“The Thinking Drinkers Almanac” – Jancis Robinson Review

When Paul O’Doherty reviewed Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s book Thinking Drinkers: The enlightened imbiber’s guide to alcohol, he began with, ‘With lots of attitude, brashness and edginess, this is something you’ll either find incredibly informative and funny or annoyingly over-the-top and egregiously wasteful.’ I guess it depends on your sense of humour. 

The Times described them as ‘pioneers of alcohol-based comedy’, and indeed the pair of them have been running comedy-theatre drinks gigs since their inaugural performance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011.

For the two extroverts who would far rather be standing up on stage connecting directly with a live audience than writing about booze, the last two years have been tough (as for so many), but they haven’t twiddled their thumbs. They wrote a(nother) book instead. (This is their sixth book.)

To give you a flavour of the book, I’ll start with a quote from the introduction. In fact, the very first few sentences of the introduction: ‘”Quick, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever” – Aristophanes, Ancient Greek Comic. Yes, that’s right. We’ve introduced this book with a quote from a Classical comedic clever clogs from Ancient Greece. Pretentious? Bien sur. But, apparently, it gives the book gravitas. Not that the book needs anymore gravitas. If anything it’s got too much gravitas – in fact, on page 11, there’s a whole page dedicated to Isaac Newton, the man who actually discovered the stuff – when an apple (which makes cider) bopped him on the head.’

So before we’ve got eight sentences into the book, we’ve got Ancient Greece, wine, Frenglish, gravity, a comedian, a scientist, cider, irony, sarcasm and Smart Alec. There are 271 pages to go.

Quick background. McFarland and Sandham met while working on a pub newspaper 20 years ago. They were drinks writers long before they were drinks comedians. They’re catholic in their tastes: cocktails, beer, spirits, cider, wine – they cover it all. As glib and as flippant as they sound, between them they pack a substantial amount of knowledge and experience.

Stating the obvious, this is an almanac. So there are 366 entries from 1 January to 31 December (including a leap-year 29 February, ‘thrown in for free’). The pair are quick to point out that they’re ‘acutely aware of the potential downfalls of drink … when mishandled and consumed in excess, it can cause all kinds of mischief, misery and mishaps. But when afforded a certain level of reverence and respect, when enjoyed in moderation, we passionately believe that drink is one of life’s truly great pleasures.’ They also reiterate that they don’t recommend we drink every day (despite recommending a drink every day!) – ‘that would be daft’. So that’s the HSE and the Temperance League appeased.

Actually, the book is a load of fun! Each day commemorates a significant event that happened on that date in a certain year in history and loops-in some kind of beverage to celebrate it. 1 January, for example, is when Bass Triangle registered its first trademark in 1876. Napoleon, apparently, ‘thought Bass was très bon’. Your recommended tipple? Bass pale ale. Some of the connections are hilariously random and tenuous, such as 8 February 1994, Jack Nicholson attacking a car in a fit of road rage with his two-iron golf club (he says he didn’t use it when playing), and the recipe for a John Daly cocktail. Daly being the 1991 PGI champion for those of us who don’t follow golf… Our own Bond fan Jonathan Reeve will be particularly pleased with 13 April: Casino Royale was published in 1953 and the first cocktail he orders in the book is an Americano.So, Reeve, if you’re reading this, mark 13 April: ice, 45 ml (1.5 fl oz) Campari, 45 ml (1.5 fl oz) sweet vermouth, soda water to top up, orange slice to garnish; stirred, not shaken.

Being the daughter of an avid cricketer who spent more of her childhood weekends on the side of a cricket pitch than she cares to remember, I enjoyed ‘Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century’, 1993, 4 June. The entry starts off with, ‘over the course of his career, cricketer Shane Warne did outrageous things with his balls, both on and off the pitch…’ What follows is the story of when the tubby Warne spin-bowled ‘an even tubbier Mike Gatting’, who, stunned, ‘spent several seconds gawping at the pitch. “It was as though someone had just nicked his lunch”, recalled Graham Gooch, England’s captain. “If it had been a cheese roll, it’d have never got past him.”‘ The drink? Jim Barry, Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon 2017. Pure class.

The entries rollick from Danish hygge and akvavit to Harry Craddock and the Savoy Special No 2; from Thomas Edison, his light bulbs and calimocho to Alexandre Dumas and armagnac. The first broadcast of the Smurfs? Lindemans apple lambic. Their height is measured in apples, if you’re wondering, and of course the team behind their creation was Belgian. The date, if you must know, is 12 September.

Like all good almanacs, it is ram-packed with bizarre but rather delightful trivia. There are 25 Guatamalan languages. The microwave was invented because Percy Spencer had a chocolate in his pocket. Apparently Spencer later tried microwaving an egg but it exploded on his technician’s face, ‘leaving him unharmed – if a little shell-shocked’. Manilla paper was patented in 1843 in Delaware. There is also, believe it or not, a cocktail called Paper Plane. There is a World Monkey day, the last passenger pigeon died in 1914 and Alan Turing chained his coffee mug to the radiator by his desk.

Probably a book more for beer, cocktail and spirits drinkers than wine drinkers (the wine-related entries are a bit thin on the ground for my liking), but this tongue-in-cheek, witty, irreverent book is written by two clearly intelligent chaps who, in my opinion, bring quite a bit of mostly frivolous (but not ‘over-the-top and egregiously wasteful’) fun to a world that often takes itself too seriously. As I was reading it, I laughed out loud on several occasions, entertaining (disturbing) Brad (trying to do serious work) with snippets as I went along. It’s that kind of book.

Perfect stocking filler. And if 2022 brings another lockdown, you’re going to need all those cocktail recipes.

By Tamlyn Currin.

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