He buried the Red Headed Slut, founded the institution of the all-expenses paid brand ambassador and recently launched a vodka which is certified clear, odourless and even tasteless. Yes ladies and gents, Simon Ford, the boy from Bath, has done us proud.
Some points to clarify; the Red Headed Slut is not a promiscuous female slumbering six feet under; Simon Ford, at least to our knowledge, has never killed nor buried a human being; and as for his vodka being tasteless, well read the bottle.
Simon Ford may have a lot of humorous stories to his illustrious career, cocktail funerals in New Orleans for a start, but he’s also one of the most respected figures in the drinks industry, on both sides of the Atlantic. Which is why his recent visit to London saw him feature in the London Sessions, where 40 of the city’s bartenders crowded into the Punch Room, London Edition Hotel, to hear him speak. Up front and centre was DrinkUp.London, notepad at the ready.
Simon is currently living in LA, where he jests that 3 miles down the road George Clooney is a near neighbour. Then again if Clooney lived 100 miles away from me, I’d still probably call him a neighbour, so we’ll let him have that one. Originally from Bath, Simon's British accent is slowly slipping and giving way to a mid-Atlantic twang.
Back before Simon counted A-listers among his brethren he was working in a wine shop in Bath. “On my first day I told the manager I only liked sweet rosé and white wine, so I was sent home to write notes on several reds. Wine is, incidentally, still my favourite thing to drink. An ideal night starts with Champagne, moves on to Negronis then a Martini and finally more wine,” he says.
Getting into the wine world Simon went to work a vintage in Bordeaux picking grapes and simply loved it. Moving to wine retailer Oddbins he went to run the store in Brighton, and, in a twist that changed his career forever, became the biggest seller of Absolut in the UK. It wasn’t long before someone noticed this outstanding sales record and quickly offered him a job of brand ambassador.
In those days brand ambassadors were mascots to the brand, nothing like the clued-up, hard working educators we have today. If it was a Scotch whisky brand then the ambassador would be wearing a kilt saying poems about whisky and the Highlands. Simon was hired on Plymouth Gin. From there he was whisked over to the States to launch the product in New York, in 2002, where they’d certainly never heard of an ambassador.
“In London the booze industry was full of young people, over there it was the old guys whose idea of a perfect night out involved cigars, steak and a then visit to a strip club. One of my first jobs was taking a bottle in to see Julie Reiner (the now-famous owner of Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club) and in the queue before me was this guy trying to sell her blue curacao or something and she ripped him to shit. I was so nervous thinking it was about to happen to me.”
Rather than tear Simon limb from limb however, the famous New York bar owner was about to hear knowledge of a product rather than a sales pitch. The role of brand ambassador had just been born in America.
“I had an immediate repore with this tiny group of people but they changed that movement out there. We launched Plymouth in the USA in 2002, this was before Flatiron in 2003 or Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club in 2005. I remember being at those openings. That group of people are legends now, they were just a small group of geeks back then. They were the first friends I had and they were the ones who changed the industry forever. I didn’t know it at the time and I don’t think they did either.”
The next four years were some of Simon’s favourite. The brand decided he was spending too much money on hotels in New York and got him a flat, he was living the proverbial highlife. And yet...as he climbed the corporate ladder, and his position became Director of Trade Marketing in Pernod Ricard, Simon found himself suddenly in charge of looking after the bartending community rather than preaching the botanicals of one small gin. A task made all the more difficult when the brands started unleashing continuous flavoured spirits. “I was being asked to make sure people like Dale Degroff liked these flavoured products while trying to keep respect in the bartending world. This lead me to ask what bartenders wanted from spirits and from there I went on to help start The 86 Co.
The 86 Co.
Simon left his job and, alongside Kris Roth, Malte Barnekow, Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas, founded a new spirits company called The 86 Co. The spirits they produced – so far a gin, rum, tequila and vodka – were designed primarily for the on-trade to mix in cocktails.
This quest to prodcue great spirits led to near-bankruptcy and numerous setbacks. “I never bothered to learn the economics of the spirits industry and once I had left Pernod Ricard I realised there were 17 departments that I hadn’t realised existed. The biggest challenge though was getting the labels approved. TTB America is like the airport security for labels who take everything incredibly seriously. Every month trying to get the labels approved was a month we weren’t selling.”
A last minute change from TTB on the rum label saw the company with sharpies in their hands crossing out all the information that wasn’t allowed to release the bottles from bond.
