In this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy gets a lesson on gin from one of the industry leaders himself, Simon Ford. Ford, the creator of Fords Gin, discusses the spirit’s centuries-old influence around the world, and how the G&T was created.
Ford also describes his best practices when making a Gin & Tonic, and how to create great riffs and variations on the simple cocktail. The two also discuss everything from glassware to garnishes, and finally, McKirdy asks Ford some burning questions about his favorite cocktails and bars of all time.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Gin & Tonic.
Gin & Tonic Recipe
- 1 part gin, such as Fords London Dry
- 3 parts tonic water
- Garnish: lemon wedge
- In a highball glass, combine gin and tonic over lots of fresh ice.
- Garnish with lemon.
Check Out The Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” I’m your host, Tim McKirdy, and I’m very happy to welcome Simon Ford to the show. I think you’re going to need to get Sting on the phone because you’ve got a couple of Brits out here hanging out in New York.
Simon Ford: It’s great to be here talking about my favorite topic, classic cocktails. Love the show. Love what it’s all about, and glad we can talk about another drink today.
T: Thank you, Simon. Regular listeners of the show will be very familiar with yourself or at least your gin brand because I feel like Fords Gin comes up so often that I felt like we have to reach out to you. And I know you have that extensive history in bartending yourself, too. So I felt like it was becoming a bit awkward. We had to get you on the show because this is overdue by this point.
S: And now I promise, I promise this is like we haven’t sponsored this. I’m here as a guest. This is organic. This is not pay-to-play.
T: History also being something which I know is dear to your heart, we are going to get into an incredible historical cocktail today. Because the Gin & Tonic is drenched in history, like so many of these gin drinks are that we’ve mentioned so far. But this one perhaps even more so than others, right? We’re going to get into that. That’s going to be great.
S: Well, it’s another one of those great classic drinks that is for “medicinal purposes.” You talked with Toby about the Gimlet and scurvy, and vitamin C. Of course, the Pink Gin was for stomach upset while at sea. So there are many drinks, a lot of them gin drinks because they were created onboard ships of the merchant navy, and were created for medicinal purposes. Gin & Tonic is another one that sort of Brits abroad found a way to not be sick while they travel, and the Gin & Tonic is kind of ensconced in that history of ultimately having and finding a super drug. Which is quinine that comes from this bark that stops malaria, it’s anti-malarial, and has other benefits. But it tastes pretty disgusting on its own. Over the course of probably a few centuries, they figured out how to actually make it taste palatable. And that’s usually when you introduce some form of spirit to the mix. And of course, what more British spirit can you bring to the mix other than gin?
T: Gin, of course. Like you mentioned, we’ve discussed the Gimlet before. That was in terms of trying to make sure that you were able to preserve this fresh ingredient, the lime juice. But as you said here, the key to tonic water and the G&T essentially is making that lifesaving ingredient potable and actually palatable and something you can drink. So bring us up to somewhat of a modern-day. Where did gin and tonic meet, and what brings it to being an essentially British cocktail?
