Podcast

Simon Ford from Ford's Gin

In recent years, Ford’s Gin has become the bartender’s gin. Why? Well, as Simon Ford himself says, ‘it does what it says on the label.’

By: Tiff Christie|September 10,2020

No matter where you are in the world, you can usually tell the quality of the bar you’re standing in by whether they have Fords Gin on the back bar, or even in their well.

Referred to by those ‘in-the-know’, as the bartender’s gin, Ford’s has become the benchmark for a good all-round gin. Even though the gin was originally released back in 2014, it’s reputation continues to grown and it is still going strong.

Today, we talk to the man himself, Simon Ford, about building a brand, what makes Fords different and why you should probably have a bottle at your home too.

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No matter where you are in the world, you can usually tell the quality of the bar you're standing in by whether they have Fords Gin on the back bar, or even in their well. Referred to by those in the know as the bartender's gin, Fords started back in 2014, and is still going strong. Today we talk to the man himself, Simon Ford, about building a brand, what makes Ford’s different and why you should probably have a bottle at your home too.

Thanks for joining us Simon.

Thanks for having me. This is great talking from the other side of the world.

Now, you were a bartender and brand ambassador. What made you think about creating a gin?

It was a perfect storm of a lot of different moments in my life that really sort of led to it. I don't think I ever really sort of dreamed one day I would start my own company or start my own gin or make my own gin. But gin obviously, was something I was really passionate about and had been for about 15 years, as a brand ambassador.
I was working for a company that sort of was not channeling my creative side as much as it used to. And so, I had this sort of energy to sort of create and do. In the meantime, about three or four different friends of mine started gin brands, and of course, called me for help and advice and connections and various things. And I'm like, "Why are they doing it and not me?"
And then a good friend of mine who I worked with also lost his work. And he said, "Let's just do this, Simon." His name was Maltais, and I think really, that was the sort of icing on the cake, was his motivation, because he had something that I didn't have. I might've been able to create a gin and work on the sort of marketing, but he had organisational skills and operational skills, and more importantly, business skills. Sometimes very helpful.

Now, why do you think in a world flooded with gins at the moment, why do you think it's been so popular?

It was a really interesting journey that we took when we created it. And I think that it's that journey and the sort of sentiment behind that journey, that's helped it resonate. And I think half of what makes it do so well is that we didn't reinvent the wheel, we didn't try too hard to be too different. We just wanted to make a good everyday gin that tasted great in mixed drinks and was a decent price and something that ultimately tasted like gin, celebrated juniper and the sort of other flavours commonly known.
So we ended up making a London dry gin, but I think that the journey itself started with myself and a group of sort of bartender friends, just wondering what it is that we liked about different gins that made up a great cocktail gin.
Ultimately, gin is used in mixed drinks more often than most spirits and so, we started looking at why that is and the different things about gin that we loved. And then we decided to put steroids on that and amp up all of those different flavours that we really liked within it and the styles and the viscosity for mixing in martinis and stirred drinks. And really make something that we felt would resonate with the people that use it every day, and that's the bartender, with the hope and dreams that one day, just like people walked into hair salons and bought the shampoo there, that they would see what bartenders were using and would hopefully say, "What's that Fords Gin that you guys are using here? How about we bring that home?"
And then hopefully, when you bring a bottle of Fords Gin home, you won't be disappointed that it's a great gin that makes your cocktails tastes good. So that was sort of the, the mission. And I feel like we had achieved it, and that's without going too crazy. And there's a lot of really innovative and brilliant gins making the industry very exciting and the gin world very exciting. And I hope we're a part of that landscape, but more importantly, I just think we make a good, solid gin.

And how long was that process of trying to pull out the things that you liked about gin and beefing them up?

Oh, gosh, it was an incredible process. And actually, this is the bit where you do need a business partner. It took me about two and a three quarter years to actually come up with the recipe for Fords Gin. And we made about 83 different versions of the gin, worked with several different distillers in the process. Me making gin myself as well in certain places, testing the different recipes we've made in cocktails in their natural habitat, which is the cocktail bar. So there was all of that going on.
And even if you sort of rewind right to the beginning, it started really with Sasha Petrosky, who's no longer with us, but he was the founder of Milk & Honey. But he and I would sit late night at the Blue Ribbon Bakery in New York City, with a pile of cocktail books and a pile of flavour pairing manual guides, things like The Flavour Matrix and Flavour Bible, and books like that.
We'd look at the different flavours found in classic cocktails and different flavours in gins and the botanicals of gins, and looking at which ones paired with each other and why, so that we could conceptualise what would make a great mixing gin. So it started as a concept and evolved into something that we just tested and tested. And then that's why I think we didn't reinvent the wheel, because what we ultimately ended up with was a London dry gin.
So yeah, two and a three quarter years to answer your question, a mighty long time. And the business side of my business partnership, Maltais, wasn't happy with the amount of time it took just to say that, but it was worth it. It was worth the wait.

