How to start your very own spirits brand: we talk to the 86 Company’s Simon Ford

The spirits industry veteran on stewarding his own brand to market


Interviewed by Sam Bygrave

Simon Ford has worked at the big spirit companies, is known for bringing Plymouth gin to bartenders worldwide, and worked for a long time as an ambassador for Pernod Ricard. He’s traded all that in now for his own spirits company, The 86 Company, and his very own eponymous gin, Ford’s Gin. Bartender sought to find out more about where the market’s been and where it’s going.

Can you describe the thinking behind your spirits?

The 86 Co produces spirits in collaboration with some of the great distillers and distillers from around the world using constant input from our friends in the bartending community.  While creating each spirit, we tested every batch in benchmark classic cocktails and took feedback from these tastings back to the distillers so they could make adjustments to the recipe to improve the spirit for mixing. The distillers enjoyed the challenges that came from the bartenders and completely understood the idea of creating spirits for mixing.


We started the company with a philosophy of always putting the bartender first. Whatever we did, it would only happen through conversations with the bartending community. Two of the co-founders of The 86 Co, Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas of Employees Only, are bartenders, but we wanted to listen to many different perspectives. Innovation in spirits is rarely driven by the bartender and by what the bartender wants; it’s usually marketing companies reacting to what trend-watch companies tell them and consumer research. Every now and then they hit and launch something great, but the usual result is an endless stream of flavoured vodkas, line extensions and nonsense products with slogans like “The worlds first Super premium un-aged Cognac.” I guarantee that most bartenders that just read that had a shiver run up their spine and muttered under their breath “expensive eau de vie in a stupid bottle”.

The last decade has seen tremendous growth in the diversity of spirits — where do your brands fit in to this?

I agree, the last decade has been amazing. There has been plenty of innovation from the absurdly useful to the ridiculous, and I have loved witnessing the resurgences of more global categories like bitters, piscos, cachacas, amaros and mezcal to name a few. Our company nearly started with the creation of an Absinthe Bitters and a Grapefruit Triple Sec (which I would still like to do). I would never have thought we’d end up with spirits from already oversaturated categories, but we found that stylistically there is still plenty of room. The bartenders we worked with helped define the characteristics of the 86 spirits and their primary goal was: how well do the spirits mix? That in turn, led us back to some quite stereotypical flavours. Fords Gin’s flavour is dominated by juniper; our vodka tastes like wheat; Caña Brava rum tastes like sugar cane juice, but it’s also really dry giving the bartenders better control of sweet and sour when making drinks like the daiquiri with it; and I have never tasted a tequila with so much cooked agave flavour before as in Tequila Cabeza. The other thing that really stands out is how full-bodied and viscous each spirit is; they have a fullness that serves well as a backbone for mixed drinks, as every base spirit should. In hindsight, this back-to-basics approach makes sense, they are products that do what they say on the label—they are reliable and honest.

What trends or spirits do you think we’ll see more of in the next year?

The back bar is changing at a rapid pace right now – brands that I grew up with are no longer being served at my favourite bars; they are being replaced by small producers, young entrepreneurs and formally undiscovered categories, and I think the changes that are about to come are going to shape what people drink for the next 50 years. It’s still early days for mescal, but I expect to see a lot more from that category next year.  Sotols may even make a small appearance, as there is so much interest in anything made from agave right now. I also think that we are going to see more spirits coming to market that have been created with input from bartenders; blends picked by bartenders, flavours created or suggested by bartenders, bartender editions and so on.

Do you have plans in store for distribution in Australia?

Once we have established our distribution in the USA, Australia is one of the first countries we plan to launch The 86 Company, and we have already started conversations with possible partners. You have one of the best cocktail cultures in the world, and it’s a place where I have some of my best friends, as well as many great drinking memories. The first time I came to Australia was to launch Plymouth Gin and I’ve attended three Sydney Bar shows; it’s always been part of the dream that one day I would get to launch my own spirit in Australia, so see you soon.

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Can you describe a little of the process involved in bringing a new product to market, from idea through to the bottling to getting on the shelves?

It took over 2 years before the idea started transforming from just an idea into a reality. The first challenge was finding distillers that would partner with us and were capable of making the quality of spirits that we wanted. We went to over 25 distilleries in several different countries before we found the distillers we now work with. Then product development started, which was surprisingly smooth. I put this down to the talent we partnered with. Francisco “Don Pancho” J Fernandez, who makes our rum, has over 45 years of rum-making experience including 35 years as the Minister of Cuban Rum.  Charles Maxell, who makes Fords Gin for us, is an eighth generation gin distiller, and we make Tequila Cabeza with the Vivanco family who have been growing Agave on their estate since the 1920s. They are all masters of their craft and so getting to work with them was an honour for us. We took their initial distillates and tested them in classic cocktails. This is when we started taking notes that we took back to the distillers who made the recipe tweaks needed to improve the spirit for mixing. For some of the spirits it only took one or two changes, and for others as many as 20-30 changes were made. While the spirits were being formulated we started working on a bottle design that was specifically designed for functionality. At first we were just going to use a stock bottle to keep packaging costs down but through some research we discovered we could make our own bottle without increasing the cost of goods. We enlisted the help of a water bottle designer and took the opinions of over 150 bartenders. The results were as expected, a bottle that is ergonomic and easy to hold, fits speed pourers well, has a consistent pour, a long neck and measurements on the side. The next stage was my least favorite part of the journey – obtaining label approvals, getting compliant and setting up distribution as it is very litigious and often requires lawyers. It also takes three times longer than you think it will. Once all that has been completed, it’s time to go and sell. Even with a great product and a great label, the odds are stacked against you. Your marketing budgets will be peanuts compared to the competition and you are only a small group of people trying to sell against mighty sales forces. Of everything I have ever done in my career, this has been the most difficult and challenging.