The History of the Gin & Tonic
S: Yeah. To think of how long it took the Gin & Tonic to develop, the R&D process was about 400 to 500 years before they actually had Gin & Tonic tasting as good as it does today. If you go back and look at the history of gin, it starts itself as a very primitive, badly made poor spirit. You have the gin craze where it’s Old Tom Gin, known as Mother’s Ruin. Gin Lane is painted by William Hogarth to depict how bad gin is, and the government comes in and starts to legislate gin after being for sale in England for 150 years at this point. But it was considered illicit and not a very-good-for-you product. But then around the 1750s, they put in all of these gin acts. They put in all of these acts from Parliament to regulate how gin is made. Then, you have wealthy merchants get involved and they start making the recipes that we now know today and they start putting a spin on it, that sort of quality. You start bringing in all of these herbs and spices that have been discovered around the world, and it starts to get more and more exciting as a category. So we’re already 150 years into trying to make gin palatable at this point. If you go back to the 1600s and you’re in Peru and Bolivia in this part of South America, and there’s the quina tree and there is this magical bark there, cinchona bark, which has this powder that you can derive from it, that basically cures chills. And it didn’t taste very good. But they were Jesuits that went out and they saw them taking it for these chills. And it wasn’t very palatable, but they did the same thing and they started adding sugar. So all of a sudden, you start to get the base of what will be tonic water over there. And while meanwhile, back in England they are getting the base of what is going to be gin. But of course, the two need to meet at some point now. The dirty part of this history is that there was colonization going on in the British. The East India Trading Company was traveling around the world, and they were a private company. It’s crazy to think that as a private company and how capitalism manifested itself back then, they had an army of about 260,000 troops. It was about twice the size of the English army itself at the time. And they had amassed wealth as a company, which, if it was in today’s money, is akin to about 7 or 8 trillion U.S. dollars. So we’re talking about eight Elon Musks. Yet these are just annoying British people with bad mustaches and stupid helmets going around the world with their guns and pompousness. So you have that going on, and they discover that this quinine is going to stop malaria, which was a massive killer. So all of a sudden they start protecting the fields where this quinine was coming from and taking it for themselves so that they could be the ones that didn’t get malaria. You have the British and the Dutch, separately, getting their hands on all of this cinchona bark. They were growing trees, growing farms, and it became one of the biggest commodities in the world. And of course, they sent their armies to protect it. Meanwhile, things are getting better over in England when it comes to gin because they’re starting to develop these great brands. The gin palaces are opening. Yeah, and everyone’s drinking punch and classic cocktails are starting to emerge around the beginning of the 1800s. I think the Gin & Tonic, the way it is today, came to play around 1850 in India. But the journey from there — and it really starts from this guy in 1772. There’s a guy called Joseph Priestley. He’s a chemist, and he’s the first guy that essentially isolates oxygen in a gaseous form and then puts it into liquid. So essentially, we have carbonation for the very first time. This is going to play into how the Gin & Tonic develops. But I’m saying this happens in 1772 and the Gin & Tonic starts to take off in 1850. The gin and quinine didn’t meet each other ahead of that. So in 1806, we got our first definition of the cocktail in New York City. And that’s sugar, bitters, alcohol, and water. And so here you have gin, you have quinine, which is bitter, so they’ve added sugar. Which they were doing since the Jesuits discovered it and then water or ice to lengthen it. Of course, the gin was being added because I think the saying is, “Quinine to stop malaria and gin to alleviate boredom.” I think that was the saying of the British Empire at the time.
T: I find that so interesting, just as a brief sidestep here that we can come up with this definition for a cocktail. But it’s sufficiently loose so that you can have two things so different, like the Old Fashioned on one hand and the Gin & Tonic on the other, both of which accurately fit this description that you just laid out. But they couldn’t be more different.
S: I guess this is how it probably developed from that style of drink that’s more like an Old Fashioned into this highball that we drink today, this invention of carbonation. So Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou learned how to isolate the quinine powder and turn it essentially into this substance that you can mix into water. And it’s now no longer cloudy. So you don’t even get the quinine powder and you see some of the syrups. It’s dark in contrast, but they have managed to isolate all of the best parts of the flavor into this clear liquid, and now that can be added to water. And of course, now you can take Joseph Priestley’s invention of combination and put the two together. Now, tonic water can essentially be created and made, and I guess it will be Johann Jacob Schweppe, who finally does this in Switzerland. He’s the person that brings this all together, and I would say that it was around the 1850s that he finally got that going. It was actually in the late 1700s that he launched his business; it actually went out of business at the very beginning. And it was after he moved it to London, which is really bizarre. So it’s one of Darwin’s relatives that champions it, and they sponsor one of the world fairs that happen in London.
T: I wonder if that’s the same one that Sebastian was telling us about with the Pink Gin where 6 million people came through the doors and ultimately if you want to showcase a product, 6 million people in that time is a significant number.
S: Well, they sold a million bottles. Then you see they started getting shipped out to India. This the Schweppes tonic and getting mixed with the gin that way. What was really interesting about how they shipped it back then, if you see an old Schweppes tonic bottle, they look like a torpedo. They would hang in the same things that torpedoes would on board the ships and so that you couldn’t put the bottle down. Johann Jacob Schweppe was smart, he patented his process. There probably wasn’t a lot of competition for a while because Schweppes dominated.