Having been surrounded by the marketing stories of brands for decades, the team had seen it all, labels which declared a secret ingredient even the master distiller doesn’t know. They wanted products which were honest and mixed well, unfortunately the TTB didn’t want them to be so transparent.The 86 Co, in case you’re wondering, stands for 86 the bullshit (86 being a trade term for there’s no more, as in "86 lime juice").
After the rum, Caña Brava from Las Cabras Distillery in Panama, and the tequila, Tequila Cabeza from El Ranchito in Jalisco, were welcomed by the international trade with open arms the company went on to create a gin, made by Thames Distillers in the UK, Ford’s Gin to be precise.
“I didn’t want my name on it and the reason it took so long was I kept thinking it wasn’t perfect enough. Because it had my name on it I had no confidence to sell the gin. Maybe it’s because I’m British. If I stay in the USA I’ll end up handing it to people saying ‘Ford’s Gin Motherfuckers’ then they’ll respect me more.”
Still battling the TTB on Ford’s, Simon’s colleague Dushan went north to Canada to look at the option of creating a rye whiskey, which turned out to be impossible for the moment.
“He came back from Canada with a vodka. I said no one wants another vodka, even one that tasted pretty good but in classic Dushan style he said it’s the tofu of the spirit world and vegetarians have to eat too. So even though I was still trying to get the Ford’s label approved, we did a vodka.”
Thus Aylesbury Duck Vodka was born. Having been sent a list of what Simon described as “55 shit names” there buried in the middle was Aylesbury Duck, referred to as the most noble woodland bird which has become the strap line for the vodka. A glance at this label will tell you the battle with the TTB was finally over.
“We did this whole fake story to make fun at all the shit stories, and then I put it all on the first label to mess with the TTB. It was the only label to pass on the first run. Honesty never wins.”
A glance will tell you that “the only filtration used in the production of Aylesbury Duck is particle filtration (like with most spirits). We are sorry that we don’t have a fun story about filtering through carbon, diamonds and crystal, etc, but we felt the spirit from the still was good enough without this extra step.” And that it’s made with 'really, really clean water', is 'distilled many time's and has tasting notes of 'clear, odourless and tasteless'.
Ask for his favourite among the spirits he gives them all due compliments before declaring “If I had to put one through university and the others go and get shitty jobs, it would be the gin.”
From nearly going bankrupt to living without a salary and dealing with the stress of owning a business Simon has only this to say; “if you did things for the money then you’d be doing it for the wrong reasons. At least I keep telling myself that.”
New York & London
When Simon first moved to New York he is quite happy to say it was behind London. In those days. Are they still? Well he has two answers for that, depending on where he is.
“Back in those days we took some of London’s finest over there and it was such a different style, the London boys were using fresh fruit and everyone kept saying ‘oh my god it’s a fruit salad’ – New York hadn’t got there yet. But even to this day there are different styles between the two places. England invented the punch; the city makes great long refreshing drinks. In America everything is stirred down and strong and spirituous.
“Bartending has always been more fun in London though. London doesn’t have so many serious speakeasy places because, as Jake Burger pointed out, we would never be so silly as to have prohibition. Employees Only in New York was only recognised for how great it is about 8 years ago because they do good drinks in a fun vibe. London has always done that.”
Tales of the Cocktail
Anyone who has made it into the Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans each year will have sat through some hilarious Simon Ford videos. He started hosting after he won Best Brand Ambassador in 2007 and 2009, meaning he can’t qualify for another award.
“It used to be such a small thing at the end of the week but has grown to become so special and important. There’s always people who don’t agree and that’s why there’s so many judges. Sometimes I think they’re arseholes and then realise that’s just one opinion.”
As a joke Simon decided to host the funeral of the Appletini at Tales of the Cocktail several years ago. 400 drunk bartenders marched down the street after a casket containing the drink. The ceremony even made it into Vogue and Elle thanks to the enduring popularity of shows such as Sex & The City which were painting the Cosmo and Appletini as the most popular drinks of the decade, until 400 bartenders decided to bury it. The next year they did the Red Headed Slut.
And so the legend of Simon Ford has pervaded the drinks culture from funerals in New Orleans to bars in London, New York and beyond. Within the next five years he hopes to leave riff raff like Clooney behind and make the move back to London via New York, or perhaps he was only saying so to appease his London audience. Perhaps not. Just remember if you see him out and about, which invariably will happen if you frequent the good and great of the bars world, he’s favourite drink is free Champagne. Do not under any circumstance order him a Red Headed Slut.