unrequited, but a friendship formed, or a professional association at least. I left the paper to focus on freelance beer writing and won lots of awards (I was a bit of a big deal for a while there), Tom went into spirits and cocktails, becoming the editor of the illustrious cocktail magazine CLASS. We joined forces again in 2007 when we co-wrote the award-winning Good Beer Guide West Coast USA. This was a book about, as the title would suggest, good beer on the West Coast of America, and we spent two months driving along that coast, stopping to drink beer. It was at a time when the ‘craft beer’ scene was reaching its peak there, craft distilling was just kicking off, and we were exposed to all sorts of new ideas and ambitions that have since been realised in the UK. Partly because we told a lot of people about them. In hindsight, we should’ve put a few of these ideas into practice, we might’ve made some money.
GSL: What is the Thinking Drinkers?
TS: It’s like a dream you never have to wake up from. It’s the beautiful woman at the end of the bar who actually talks to you. It’s a Martini in Wetherspoons that’s better than any Martini you’ve ever tasted. It’s the League One side winning the Champions League. It’s the impossible happening. Actually happening.
But aside from that, it’s two drinks experts, with nearly 30 combined years of drinks industry experience, having visited and written about the best bars, breweries, vineyards and distilleries around the world, trying to promote the benefits of discerning drinking to the industry and consumers. Our credentials enable us to do this with a bit of authority – we have published a selection of award winning books on the subject, written for or been editors of the leading industry magazines, launched concepts and magazines for the industry and consumers and written for all the leading consumer press titles, from Jamie Oliver to Esquire, the Guardian, Time Out and Telegraph. As writers we discovered there was a limit to our reach and indeed earning potential, so we started to host talks and tastings with consumers. People liked our shtick and actually learned a lot about how and what to drink, so this became a piece of theatre, The Thinking Drinker’s Guides. These have found a unique space in educating the public through samplings and entertainment, we’ve written and performed two stage productions, both received critical acclaim at the world’s largest cultural festival – Edinburgh – and in the West End. So now our approach is to take the basic elements of drink education but present them in a more enlightening and entertaining way, it’s this that helped us win the Educators of the Year.
GSL: Did you think one day you would end up performing at the Edinburgh fringe?
BM: No. That is the easy answer to that question. Categorically not. I thought Tom would end up performing at some sort of weird freak strip show in Kentucky. I always thought I’d simply perform for magic beans on the streets. But to get paid and enjoy success at the world’s largest cultural festival was never an expectation. We’ve been amazed at how it has happened. Neither of us have had formal training, I was the Ginger Bread Man in my school primary school play, Tom was the lead in some weird alternative Christmas nativity around the same age, but other than that, we didn’t have the experience to step on stage. We owe a lot to a team of people that includes Malachi Bogdanov, one of the most talented theatre directors around, who knocked us into shape and helps make our words more theatrical in the performance. And Sally homer, who has years of theatre experience and helped make the show work at the Fringe. We were lucky in that we saw the opportunity and no one else was doing what we do at the time, then we simply had to work our nuts off to make it happen. It’s great to be a part of that festival though, if anyone reading hasn’t been they really need to. There’s nothing else like it in the world and being there for a whole month is incredible.
GSL: Your show is now in the West End, congratulations! Can you tell us a bit more about it?
TS: Indeed it is. Thank you for referencing this. So the show is, in essence, an informative sampling that has become a piece of comedy theatre. Over an hour people enjoy a selection of interesting spirits and beer, we tell them about what they are drinking and they leave having had a sip of something new, with information about where they can buy it. That’s one element. But the more important element is that, as they do that, we tell them all about the history of alcohol and the great people who have enjoyed a drink in the right way. In the new show, it’s all about the people and we have a poll of the greatest drinkers of all time, so as we tell them about gin, we find a person who has enjoyed gin responsibly and achieved great things. The stories about drink are not necessarily in the drinks themselves, the distillation methods, the ingredients etc. This is interesting and it gets mentioned of course, but what we do is give the drinks a wider context, take the audience away from the drink to the people and history around it. Any drink we enjoy has emerged during a time or in a place that has shaped it, a social context, an intellectual history, and it’s these stories that capture the attention. We take these stories and give a narrative arc, then throw in some gags, dress up in bikinis or leotards and provide them with a message the we can all enjoy a drink. People go away entertained, informed and genuinely re-thinking the drinks they enjoy in the bar after they’ve seen us. Our key message is Drink Less, but Drink Better. People seem to hold onto that mantra if you can get them to buy into what you’re saying, making them laugh and enjoy the information helps that process.
GSL: Its been a pretty exciting journey. This year you picked up ‘Imbibe educator of the year’ award which we sponsored. Would you consider this to be the pinnacle so far and what does this mean to you?
BM: Yes, and thanks to Giffard for sponsoring it. We always said they were nice guys. In terms of industry awards it’s certainly up there. For the industry to recognise what we’re doing is important to us. We’re both from drinks industry backgrounds and we value our time working with brilliant people in that industry, it’s the best industry in the world. But we’ve always felt there are a lot of messages that don’t get beyond the industry circle. The reality is, most people in this country don’t know what tequila is. If you start from that point you realise any talk a ‘mescal revolution’ outside of East London is fairly short sighted. There is so much more we need to do, and that’s our aim, that we’ve been recognised by the industry for trying to do that genuinely means a lot.
GSL: Okay so what do the thinking drinkers drink? what is your favourite cocktail?
TS: A martini is as perfect as a mixed drink gets. But we drink boilermakers more than anything, beer and whisky/whiskey.
Ben: Giffard on ice. Or beer. I do like beer. And whisky.
GSL: Out of all the liqueurs and syrups we make, what is your favourite Giffard product and why?
BM: Anything from the Premium Range ( Abricot du Roussillon, Ginger of The Indies, Vanille de Madagascar…) usually does the job . It’s all good !
GSL: If you could add any flavour to our range what would it be and why?
TS: We’re developing our own range of liqueurs and syrups so probably shouldn’t give our ideas away. Not really. If you could capture the joy of the Refresher Chew, that would be interesting.
GSL: We know you guys don’t like to sit still, what else have you got in store for us?
TS: Bens’ doing some modelling work with Aldi. We might also perform like monkeys for massive pay cheques. Sell out. That sort of thing. Meanwhile, we’re writing another book, returning to the Fringe and the show is on tour around the UK. It seems to keep getting bigger. Last year we were selling out a 300-seater venue in Edinburgh, so we’re hopeful we can continue that. Then we’re working with Drinks Tube, we now write a regular column for Telegraph Men, hoping to make a few TV appearances, promoting our current book The Thinking Drinker’s Guide. We’ve also been asked to do a lot more training, from pub groups to luxury brands, it seems the industry is keen to learn more about our approach, we can thank the Giffard Educators of the Year award for that. And of course, we continue to self-congratulate and plug our work, that’s our favourite job of all, if people want to buy tickets or learn more they can visit our site http://www.thinkingdrinkers.com