T: That’s an incredible foundation to this story. Is there anything else that we need to bring us slightly closer to the future? Or, how about you tell us where this drink was when you started yourself in the industry? Because to my mind, it had become this stuffy or old thing, right? Quintessentially British, but nothing like the reputation that enjoys today.
S: If you think of Gin & Tonic in its heyday back in England, in the Schweppes period, the ice trade had begun. At the beginning of the 1800s, right? So it became the drink of the upper classes. But then somehow it developed into this pub drink. And I would go into a pub when I was young. And if you ordered a Gin & Tonic, the bartender would say “ice and a slice,” and they would have this little plastic bucket on the bar. And in that plastic bucket would be wilted ice that had been there all day and that maybe if you were lucky, they would grab two ice cubes and then there would be this little tray of slices of lemon that just looks so sorry. They were desperate for any kind of moisture just to keep them from dehydrating on their own. And they would pour 25 milliliters.
T: Roughly one ounce, for our American listeners.
S: Exactly. And you would get that put your own tonic in. Honestly, it’s two gulps really. And I hate to say this, but it was still quite good.
T: Well, 600 years of R&D have gone into that. So that’s something of a failsafe solution.
The Modern Gin & Tonic
S: But of course, you get the price and the beer’s the same and the beer is going to last you a little bit longer. Do you know what was quite interesting about that period? I remember this quite well because the birth of the modern cocktail bar, from the end of the ’90s to 2000-ish onwards, ice became a thing.
T: Already back then?
S: Well, just about then, right? You have to fill the glass with ice. And of course, it was part of education because people would come into your bar and say, you’re putting all this ice in, which means there’s no booze in there. Usually, everything’s measured no matter what. The ice makes no difference. That was a hard thing for any bartender at that time to convince. But that led to the Gin & Tonic being served that way. I do remember certain gin brands at the time, and of course, I don’t want to plug them. But it actually really was good because it was consistent messaging and it taught people that you should put ice and put a little bit more than 25 milliliters. They were promoting 35 milliliters at this point. It definitely made the Gin & Tonic taste better. It was now this tall drink. I started in this industry around ’98, but I was a Gin & Tonic drinker. I worked in a wine shop, and it was either beer or Gin & Tonic when I went to the pub, and I loved it. So as the ice was going I was starting to enjoy it. I was starting to notice the difference between the flavor of gins and how it interacted with the tonic. I could actually tell the difference between the gins, which I don’t think my friends believed.
T: And also to note as well at this time, a tonic in terms of offerings. It was not a saturated field by this point. That is the one variable that stays the same at that time, and you can taste the difference between the gins because of it.
S: I think it was still Schweppes and it was Britvic. Those are the two that I remember. If it came across this to this side of the world, you had the adage of Canada Dry. So those are the three tonic waters. If you look at how modern gin culture has evolved in the last 20 years and the tonic water culture, it really has been a big change. Gun tonic did really take over and I’m not really against gun tonic. If its pipes and systems are well-maintained and cleaned and so on, but so often they are not. It’s not a guarantee and so a bottle is a guaranteed way of getting consistency. If I went to a good bar, I’d probably assume that they were doing a good job of keeping it clean. But Gin & Tonics, in my opinion, went out of fashion because of gun tonic and not being kept well.
T: That’s so interesting. And then in that period that we’re talking about earlier, the cocktail renaissance, at what period do bartenders start looking at this as a cocktail rather than a simple highball? Or do they at all? And when does it really break back into the mainstream?
S: Gosh, I think it’s taken a long, long time even with cocktail culture. People started serving them as quality drinks again, which is good. In America, it would be the lime garnish and in England, the lemon garnish. That would be the big divide, the lemon or lime. I do think that the most significant moment was the beginning of the 2000s. You’ve got to hand it to Hendrick’s, they popped in and said, “Hey, here’s a new gin.”
T: They probably introduced most people to the idea of botanicals.