Yes. Now, you talked about working with a variety of distillers. You ended up choosing Charles Maxwell. Why did you decide to work with him?

It was a really interesting process. It took me a few years before I even admitted this to Charles himself, but I had the recipes, the conceptualised recipes, that Sasha and I had sort of come up with. And we're like, "Okay, who's going to make this for us?"
And so, I'd met a lot of people within the gin industry and gin business over the years. So I had a good amount of places where I could go, Charles being one of them. So I made some gins myself in where we were hoping to distill. There was a few other distilleries that I won't mention for the sake of ... they actually do make good gins, but they just didn't make good gins for me, a few other distilleries, and Charles was one of them.
We just sent the first round of recipes and we got back all of the gins and tested them. And Charles' was by far the best. And then we got to the second round and Charles' was the best. And then when it came to actually going and working, getting my hands dirty and rolling my sleeves up with him, I called him the master of no nonsense, because we had some crazy ideas. And every time we did, it kind of was a reality check for me.
And let's not forget to mention that he's a 10th generation gin distiller whose family have been making gin since 1680, so he knows a thing or two. So it was like working with one of the sort of gin masters as at were. So for me, it was a great honour and privilege. And I know he's made gins for other people, but I think that the combination of the insights that I was getting from the bartenders that were mixing with it and you utilising his sort of skill for botanicals and gin making, we came up with something that was quite special.

Now, you're living in the US at the moment but the gin is still distilled in London. Why not move the production over to the US?

That's is a very good question. I mean, the first answer to that would definitely be Charles Maxwell. Thames Distillers is really sort of our adopted home for Fords Gin. And Charles Maxwell, it's his distillery, and he oversees the production of it all. And so, that to me is a great level of quality control.
The other reason I think, and this is sort of the hidden reason, is the level of botanicals, just because a lot of the gin industry, the sizeable side of it at least, is based in London. The quality of juniper and various other botanicals going through the botanical brokers there is just ... Again, this may have been a knowledge thing, but what we were finding that we get a hold of in London was far superior than what I was able to get in the US. And that's not to say there aren't people getting good botanicals here. But my skillset, having worked for other English gins, as it were, was how to find good botanicals in the UK. And I wasn't having as much luck over here in the USA.
So we found a system where we work with a company who have been around for 125 years that go on the search for the botanicals that we use for Fords Gin, and they're also based in London. So there's just a wealth of experience and history with gin based in London that makes it the reason why our gin, even though I'm living here now, is going to always remain made in England.

Now, speaking of the botanicals, I believe the gin has nine. What made you settle on those to create the ultimate all-rounder?

Yeah, there was no real set amount of botanicals in the testing, interestingly. It just ended up being the gin that everyone liked the best. The one that we felt mixed the best had nine botanicals. So we had some gins that had a few additional botanicals in it, but some of those botanicals would mask the flavours of the one in it, or make it less compatible with certain drinks.
The ones with the less didn't have the sort of complexity, the sort of brightness of the citrus that we were looking for. So it was really, I would say, that we weren't aiming to have a nine botanical gin. We just ended up with a nine botanical gin based on all of the taste tests and cocktail testing that we did with the different gins. Because if you think about it, we were sort of moving forward with about five, six different recipes at one point. And they all started getting more and more similar and sort of merging in style, which was also quite interesting. And then it was a case of refining and tweaking.
And so, the nine botanicals that we have, definitely did what we were really trying to do for Fords Gin, and one, was have something that was juniper predominant. I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to juniper in gin. I think that you got to taste juniper. Juniper has got to be the prominent flavour of your gin, and we use a very delicate style of Juniper, but it's still there. It's not too piney, but it's half of our recipe. But also wanted a recipe with lots of bright citrus. Citrus helps in citrus-y drinks, but also adds brightness to stirred drinks like your martinis.
And then we had the florals in there to add the aromatics and then couple of sweet spices. And they're not really sweet. It's Cassia bark, the one that's like cinnamon and Angelica, but they add this sort of perception of sweetness, which gives balance on the palette. Again, perfect for martinis and stirred drinks.
So there was sort of purpose in those nine botanicals. And when we started trying to mess with it or add other elements, because you always feel like you could do something different and more to your gin, every time we did it, we weren't improving it. I think between Charles and I, we made about 16 more gins after we got to this recipe, the recipe that is Fords Gin today. We've made it. People loved it.
I even remember Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail himself, was in the distillery with us the day that we were like, "That's the gin." And he was there. He's like, "That's definitely the gin." We tried four or five different gins. We still tried 14, 15, 16 gins after that. And then we went, "You know what? We're trying to improve on something that I don't think we can improve upon." And so, that's how we ended up with it.

