Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
“In 1903 the Wright Brothers took their first flight in North Carolina and the very first automobile trip across the USA occurred,” explains Simon Ford of the 86 Co. “Over the course of history, both the airplane and the automobile have democratised travel.”
Ford worked with brands for almost two decades before starting the 86 Co with his friend Malte Barnekow (Employees Only's Jason Kosmas is also a partner). With four separate brands of their own, including Ford's Gin, travel remains a major part of his life. He reached gold status on two separate airlines last year and, having recently relocated to Nashville, will likely be more reliant on the Wright Brothers than ever.
For his Heering anniversary cocktail, Ford chose to reimagine an earlier invention that also plays on the timeless pairing of Cherry Heering and gin. "I created a drink about four years ago called It Doesn't Take an Empire," he explains. "Obviously both gin and Cherry Heering have spices, and this whole idea of spices came from these old colonial empires." The Star Wars reference is a typical Ford twist.
Even after a decade and a half in the US, Ford remains thoroughly British - right down to a still distinguishable West Country burr. He came of age professionally amid the creative fervour and Wild West opportunities of London's emergent 1990s drinks scene. After starting his career with wine merchant Oddbins, he moved to the drinks company known as Seagrams, then used his severance package to open his own bar, Koba.
"I met all these amazing bartenders - Dick Bradsell, Nick Strangeway - and discovered this whole world of craft bartending," Ford recalls. "We opened a bar above the Oddbins I was managing and turned it into Brighton's first serious cocktail bar."
With a capacity of barely 40, however, and a price ceiling considerably lower than in today's world of reserve spirits, molecular mixology and house-made bitters, it was hard to make any money. When drinks marketing svengali Nick Blacknell asked him to launch Plymouth Gin, Ford jumped at the chance.
In the early noughties, brand ambassadors, like gins, were few and far between. "Back then, you were a character to embody the spirit of your brand. You were being hired as a face, someone that could essentially be an extension of the master distiller, when the master distiller wasn't available," Ford recalls. "Because there so few of us, that was achievable. Now certain brands have a brand ambassador in every city, and it's hard to establish the face of the brand when there are 20 or 30 ambassadors."
The role also brought him into close proximity with Cherry Heering. "When I was working for the Absolut Spirits Company, Nick Blacknell asked me to look after a couple that were working for Danish Distillers," Ford recalls. He planned a night on the town for a pair of hip young Scandinavian industry folk, but the aristocratic and very elderly president of Danish Distillers arrived with his equally veteran wife. Rather than switch tactics and take them to the Savoy, Ford stuck with his original plan, debauchery at Opium, followed by an evening touring bars where the poor old couple endured fluent critiques of their other brands.
Ford's work with Pernod-Ricard was key to starting his own business. It provided him with a personal platform, helped him master trade marketing and brand advocacy, and delivered the insights needed to build a brand tailored to bartenders. Yet, says Ford, who tested 83 different recipes before finally settling on the formula for the gin that bears his name, independence is full of surprises.
"If I were advising a bartender now, I'd say: 'Learn from my mistakes,'" he notes. "Create a business plan that aims to start small and steady. Try and reach a place of profit - even if it's a little bit of profit early on in a smaller universe than trying to take over the world. I call it proof of concept. If you can get it to work in your home town, there's someone who will pay you to take it global."
While less than entirely impressed with the state of brand ambassadorhood in today's global drinks trade, Ford finds the move towards indigenous ingredients - as opposed to just local ingredients - one of many encouraging new trends. "In a way, it's part of the wider conversation about closed loop or green cocktails, where you're looking to reduce waste," he says. "No one is picking a fight with the spirits and cocktail world at the moment, but if they chose to, there's a world of waste."
Yet give Ford a magic wand and his number one wish would be, like the Wright Brothers, to open up the globe. "I'd love to remove passports from bartenders so every bartender could move around the world freely," he says. "We forget how lucky we are. I met a Palestinian bartender, and he can't ever see his family. If he goes back, he'll never be able to leave. That's it. He's estranged forever."
Garnish: Cherry & lemon wheel
Method: SHAKE all ingredients with ice and strain into ice-filled glass. TOP with tonic water.
1oz Cherry Herring
2oz Fords Gin
½oz Freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾oz Cinnamon, ginger & coffee infused simple syrup
1 dash Cardamom bitters
Top with Fever Tree Tonic Water