S: So that happens 2000, and Sipsmith comes around 2008, the defining craft gin a little bit more and laws change, and a lot of people get inspired by both of those things. I always blame Hendrick’s for the amount of gins that tried to do their own version of cucumber and rose because none of them ever quite managed to do it the way that they did. But Sipsmith inspired a lot more craft gins. And again, some were great so gin just started getting a better and better reputation, so it had a comeback. I was actually working on a Plymouth Gin, which I’m sure you talked about a lot with the discussion on the Pink Gin. The gentleman I was working for was a gentleman by the name of Charles Rolls. And he was a bit of a visionary, in my opinion, because he bought the Plymouth Gin Distillery in 1996. And that was before the gin boom really took off. Plymouth was part of driving that and I was working for Plymouth and it was great. I was doing lots of gin education and that’s really where I learned my, I guess my stripes in the gin world working under him. He sold Plymouth in 2005, but around 2003, he started toying with the idea of tonic because he saw that the gin boom was going to happen and that tonic wasn’t good. So he created Fever-Tree, which was launched in 2005. Often when people say what is the most important gin launch of the last 20 years, I say Fever-Tree.
T: But it’s so true, and I can remember, being a U.K. native, the time when those ads were rolling out and they were saying, there’s that line where three-quarters of your drink is the mixer, and that’s so important. That was really smart of them.
S: Yeah, and they still tell that story to this day. If three-quarters of your drink is the tonic, then make sure you choose a good tonic. So they created that category, of making people think about the quality of their tonic water. We were starting to think about the quality of our gin. The launch of Fever-Tree started making us think about the quality of our tonic water. Of course, there was definitely a cocktail movement that made us think about how we should serve a better Gin & Tonic. It should be cold, it should be tall, it should be refreshing, there should be ice, there should be a good garnish. So all of those things started to come together. Meanwhile, a place where the cocktail renaissance took a little bit longer to kick off was Spain. I’ve always loved Spain for doing their own thing, right? Sherry bars, love them. Vermouth bars are massive over there right now. And of course, they really redefined what a Gin & Tonic was for themselves and started putting it in this giant goblet. And again, Fever-Tree was available for them, and other tonic waters were starting to trickle in. Instead of really championing cocktail culture like New York or London was, they just went and championed this new serve of Gin & Tonic.
T: Which blew it wide open. That makes sense, too. It’s quite hard to drink a Martini, for example as just one drink in a very warm setting, so I can understand why the G&T kind of varies there.
S: Exactly. It’s still hard to explain why it does so well in England when there are only three weeks of summer.
How to Make a Gin & Tonic
T: So let’s get into that serve. Let’s talk about your approach to making a G&T, and all of the different components of it. Let’s start with gin. I believe you’re the first guest on this show that has your own gin brand. Fords Gin is something that’s been brought up by so many guests, and there’s a reason for that. So tell us what you were setting out to do in the beginning, and tell us how that relates to what you think about when you’re making a gin cocktail, and then I guess a G&T by extension.
S: Sure. Having the hindsight of creating a gin with a lot of knowledge of what cocktail culture is and this Gin & Tonic boom, we just set out to make a gin that would taste good in all of those classic gin drinks that essentially made gin famous. Of course, if you can’t taste great in a Martini or a Gin & Tonic, you should probably pack your bags and move to Louisville and make whiskey or something. The idea behind it was to really get ideas in from bartenders of what makes a good cocktail gin and then try and make that gin and deliver it back to bartenders, get their opinions on what was if it was working well in lime, citrus drinks, lemon drinks, and then that back and forward made sure it tasted good in classic cocktails. I’m really flattered that so many people have mentioned Fords on the show, but I think that part of the reason they have is because we made it taste good in the classic gin drink. Because a lot of gins were going off on a tangent, for sure. That’s good because that creates excitement in the category, but it alienates the way a certain classic drink should taste. So that’s what we set out to do with Fords. One of the key drinks for us was the Gin & Tonic. For me, gin should definitely sing juniper always, right? I think that citrus is a big key component of it. If you have a gin that has good citrus components, then it’s going to bring that effervescence. The reason I think that London Dry Gin is such a good Gin & Tonic category is that coriander just brings that structure through. And when the coriander kind of talks to the quinine, it’s like they say hello to each other. If you ever take a gin and just add some water, you start to see those flavors really develop in that gin. The quinine is a complement to the flavor of juniper. It’s definitely a complement to the flavor of coriander, and it definitely wants a little bit of citrus to brighten it up. In many ways, the tonic is bringing in a little bit of sweetness to the mix, and there’s a lot of bitterness in gin. So the two things happen together. They create this little miracle in the glass and some bubbles, and it’s heaven on a sunny day.
