Simon Ford Knows How to Start a Liquor Brand

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Illustration: Ariel Dunitz-Johnson

Simon Ford essentially invented the role of brand ambassador through years of work with Pernod Ricard and others. Then, in 2012, Ford and his partners launched The 86 Co., a spirits company dedicated to making spirits with bartenders in mind. If you’ve ever considered starting your own liquor brand, pay attention: Ford has lots of pertinent thoughts on the spirits industry’s shifting landscape.

What prompted you to start your own liquor company?

It was the idea to make a liquor brand for bartenders. Every time we brought bartenders to a focus group [when I worked at Pernod Ricard], the bartenders had so many amazing ideas and such a different perspective. Of course, the majority of spirits that I’ve worked on are geared towards what the consumer wants. It’s an odd challenge because the bartender serves the consumer at the end of the day, but the two groups are still looking for different things. The bartender is looking for a great quality spirit at a great price that he can mix in high-end cocktails.

The communication with bartenders is very different from the communication with consumers. It’s much more technical with bartenders: It’s about how it’s made, the fermentation, the story. I like that the communication is about those things instead of just a slogan. Our philosophy is to put forth as much useful and honest information about the spirit as possible.

Speaking of honest: There have been a number of class action suits brought against some liquor brands recently, claiming that the brands’ use of words like “handmade” and “small-batch” on their labels is misleading. What do you make of this?

I think it’s really absurd, to be honest, what’s happening to Tito’s and some of these other brands. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the truth is that we’re all in the industry of selling spirits. Marketing people come up with these terms that are meaningless; we’ve been doing this for years. In the liquor industry, we’ve had versions of this forever. First it was “supreme deluxe” and then “premier” and then “super premier.” Now it’s “small-batch and hand-crafted.” Everybody is trying to find a point of uniqueness to sell to the consumer, and it works. It sells.

The reason this specific terminology is being debunked right now is because more and more consumers care about what’s in the bottle. That’s a good sign for the industry overall. But you learn to see past these slogans; they’re harmless, but also meaningless.

You say these slogans are harmless but meaningless. Do liquor brands then have a responsibility to educate their audience? How big of a goal is education for The 86 Co.?

For us, it’s everything. And really, in general, for any liquor brand, it’s hugely important right now. From a sales perspective, the quickest and clearest way to validate your quality is to explain the ins and outs of how it’s made and why it’s a worthy spirit. Consumers want their choices validated. Before, that validation wasn’t based on the quality, but more about image. That’s changing, and it’s in large part because of the education being done by brands and bartenders. Take mezcal: Once upon a time, mezcal had a worm in it and was terrible; now it’s one of the most revered and respected spirits on the market. Part of the reason is the amazing story that comes with it: The tiny farmers making these different strains of agave in these different villages, etc. All of that has become part of the experience of drinking. Brands should educate, consumers should educate, bartenders should educate. Because if that culture succeeds, then we’ll be in a world where people are drinking great-quality stuff.

What were the biggest challenges about starting an independent liquor company?

I don’t even know where to begin. Some of the challenges aren’t particularly exciting to discuss, like the logistics.  I’ll start by saying that when I started the company with my partners, I had knowledge in a certain area of the business: the marketing and sales stuff. And of course, I had some knowledge of production, and brand creation. What I didn’t realize was that there were entire departments at Pernod Ricard that I had never crossed paths with, never even thought about: the people who handled the taxes, the bottling plants and the shipping across country, for example. When I went out on my own, I thought I would just be on the streets with my new gin and tasting with bartenders. Now, all of the sudden, me and my partners are doing absolutely everything. The biggest challenge is that there’s always a fire to put out. My day is never dull, but switching focus constantly can sometimes get in the way of growing the business.

How does size come into play? The spirits industry is dominated by giant corporations. How do the little guys compete?

It’s true: The big companies are established and have relationships in place. They have the complete mindshare of the major distributors. One of the best and most honest distributors I work with once said to me, “From Monday to Thursday, I work for my big suppliers; on Friday I work for the other 3,000 small suppliers.” So we’re one of the 3,000 suppliers.

But that’s ok. Most industries, historically, consolidate until there are just two or three giant companies that control the entire market share. The spirits industry, however, is doing exactly the opposite right now: It’s fragmenting. There are just so many new entrepreneurs popping up. It’s so exciting. If you’re a big liquor company right now, you’re freaking out a little about losing more and more of the market share, not because any one of us is doing any damage, but all 3,000 of us together, we’re taking a bite out of the space. So I have to worry about how to get my bottles on the shelf in a way that I wouldn’t at a bigger company. We have to do all the work for ourselves.

We’re guessing you get 10 phone calls a week from bartenders and other folks who want to start their own liquor brands. What advice do you offer?

Our whole thing as a company is that we believe that bartenders come up with some of the best and most innovative ideas. I mean, look at bitters. The rise of bitters started with bartenders picking up the old books and deciding to try and create their own versions. Now we have a whole culture of bitters that starts with the bartender.

So with that in mind, we will share anything with anyone from our community. We’ll share our value chain so they can see our profits and losses, we’ll share contacts, make recommendations, connect people with investors.  We’ll promote other spirits we believe in. Because this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. Anyone that’s going into it is going to need help. I’ve built up years of experience and made so many mistakes, and I’d rather save someone the time and energy and money by sitting down with a cocktail and telling everything I know.

In fact, the original idea of our company was to make entrepreneurs out of bartenders. We’re not there yet. We have to make our model work before we can actively help other people launch brands. In the meantime, we’ll share everything we know. We’re building a genre of entrepreneurs from within.

Kaitlyn Goalen is a writer, editor and cook based in Brooklyn and Raleigh, N.C. She is the editor and co-founder of Short Stack Editions, a series of single-subject, digest-size cookbooks, and has contributed to a variety of national publications.

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