What advice would you give to bartenders thinking of getting their own products out there?

Anyone who is planning on starting his or her own spirits company should know that it’s going to take a lot longer than you anticipate – remember overnight success takes at least 5 years. I think that finding business partners with skill sets other than yours is a good idea; for example, if you are the creative person, find someone who is good with finance and organisation. Finally, starting up with a some capitol is wise as it’s a very competitive market place and it will most likely be a few years before you see any profits.

What makes your gin more versatile for mixing than another gin?

The thought behind the gin started over a brunch with Sasha Petraske at Blue Ribbon Bakery in New York. We drew a flavour map of botanicals and matched them to classic gin cocktails. I took that to Charles Maxwell, our Master Distiller and we started distilling. There are a few reasons Fords Gin is versatile for mixing. My personal favourite attribute is the high oil content. During development, we tested different ratios of botanicals to alcohol and we increased the quantity of botanicals a few times for higher oil content — the result is a viscous and silky texture, making it great for stirred drinks. The high juniper content combined with the botanicals being steeped in the base alcohol for 15 hours prior to distillation—which pulls out a lot more flavour, helps create a full flavour in the gin that plays well in long drinks like fizzes and G&Ts. The botanical profile was also built to support both lemon and lime based sour cocktails. Juniper, coriander, Jasmine and orange all support lemon citrus. Cassia, lemon and grapefruit support lime. To say our gin is more versatile than other gins is something I will let the bartenders who mix with it decide because taste is a very subjective thing. Our goal with Fords Gin was to create a workhorse/go-to gin for cocktails, but I know enough about gin to understand that you’ll always need at least four or five gins in your bar… my aim is of course to be one them.

How do you know when you get the “right” formulation? What kind of testing is involved?

All I can say is lots of Margaritas, Palomas, Bloody Mary’s, Moscow Mules, Martinis, French 75s, Negronis, Tom Collins, Corpse Revivers, Gimlets, Mary Pickford’s, Hemingway’s, El Presidentes and Daiquiris were harmed during the development of The 86 Company spirits. We would set up experiments in which we’d taste different ABV’s of our tequila side-by-side in Margaritas or we would test our gin with different oil contents and ABV’s in martinis. I think all the due diligence and obtaining validation from some of the people in the industry we respect the most helped us make great spirits.

Is it important where the botanicals come from?

Where the botanicals come from is extremely important. Just as the grapes for wine making rely on specific agriculture, geography and climate so do many botanicals. For example, the best juniper grows in chalky and limestone soils in northern Europe.

You display the percentages of the different botanicals in Ford’s Gin in your fact sheet; often these are closely guarded secrets — aren’t you worried that someone will replicate your gin?

The aim of The 86 Company is to share as much information about how our products are made as possible because bartenders like to know about the spirits they serve and don’t always get the opportunity to visit distilleries. We do understand that this opens us up to the possibility of being copied, but I think it’s worth the risk. By sharing the botanical profile of Fords Gin, we will, perhaps, give people a better understanding of how gins are made and how different botanicals act in gin. I also think the list acts as a good reference point when tasting the gin.

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Your website says your labels are “filled with useful and honest information”; what do you think the problems are with most spirits labels?

There are many labels that I really like that don’t carry much information, and I am fine with that because I understand the compromises one has to make with label design to accommodate a lot of information being shown. Besides there is always the internet where you can source the information. I personally see the label as an opportunity to tell the story as well as answer questions that I anticipate people might ask about our spirits, and that is what drove the decision to fill up the label with content about the production of our spirits. There are labels out there that are filled with meaningless terms and tag lines that don’t really mean a great deal though. Terms like handmade, hand-crafted, artisanal, superior, reserve, special reserve, supreme select, select reserve, etc. don’t really have legal definition and terms like distilled 74 times or filtered 17 times through pancakes are misleading. There is an assumption that it sounds special so people will think its good, and in some instances these terms do help us distinguish between different marks within a brand, but in other instances, it’s just plain marketing silliness. My argument is that there are many drinks enthusiasts and professional bartenders who really care about how the spirits they drink or serve are made and where they come from, and I am trying my best to respond to that. We are certainly not the first people to do this, but I do wish more brands would.

Where do you hope this spirits venture will be in 5 years time?

My first hope is that we are still around. It would be even better to still be around and financially stable. Once that is achieved, I would like to see The 86 Company take a role in helping other bartenders who want to become spirit entrepreneurs set up shop. By then we will have gained so much knowledge of distribution, production and the legal aspects of building a spirits company that we could easily save people a lot of time and effort and hopefully be in a position to provide good advice and contacts also.

Jay, Dushan and I have a bucket list of bartenders and distillers we would like to work with on future collaborations because our belief is that bartenders use spirits more than anyone else, they pour them all not long and they try them in countless different mixed drinks. This gives them incomparable insights into the consumer and what people like, and this inevitably makes it a great breeding ground for innovation for our industry. To be in a position to bring some of those ideas to life is one of my dreams, but first things first, The 86 Co needs to survive and that’s what my focus will be for the next 5 years.


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