Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Why Is Bar Legend Simon Ford Going All In on Gin?

Simon Ford Image: Doron Gild

When Fords gin debuted in 2013, it was one of a quartet of spirits billed as made by bartenders, for bartenders. The 86 Company, created by Simon Ford and Malte Barnekow, built those spirits (Fords, plus Aylesbury Duck vodka, Caña Brava rum and Tequila Cabeza) around cocktail mixability. Even the bottles were notably functional for bartenders to hold, stash in the well and reuse. The bartending community embraced the concept. In particular, Aylesbury is often named as one of the only vodkas some craft bars will carry.

But it takes more than that small-but-vocal contingency to build a brand. In February 2019, as Fords gin announced the beginning of its experimental Journeys in Gin series—starting with the rollout of the new Officers’ Reserve bottling, an overproof gin rested in amontillado sherry casks—Simon Ford also took over as CEO of The Fords Gin Company. And on June 10, Brown-Forman announced an agreement to purchase The 86 Company for an undisclosed sum, adding Fords gin to its portfolio.

As for the other brands that once made up The 86 Company, production will be put on hold. Once they sell out, they’ll likely be gone.

Amid these changes, Ford sat down to talk with us about the Journeys in Gin launch and his new role.

What was the idea behind the new Officers’ Reserve gin?

When I first thought of the concept, I was in a gin bar. We already had considered making an overproof gin, but there are already so many out there, and Plymouth’s is the benchmark. Navy-strength was technically a term coined by Plymouth gin. They supplied it to the Royal Navy. The fact that Plymouth influenced it is the brilliance of the people who were always working behind Plymouth, which I luckily got to work for.

So I’m looking at the backbar, and it dawned on me that it always would have been shipped in barrels, and there are none of these barrel-aged navy-strength gins out there. I’ve been making navy-strength for the last three or four years, just for myself. It’s a more robust version of Fords, which is quite clean and crisp. It’s not the most robust gin, and that’s by design. I wanted a clean, approachable [gin for] a Martini.

When I was making it at 60% ABV, I was bottling five cases a year. Marko Karakasevic [the master distiller at Charbay], who does the bottling, and I were sharing it between us. The dynamic of the gin completely changes; you get so much more juniper—almost over-the-top juniper. I love all that rich viscosity and oiliness. Marko has been convincing me that I should come out with that, for a long time, because he loves it and knows I love it.

Officers’ Reserve gin aging in amontillado sherry barrels.

You don’t see many gins aged in sherry barrels.

We got some sherry, port and Madeira casks. The amontillado is the one we loved when we tasted it. We tasted it at three weeks, and that was the one we bottled. At four weeks, the flavors from the cask were already starting to overpower the botanicals. And we said, No, it’s three weeks. The botanicals still need to be the star. It’s still going to say “gin” on the bottle. What I noticed was all that extra spice and heat from the alcohol went into the cask, and the sweetness from the cask at three weeks helped to balance that heat. The botanicals and sweetness are the defining characteristics.

The label reads “Maiden Voyage #1.” Does that mean you’re planning other gin experiments?

Yes, that was to signal that hopefully there’s more to come.

So what are you working on next?

The next will probably be something like a sloe gin, possibly one with more alcohol. Once you’ve done the normal gins, you can start to experiment. And that was the goal of launching Journeys in Gin. Hopefully two years from now we’ll have another gin, not another flavored gin. We’re also looking at different types of drinks that might inspire a specialty gin. One of the conversations I was having with [Fords brand manager] Tim Cooper last night was what flavors go well with Champagne that would incorporate well into a gin.

In the middle of launching the new bottling, you’ve also taken on a new role as CEO. How did that come about?

Since 2015, none of our other spirits have grown. But Fords gin has continually grown to the point where it’s 75% of our business. We started to realize that every minute we’re spending on the other brands is a minute we’re not spending on Fords.

The nine botanicals that go into Fords gin.

Was it hard to let the other spirits go?

We love the [Cabeza] tequila so much. Agave prices just keep crawling up. Managing price increases into the marketplace is difficult, so margins just keep going down. We keep slowing down the sales to halt the loss of money; it’s such a sad state of affairs. We just can’t afford to keep making it. Also, our expertise is gin. We’re not viewed as a company that knows spirits; we’re viewed as a company that knows gin.

I do wish we hadn’t done a vodka. That’s a terrible thing to say. It was our second-biggest seller, without a doubt, but vodka is a race to the bottom. It’s a war. The world doesn’t need another vodka, which is why it says on our label “another vodka.” That was always my feeling, and there was an irreverence to the brand that I enjoyed. It resonated with a small audience, and vodka drinkers take their vodka seriously. We were having a bit too much fun with our vodka label, which could be taken as insulting or alienating.

Meanwhile, the gin has been going strong. So instead of trying to solve the issues of the other spirits, it was, Let’s do what we do well. And that’s make gin.

Simon Ford. Rebecca Peplinksi

What are your plans now?

Being CEO of the company is very different from the brand ambassador role. Now I have to make the difficult choices. One of them was that gin was going to be our focus as a company and we were going to follow that passion more than anything else.

Now that you’re CEO, what will change?

Not much. I think that we do end up losing a few of our babies, which is sad. But we do get the opportunity in that process to create more exciting innovation in an area where we’re having some kind of success and certainly where our expertise lies. I think my becoming a CEO of my company is not massive news. I think the gin wave is going to come, and that will be bigger news. From a business perspective, I think that focusing on the gin makes sense.