T: What don’t bubbles make there? And again, everything you’re saying that I can’t stop coming back to this idea of 600 years of R&D. I’ve thought about this in relation to the Martini before. But it’s perhaps even more true with gin. Like the one thing that I find to be the incredible magic of a drink like the Martini is you’re taking and you’re taking gin and you’re taking vermouth, which as well is a wine but with botanicals, right? It’s a botanical wine. There’s so many flavors going on. These things shouldn’t work together. The fact that they do is a miracle, and it’s the same with tonic.
S: It’s interesting that a certain category of vermouth introduced around the same time as tonic water became popular in the 1840s, 1850s. It basically contained quinine. It was used in the Vesper Martini and so on. So there was definitely something in the flavor of the light gin because it was getting introduced into vermouth, which was ending up in your Martinis. It’s also the star of tonic water. So the two go together. Just like a Martini, the Gin & Tonic really takes on that and goes on that path. But the Martini has got a lot of variants. The variants of a Gin & Tonic aren’t so much in method — wet, dry, all those different things. It’s more in the ingredients of gin, tonic, ice, and just making it really well. The simplest thing I would say to anybody is to make sure you get a good gin. Make sure you get a good tonic. And then it’s all about making sure you can taste the gin in your Gin & Tonics.
T: Take us from there to take this. If I’m saying, Simon, make me the world’s best Gin & Tonic right now. Make me the world’s best. What would you do, or what are the things you would focus on? Take me through the process.
S: It’s funny. You can do lots of sort of fancy little things, and there are nice tips that can make you look smart. Why don’t you take your tonic water and turn it into ice cubes and things like that. But in almost every cocktail that I ever make, I’m a purist and I just do things the way they should. I think that probably speaks to why Fords is the way it is, too. It definitely takes one part gin to three parts tonic. Build it over lots of fresh ice. This is the most controversial statement of the entire thing, a lemon as the garnish. I believe it should be a lemon. I do believe it should be a lemon because lemon loves juniper. The two things just go together really, really well. If you have a low-content juniper gin, the lime makes sense because coriander and lime go well together. It’s just a nice garnish. Although I do like accentuating garnishes, which is why I like the Spanish way of doing things. Rosemary adds a nice touch. Adding a splash of bitters, for me, celery bitters.
T: Oh yeah, I can hear you here.
S: So there are ways to make it a little bit more interesting, but I am definitely for the classic Gin & Tonic. Tall glass, always a tall glass for me.
T: Not the balloons.
S: Well, I like the balloons, but not the Old Fashioned glasses. For a Gin & Tonic, I prefer a tall glass.
T: Yeah, that’s verging on a huge crime, I would say.
S: Part of how Gin & Tonics used to taste, certainly when I first came to the U.S. around 2002, it would be half of your glass was gin, half of it was gun tonic in an Old Fashioned glass. You just get hit in the face with gin.
T: But of course, we want those tall glasses as well to preserve carbonation to help funnel those aromas up to us that we’re tasting there.
S: You know what you’re doing.
T: I dabble. What about the lemon garnish, though? Because one of our previous guests talking about this specific drink said that they always like to avoid the way of the wedge because what people do is they’ll squeeze it in their drink immediately without tasting anything, and they won’t know whether it’s balanced or not. I don’t know how much control you want to have over the guest’s experience, but how do you feel about that?
S: I don’t mind that, and I’m usually one to fidget around with my drink anyway. I’ll probably squeeze the lemon in half way through and see how that develops the taste. Something I actually often do with Fords — because it’s made with grapefruit, lemon, and orange juice — I actually do a wheel of all three citruses. The reason I do that for Fords is that’s what’s in the recipe. But that’s what I liked about the Spanish style. Because if you take the art seriously of garnishing a Spanish G&T, you’re looking at the flavors within the gin first and then you’re pairing it with the different garnishes that you can put in or picking garnishes that accentuate those flavors. Something that’s already in the gin and just turning it up a notch.