Now, the gin is now six years old. Do you feel that it still holds up as a jack-of-all-trades gin?

More than ever. A lot of innovation in gin, a lot of excitement in gin. And I think that there are some staples in the gin industry that dominated really in the gin industry for the past centuries. Or even if you sort of come into more recent times, the last 20 years, he sort of gin back bar had been dominated by a very small few.
Now, the last 10 years of gin have been extremely exciting, Australia being a pivotal place for that excitement as well. And I've seen lots of great innovation happening. And so, do I think that the market is a little cluttered? I mean, the fact that gin's gone to flavoured gins might allude to that. I don't really need to press my own opinion on that. But at the same time, just because Ford’s is a very traditional style of gin, I actually think it stands out more now because of its classic nature. Because there's so many other gins out there doing so many great things, I feel like it's nice to see this sort of modern classic coming out in this moment.

Can you talk us through the steeping and the distillation a little bit and how those affect the gin?

Yeah. So Fords Gin is steeped. And the botanicals, when you sort of look at the botanicals, a lot of them have been hung out to dry. So the citrus peels have been hung out to dry. So they're dried so that they retain that oils, so that you can keep stock of it throughout the year. Juniper berries are often quite dried when they arrive. And then if you think about things like a Cassia bark or Angelica, they're like little roots or bark, right? So they're quite dry in themselves as ingredients.
And then something like Jasmine flower, one of our key and core ingredients, steeping anything like that is going to bring out more flavour. So what's happening when you're steeping them is something like jasmine, the flavours are being brewed like you were putting them in hot water.
And so, they're really infusing those flavours into the alcohol. And then the more dry botanicals are the one ... you're adding moisture over that period, and they're getting softer and softer. So you're going to extract more essential oil and essentially more flavour out of them. So we steep for about 15 hours.
The way we do it is we usually run a still run of gin. We clean the stills out afterwards, and then we load it back up again with all of the botanicals and neutral grain spirit. And then we leave it overnight, come back in the morning, and we can make another batch. And it will have soaked in there or steeped the technical term, I guess, for 15 hours.
So really, the number one reason for steeping is to pull out and extract more flavour. Now, the distillation part's a little bit more traditional, of course, and it's the same story as most gins that I know. We essentially, boil the stills or heat up the stills. And as those essential oils cook into the alcohol, they'll vaporise and condense, and what we have at the other side is essentially Ford’s Gin. We'll remove their heads and the tails and keep that middle part, and then cut it down with water to bring it to the proof, which for us is 90 proof or 45% ABV.

You've created a number of different spirits over your working life. What is it about gin that has tempted you to make it your focus?

Yeah. Gin has always been my passion within this industry. Really, it dates back to when I sort of was running a wine shop. I tended to obviously drink wine, running a wine shop, and gin was my go-to spirit in that time. And then of course, I would get to actually work at Plymouth Gin for all those years. And that was Plymouth Gin when it was really coming back to the market. It had been purchased in 1996 as a old distillery that wasn't doing much. And I joined in 1998. And by 2002, I was traveling the world, teaching people the virtues of gin.
And so, I sunk my teeth into the category, and I've always loved our industry. And so, I've loved all of the other categories. Particular, a fan of a agave spirits. For example, I've always loved a good cognac. Rum fascinated me, especially the history of it as a category. So I think that my skillset and my knowledge and my passion lay in gin, whereas the others were much more passion projects. I think that showed. You know?
As I went into the gin project, there was a deep understanding that we knew what we were doing. Externally, people looked at what we're doing and took us seriously. And I'm not sure that I ever heard anyone actually say this to me, but I'm sure they said it when I wasn't around, and go, "What's he doing, trying to make a tequila?"
So I think there was a little bit of that. I actually am really proud of the other spirits that we made, but I do think that the commercial acumen, the knowledge of marketplace, the knowledge of product and how to make it, and what makes a good gin, really shone through among all of the other things that I'd done in my time

Now, if someone were to buy a bottle of the gin for the first time, how would you describe the flavour profile that they will experience?

