When it comes to bartending, drinks, spirits and cocktails, Simon Ford is arguably one of the most well-known names in the industry, having been involved with some of the best bars in the world, and even named best brand ambassador at the 2007 Tales of the Cocktail awards.
Lately, Ford has also been making a name for himself with his very own gin – Fords Gin – which is one of four spirits made by The 86 Company, which Ford formed together with fellow bartenders and industry veterans Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric.
“The 86 Co. is a company of bartenders who collaborate with some of the best distillers in the business to make spirits for mixing in cocktails, with the input of professional bartenders,” he explained during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Formed in 2012, Ford said that the journey of The 86 Co. started with the idea of how a spirit works in a cocktail.
“We don’t look at what goes into the bottle as our final product – we look at what the bartender does with it as the final product. When we make our spirits or bottle, we base it around the bartender’s experience,” said Ford.
Being bartenders, they understood what bartenders need, and they also have constant conversations with other bartenders about what would work well with classic cocktails within a given category.
The company took the same approach when it came to designing their bottles.
“Bartenders are always fond of functionality when they are working behind a bar. So we made a bottle that you could pour in different ways, and one that is as ergonomic as possible for a bartender who is working for long periods behind a bar,” said Ford.
“We are constantly changing our bottles, adding a few tweaks here and there. For instance, we found out that some bartenders like to reuse the bottles for juices or mixers, so we made our labels so that they peeled off easily without leaving any sticky residue on the glass.”
The 86 Co. currently has four spirits in their portfolio – Cana Brava Rum, Fords Gin, Tequila Cabeza, and Alesbury Duck Vodka – all with their own unique stories of how they came to be.
Cana Brava Rum
This was the spirit that really got The 86 Co. journey going. Being a US-based company, the majority of the bartenders the company spoke to when doing their surveys were based there, and one of the things they complained a lot about was the fact that they couldn’t get Cuban rums, because of the United States’ Cuban products embargo.
“They wanted that rum to make Cuban cocktails with an authentic Cuban product,” said Ford.
They then started doing research on alternatives, looking at old Cuban rums and tasting them, and narrowed it down to a distinctive style that tied those rums together.
“It was a clean spirit that was quite young, light, fresh, and with very grassy sugarcane flavours. It made sense, because when you taste them in a daiquiri or a mojito, these are refreshing clean drinks using a refreshing, clean rum,” he said.
“Once we got the flavour profile, we decided to see if we can make them somewhere other than Cuba.”
The 86 Cos spirits come in bottles designed to make it easier for the bartender to hold them in different ways.
As luck would have it, they met a man called Francisco “Don Pancho” J. Fernandez, who used to distil rum in Cuba for 35 years and is the Master Distiller at Las Cabres Distillery in Panama.
“He understood the style and how it was made, and we went to make rum with him in Panama.
“What makes the rum stylistically unique is the sugarcane gets cut down by hand, and within 120 hours of that, we have the spirit ready for ageing. That’s all done to retain the grassy freshness in the sugarcane,” Ford explained.
While the Cana Brava 3-Year-Old was originally meant to be the only rum they made, they started wondering what would happen if they aged the rum longer, so they came up with the limited edition Cana Brava 7-Year-Old.
“We let the rum sit in the barrel longer and didn’t filter it, so we could show an expression of the exact same rum but older and not-filtered,” he said.
“Gin is my baby, that’s why it has my name on it!” Ford said, laughing.
“Whereas the rum was uniquely Cuban-styled, the idea behind the gin was to make it versatile with every type of cocktail – a go-to gin for any cocktail.”
According to him, within the gin category, there are some that are good for making certain cocktails, but not others. Fords Gin was meant to be a hybrid of all those different styles, a good solid gin that can be used with any cocktail.
“We had flavour maps that tied the flavour styles of 14 different classic cocktails with the botanicals in the gin,” he said.
“For instance, a gin for a gimlet would need a flavour profile that works well with lime, so in Fords you’ve got the cassia bark and grapefruit, which go well with lime. Also, there’s jasmine, which goes well with honey, so you’ve got the Bee’s Knees covered. Things like that.”
Distilled in London at Thames Distillers, it has a mix of nine botanicals, with a traditional London dry gin base of juniper and coriander seed, and balanced with citrus (bitter orange, lemon and grapefruit peels), floral (jasmine flower and orris) and spice (angelica and cassia).
“When we were making our gin, I wanted to make sure that juniper is the star of our gin, because there are so many gins out there these days where you can hardly taste the juniper!” he said.
It took Ford five years to finally be satisfied with his gin, and he initially did not want his name on the label.
“I didn’t like the name, actually! It was the late and great bartender Sasha Petraske (who died in 2015) who said I had to have my name there. My business partners loved it, but I didn’t, so when we did the labels, I didn’t put the apostrophe in it, so it doesn’t mean that I own it!” he said.
The direction for the tequila came from Zaric, who felt that there was something missing in tequila products.
“A lot of cheaper tequilas tend to be very light – good for pouring shots but losing their character in a cocktail. And the ones that are tend to be too expensive for cocktails. So Zaric wanted to find some middle ground by borrowing some of the techniques that the more expensive tequilas use and applying them to a tequila that would be more accessible,” Ford recalled.
For the tequila, The 86 Co. works with the Vivanco family in Mexico, which has been cultivating agave in the Los Altos region of Jalisco since the 1920s, and producing tequila at their distillery, El Ranchito, for three generations.
“We wanted a tequila with more agave flavour … in fact, we wanted a tequila that had the most agave flavour out there!” he said.
“They use winter fermentation to bring out more of the agave flavours, and a no-oxygenation technique to smooth it out. We also upped the alcohol so it really comes through in a cocktail.”
Alesbury Duck Vodka
Of The 86 Co.’s four products, Alesbury Duck Vodka is probably the most unlikely one.
“Vodka is the tofu of spirits!” Ford said, laughing. “Vodka tends to be a bit sidelined by bartenders. Most bartenders would want a good range of rum, gin, or whisky, but maybe only one vodka.”
However, one of the company’s partners is from the Balkins and is very passionate about vodka, so they decided to come up with one for bartenders.
Aylesbury Duck is made from a soft white winter wheat sourced directly from local farmers in the Western Rockies of Canada.
“Our vodka is very wheat-y, and very rich, with creamy butterscotch, cacao, creamy notes,” he said. “A lot of vodkas are over distilled and end up tasting like rubbing alcohol. We wanted something that had a lot of flavour and would carry that in a cocktail.
“If you only wanted to have one vodka in your bar, we were hoping that ours would fit that bill! It’s a vodka hater’s vodka!”
Michael Cheang wonders if The 86. Co will ever make a whiskey for whiskey haters. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy) or follow him on Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).