T: Those classic rules of pairing, whether it comes to wine and food or whatever, either two things that are the same or two things that pose.
S: Exactly. I’ve always liked that. If you’re being a perfectionist about your Gin & Tonic, look at the flavors in the Gin & Tonic. I’m not saying look at the label because sometimes, you won’t actually taste what it says on the label, but give the gin a taste and go, “I do get the citrus. I do get that there’s a lot of juniper here. I’m going to accentuate that.”
T: There’s that book out there, too. I want to ask for some recommendations from you in terms of specific garnishes for the Spanish Gin & Tonic. But there is that book out there, in the U.K. we call the “Flavor Thesaurus,” I think it’s got a different name here, but they have those pairings, right?
S: I referenced that book when I was putting together the recipe for Fords Gin.
T: It’s such an incredible book.
S: I would look up juniper and look at the flavors. Then I would look at the flavors in classic gin drinks. I was using it as a guide, along with some other flavor guidebooks too and botanical books, and so on. But that was really what drove our process. It was taking that chef-like approach and looking at it from that perspective.
T: We used to use that book all the time when I worked in kitchens in London, whether it was just working on something like a family meal or whether it was working on developing new dishes with other chefs. It’s such an incredible resource.
S: It was such an eye-opener for me. I think it’s that book is certainly one of the books I had that where I learned, and this is after working in gin for 15 years, that a perfect pairing for the flavor of juniper is olives, lemon, and it listed orange and rosemary and a few others, right? But those were at the top of the list, and I was like, “Damn. Obviously, we talk about olive and twists of lemon on our Martinis. Where did that come from? I’m only learning that now?”
T: So you mentioned bitters and rosemary. Are there any other garnishes that really stand out to you that you enjoy and people maybe don’t expect?
S: I have always love putting just one star anise into my Spanish Gin & Tonic, because the great thing about Spanish Gin & Tonic is it lasts a while, so the flavors do infuse into the overall drink and the drink starts to develop and change in the star anise just adds this refreshing nature to it. So I like that, and I do like putting things like cinnamon in it. Things that will not automatically be noticed by the palate. But as I go on, they start to soak in and the flavors start to come out. The star anise might be a personal favorite. I do like putting herbs, mint, and citrus because it makes it pop as a whole. I like that by nature of making a Gin & Tonic of the Spanish style, you get to essentially have creative license over your Gin & Tonic. And I think that’s a lot of fun.
T: So I have one last thought about the Gin & Tonic here to share with you, and I’m keen to hear your opinion. I think that the drink almost suffers somewhat from being perhaps the most well-known gin cocktail in the world because I don’t think this is the first-ever gin drink you should have if you’ve never had gin before. And I think that’s a shame. How do you feel about that? This is not a beginner’s cocktail, anyway.
S: That’s an interesting one because you could probably argue that the Martini is not a beginner’s gin drink, either.
T: No, no, no. I think that’s up there.
S: You graduate from Martinis. Maybe drinks are more approachable, like the Southside or the Tom Collins because they have a little bit of sweetness. They let the flavor of the gin still do the work within it. But it’s got that component of simple syrup and citrus to bring it alive. I don’t know if I agree that the Gin & Tonic is that. It’s one of those drinks that is a license to drink on a sunny afternoon. And there aren’t many like that, and nothing tastes better in that setting. I think that if you went into a dark, dingy bar at 6 p.m. and that was the moment it might not fit it. But I think that if you put yourself in a deck chair on one of those sunny days in an English country garden, and you decided you’re not going to have a Pimm’s Cup, you’re going to have a Gin & Tonic, you’d be like, this is good. But it’s usually because of these bitter notes of tonic combined with the gin and combined with a little bit of sweetness that makes you want a second one. So it’s easy. It’s a sessionable drink, it’s not overly sweet. So then it becomes a drink that’s easy to drink. And I think that that’s why maybe the first one might be tough. But I don’t think it takes very long before you go, “You know what, I could drink Gin & Tonics.”