So if someone were to do what people often don't do with gin, is sort of sit there with a little neat, room temperature glass of Fords Gin, just to sort of analyse it, I would suggest having a little splash of water at the ready. And I'd say, "Take a little sip." Because Fords is a little bit like a .zip file. With a little splash of water, which is the dilution essentially that you're adding when you make a cocktail, the flavours really open up and so does the viscosity. It becomes a much richer. It becomes much more full-bodied with about, I'd say, a splash of water, about 10% of the liquid base. But what you're going to get when you add that little splash of water is ... When I try Ford’s without that little splash of water, I get the delicate juniper that I was talking about earlier, and a nice little sort of citrus-y note that brightens it up. And it tastes very traditional.
When I have that splash of water, the citruses open up, the coriander that we use in it starts to fight with the juniper. And I love the battle that it's having for flavour within the glass. And then the jasmine and the florals and the spices come to life. And you start to get that viscosity that makes it great for mixing in a martini. So this bright jasmine grapefruit finish. You get the pithiness of the grapefruit on the very end of the palette. So that's obviously my really technical way of saying what Fords Gin tastes like, but it tastes like gin. It does what it says on the label.

Even though the gin is an all-rounder, are there some cocktails that you believe it plays better in than others?

There are. There are a few that I do push forward, personally. The first is a classic martini, I think partly, because that to me, has always been the litmus test for a good gin. If you don't taste good in a martini, I think you should go home, personally. That's the entry level. And so, I always encourage people to try Fords. It's a very clean, crisp martini that it makes. But that dilution thing I was talking about, it makes ... Our gin stands up really well to vermouth and the flavour of vermouth. And so, that's where I edge people towards. Once that little test is out of the way, and there's only so many martinis one should drink anyway, I do push forward to .... I've always liked the Tom Collins with Fords.
You know how I was talking about how the juniper and coriander fight with each other? Well, in the Tom Collins, that juniper really pairs well with the lemon. And as you know, Tom Collins is really a gin sour with a bit of fizz on it. And so, sours have always brought out the flavour of spirit. And so, it does it particularly well, because the juniper and lemon just goes so well, the Juniper that we use.
And I do like a good Gimlet as well from time to time, because of the coriander and the grapefruit goes well with the lime. So that's probably been my trilogy of drinks to try. And then going on from there, I could talk all day about this one, but I do love the Jasmine. It's a great, great gin drink. And I particularly like drinking Beasley's with Fords Gin. The jasmine in the gin and the honey make a nice little pairing within that combination.

Now, you've recently brought out Officer's Reserve. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that?

Sure. That was the first time since launching Ford’s Gin that I really got to have fun and make another gin. And again, I wasn't reinventing the wheel. I was looking at what classic styles of gin are out there, and what I was really trying to do is sort of earn a gin rite-of-passage. I think that if Ford’s makes a great London dry gin, and people think that we've made a great London dry gin, and then we've made a great navy strength gin, and then perhaps a sloe or anything else that sort of people consider a traditional. Once we earned our stripes in that area, then we can go on and do innovations, and people will trust us to bring them fun, new, and exciting things.
So I'm in that process of earning that gin rites-of-passage. Now, navy strength ... obviously, I've worked for the company that pretty much pioneered it as a style. And so, I didn't want to go into their territory. And so, I thought about gin being in barrels. Until the Bottling Act that happened, most spirits were sold in bulk, and gin would have been one of them, and it would have been sold in barrels. And navy strength gin would have been sold in barrels. So why wasn't there any real navy strength that are aged? There were a couple out there, but not many.
And so, that was a fun story for me, but I've never been a big fan of aged gins. There are some good ones out there, again, but not usually a category that I'm drawn to. But at the same time, a friend of mine, Mark Ocaracossavich who makes brilliant whiskeys, partnered with me. He said, "Let's get some barrels, and let's test them out."
And so, when we were testing the barrels, and we tested several different types, there was one that just tasted delicious. And we're like, "Let's just do it." And that was the Amontillado sherry cask. So what's really interesting is that the gin ... this is a sort of a stretch, but the gin probably didn't last long onboard the voyages, so the ageing process wouldn't have been very long. So we were just testing what gin tasted like in these casks from three to six weeks. So saying it's aged is probably a stretch. Rested for a few weeks is better. And for the Officer's Reserve, what we've done is we've just placed it in Amontillado sherry casks for three weeks only, and that's it. So it just brings an extra dimension of flavour, but it doesn't dominate the gin.
I think the reason that I've never really been a big fan of aged gins is because I think the botanicals should be the star and not the wood and the oak. That's how whiskey and other categories get their flavour, and that's not how gin gets its flavour. But with just a few weeks, it really added just a touch of sweetness, a touch of nuttiness, a touch of woodiness that was great. And the extra ABV, because it was navy strength, held a lot more juniper flavour, which brought a little bit more bitterness to the palate, and it balanced it out. So I think that the Officer's Reserves got a ... for anyone that likes gins that strong, it's got a great, robust flavour and a lot of extra juniper flavour that's balanced out by that sweetness. It was fun, but that was sort of impetus behind it, really, just to have some fun with the classic styles of gin that are out there.

