“Simon Ford is the most important person in the room, not because of drinks he’s invented, but because he recognized what we were doing before we realized it,” explains Mixologist Eben Klemm. Thus begins the Ballad of Simon Ford, a man who once dreamed about a career in economics, but fate had something quite different in store for him.
As with many things that have to do with Simon Ford, it was a friend with an opportunity to go traveling that changed Simon’s life, and would ultimately set him on a course that would lead him to becoming one of the most significant influencers in the spirits industry.
In 1991, Simon, 19 years old, drops out of college and travels with a friend to Romania to help out at an orphanage. Upon his return to the UK he gets a job at a wine shop. Simon quickly begins to shine and the shop decides to pay to put him through training for his WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) sommelier certification. Simon spends five years working at the wine shop, making his way up to store manager.
In 1996, Simon is headhunted by Seagram’s as a marketing manager for Absolut Vodka. “The UK was trailing the US by about 5 years in terms of popularity for vodka, so this was a really exciting time to be working for that brand,” says Simon. At Seagram’s, Simon works for Nick Blacknell. “Nick is a marketing genius. People like Sidney Frank get a lot of credit because they made a lot of money, but Nick has been a key guy behind the success of Absolut, Plymouth Gin, he revitalized Beefeater, and now Jameson. He’s f’ing brilliant and he’s my mentor,” explains Simon.
If you could trace back to one defining moment that helped put Simon Ford where he is today, it would be Nick Blacknell bringing Plymouth Gin into the Seagram’s portfolio. “Nick recognized something very important. He saw a vision of the future where Absolut is sold on image alone, when it shouldn’t be. So he decided to start bringing in products that would be sold on quality, and that’s when he brought on Plymouth Gin.”
In 2000, Simon’s life took an interesting turn when Seagram’s began to fail. Simon was laid off from his position and given a generous severance package, which he invested with his friend Jake Kempston to build a bar in Brighton called Koba. The bar would quickly gain notice, winning accolades, and putting Simon front and center in the exploding UK cocktail scene that includes Nick Strangeway and Tony Conigliaro, both of whom would play significant roles in Simon’s career.
After the fall of Seagram’s, Nick Blacknell was tapped to run Plymouth Gin and one of his first calls was to Simon Ford to help with the global launch of the gin. This sent Simon off to the US. It’s here where Simon really began to perfect his craft. Rather than trying to just sell Plymouth Gin, Simon began working to educate bartenders. “We launched Plymouth Gin into a world of vodka, where almost no one cared. This forced us to go back to basics and convince people to look at the whole category of gin,” explains Simon. While many US bartenders shrugged their shoulders at gin, Simon found interest from the likes of Audrey Saunders (who would open the Pegu Club), Dale DeGroff (at the Rainbow Room) and Julie Reiner (at the Flatiron Lounge).
In many ways Simon became a bridge between the booming cocktail scene in the UK and the burgeoning cocktail scene in the US, and he often brought the two worlds together. “David Kaplan and Phil Ward came to London, so I brought them to see Nick Strangeway at Hawksmoor who was doing great steaks, and punches with fresh produce. Dave and Phil brought the punch back with them to Death and Company and it’s there where David Wondrich cites punch’s re-entry into America,” says Simon. “I thought I was just on the periphery of all this, but soon I realized that, being there, I was very much a part of it all.”
In a strange and circuitous way, Simon was reunited with Absolut Vodka when Absolut Spirits acquired Plymouth Gin in 2006, the same year that Simon brings Plymouth in as a key sponsor for Tales of the Cocktail. “After Hurricane Katrina hit, our key sponsor backed away and so we had zero funding. Simon stepped in with Plymouth. He had heard about the event and wanted to support it,” comments Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail.
Tales of the Cocktail gave Simon a perfect platform for his educational efforts. “The key to what Simon is all about is that he’s constantly reaching out and educating bartenders around the globe. Everything he does is in a fun creative way, and he collaborates with others. He’s educating them but he’s also learning from them, and then he takes what he learns as he travel and shares it with others,” explains Ann.
In 2008 two major things happened for Simon. In July, Simon launched the first big party at Tales of the Cocktail. Along with Audrey Saunders they started the “Bartender’s Breakfast”, a late night party to celebrate the end of Tales of the Cocktail. Shortly thereafter, Pernod Richard bought Absolut and along with it, Plymouth. “I didn’t know if I was going to have a job or not. The deadline came and went and I still didn’t know,” recalls Simon.
Both Simon Ford and his mentor Nick Blacknell went on to become a part of Pernod Ricard. At Pernod, Simon had the backing of one of the world’s largest beverage alcohol companies in the world. This meant he traveled more, connected with more bartenders around the world, covered more brands, and found himself orchestrating bigger and bigger events. “We did Juniperlooza both in New York and San Francisco – it was a celebration for all things gin.” At Tales, Simon went from having an idea for a little party to producing both the massive opening and closing events, including Bartender’s Breakfast, which has become one of the industry’s most sought-after parties.
In 2010, Pernod Ricard tapped Simon to move beyond the world of brand ambassadors and tasked him with being a public face for the company and a representative of the bartending community in the media. Simon again found himself in a world badly in need of education. “It’s an important task, making the media understand what goes into a cocktail. All they see is what is on the menu and a bartender who shakes or stirs something. They don’t see any of the things that go into it.”
Simon found himself educating a new audience, with appearances on Emeril’s Table, Wall Street Journal Live, and Liquor.com. He took to the road with Jim Meeham to help support the PDT Cocktail Book, and is a host for Speed Rack, a national women’s bartending competition that supports breast cancer research and treatment.
The Ballad of Simon Ford is a happy one: a song about a guy who always managed to be in the right place at the right time; whose drive to educate, entertain, and connect always made the people around him better; and, whose passion for spirits has helped make him one of the most important people in the room.