With those added notes of sweetness, as you were talking about, how would somebody use the Officer's Reserve compared, for example, to a London dry?

That's a great question. The way we've been using it, and the way we've seen it being used, has been really interesting. So we looked at old classic navy strength drinks, like the Gimlet, like the sort of pink gin, the original pink gin, which is just adding a little splash of Angostura. And we went one step further and did the gin and tonic with Angostura bitters, so that it was like a pink gin and tonic. And that's how we were suggesting to drink with it. But we noticed that the tiki bar started using it a lot more. And so, we were seeing it in tiki drinks. And I think that because of that robust flavour and that richness of flavour, that's why the rum geeks sort of gravitated towards it. So it's sort of used in a completely different way actually, which is fun and nice to see.
Suffering ... I can't say it on air, can I, say Suffering Bastard? That's the famous classic tiki gin drink. Didn't. Seen a lot of those about with it.

You released the Maiden's Voyage number one for Officer's Reserve last year, saying there would probably be another one released in two years. With everything that's been going on, is that still in the cards?

It is. It's been slightly delayed, as life has been slightly delayed for us all. But I can reveal, I don't mind, because I'm not reinventing the wheel on this one. It's not a big innovation. It's our entry level into the sloe gin category, with just like navy strength is, a tiny little niche, and something that's fun. Obviously, it's something that's quite English in style. Sloe berries come on the hedgerows of England. And so, they were often used like ... I always think of sloe gin as the limoncello. What limoncello is to the Italians, is to the English. And so, we decided to make our own version of sloe gin really. And so, we've done all of the formulation, and we've been working and improving it and tweaking it. The sloe berries steep for two to three months in our gin at high proof. And so, we're going to start that batch probably about ... The season's now, so we're going to make it, so that it will be ready for early next year.
Just like we sort of called the Officer's Reserve navy strength, our Maiden Voyage, this one is chiefly termed our Second Outing. And it sort of comes under this sort of header that we call Journeys In Gin, and we're just planning on bringing different journeys throughout the years. So hopefully, you'll see more from us after the sloe.

So that people can see more of you, whereabouts is Fords Gin available?

That's a good question. Are we talking about in Australia right now?

Globally.

Yeah. I probably need to get back to you on that, just because I haven't been able to ... I was supposed to be with you this April, selling into all of the bars and restaurants and accounts and I didn't get that chance. I'm going to hope that the guys at Maybe Sammy have got it. And I definitely know that Mikey Enright had it last time at Barber Shop. And, and if Jason Crawley doesn't have at Fortunate Son, I might have to have a word with him when I get to town next. Same with Sven at Eau De Vie. I know that the Gin Palace. So just thinking about all of the places that I went when I was here last time that had it. And it was a good amount of places, but mostly the cocktail bars.

And what about globally though? I imagine that it's available in the UK and the US. What other markets?

Yeah, it's fun. We're getting ready for a lot of launches when we're allowed outdoors again. But currently, we are in Malaysia, which is fun, Hong Kong. We're in Singapore. I did a little launch in China about a year ago. We're in Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Greece as well, and Spain. So that's a lot of fun, and we're really getting ready right now to launch in Germany early next year as well. Poland's on the cards for next year. And the one that I'm really excited for is Brazil, because Brazil is one of the fastest growing gin markets in the world right now. Who would have-
Yeah, it's amazing. So finally, Ford’s Gin is about to spread its wings, really, and get around the world. It's just our timing to sort of spread our wings wasn't so great. So we're just having to exercise a little bit of patience, but I know that one of my first ports of call is going to be Australia when this is all over and said and done.

Now, if people want more information, they should go to your website, which is fordsgin.com. Thanks for joining us, Simon.

No, that was great. Thanks. Nice to be able to actually talk about the gin. It's my favourite topic, and I feel like all I talk about these days is politics. It's good to have a break.

Excellent. Well, thank you very much for that.

Thank you.

For more information on Ford’s Gin, go to fordsgin.com

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