T: I think that also just comes very much from a personal preference where astonishingly, I’m embarrassed to admit, it’s still a drink that I struggle with. I can, I can definitely appreciate its merits, but it’s still something I struggle with. So maybe that’s just my thinking there. As you said, you’ve always been a Gin & Tonic drinker, but I think there are definitely more people in your camp than there are in mine — especially from the U.K.
S: Not to switch the drink, but that there is merit to gin and soda. Let’s let the gin do its work without the combination of quinine. But when I was last in Japan, which is known for doing whatever they can to perfect the highball, they were doing a drink called the Gin & Sonic which was gin, soda, and tonic. So you didn’t have it too sweet, but you had just enough, and it complemented the gin and let the gin do more of its job. That might be a good place to start for anybody. If you’re listening and you haven’t had a Gin & Tonic, maybe try Gin & Sonic — especially if you’re a vodka soda drinker.
Getting To Know Simon Ford
T: Perfect. Well, Simon, it has been so much fun chatting about all things history and gin — two of my favorite subjects — and just the Gin & Tonic in general. How about we finish the show with our standard five style questions? Are you ready for it?
T: How are you feeling?
S: Yeah, I’m going. I’m going to see if I can come up with the answers as we go.
T: Amazing. So question No. 1: This is probably by now somewhat theoretical, but what style or category of spirit would typically enjoy the most real estate on a professional back bar for you?
S: It would probably be whiskey, just because there are so many different styles. Scotch, bourbon, rye. Certainly my home bar has more whiskey than it does gin. But obviously, I created gin that I like myself. Believe it or not, I do have quite a considerable amount of gin because a gin lover won’t just like one gin, you know? And I am a gin lover, bonafide. So I would say that probably the second most real estate goes to gin. I guess they don’t categorize this as spirits, but the vermouths, different liquors, bitters, and the things that work with your gin and whiskey. I think that’s where the real estate really goes for me.
T: Amazing. I love that. Second question: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
S: The corkscrew, because if you don’t have a corkscrew, it’s really hard to open a bottle of wine. If you didn’t have a muddler, you could maybe find something. If you didn’t have a bar spoon, you could find a spoon. You can MacGyver almost any tool. I know you can push the cork in.
T: Or putting it in the shoe and banging on the wall? No one wants to see that in a bar on a Friday night.
S: Not with a Château Lafite 1966.
T: Oh my God, how’s that sediment looking now? Yeah, we don’t need to decant this. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in this industry?
S: It probably came from my dad when I got my first job. And that was because I was a dishwasher, it was my first job in the industry. He just said, “I know it’s just a dishwasher, but you put your heart into this and you’re going to be the best dishwasher there is. And if you finish the dishes, you’re going to ask your boss, ‘What can I do?’” That was his advice. He said it was all about work ethic. But I will say that, to echo Anthony Bourdain, be kind to your server and tip well. I do believe that really good advice.
T: Perhaps Brits visiting the U.S. don’t always understand the payment structure and wages here in hospitality. You’re literally paying someone’s wage by tipping.
T: Question No. 4: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, which one would it be?
S: This is the hardest question on Earth, I think there are different moments and different eras in time. If I could have a time machine, I could pick, so that it could feel better. It could be Milk & Honey in 2012, 2011, right? You know, it could be the Pegu in 2007. I would love to try the American Bar in 1893. But I have no idea if that’s my favorite because I wasn’t there. So I find the question very difficult. Knowing this question was coming, I was like, I need to look up the best 24-hour bars because then I know that I wouldn’t get kicked out and I could just stay there forever. But of course, I didn’t find any that I truly loved on Google.
T: Not Wetherspoons in Leicester Square?
S: Is that 24-hours?
T: There used to be one in my chef days that we definitely went to after a night of work.
S: There is one bar and it’s not really a cocktail bar. I think I had the most fun in a bar just outside of Bogota. And this place is crazy. It is made up of all recycled materials which have been turned into pieces of art or furniture or whatever by art students. And they make their own labels for almost every spirit, just for the hell of it, and they serve steak and other food, and they have dance floors intermittently. And this thing goes on forever and ever, and it’s like you’re in a brick and brack place, but it’s wild and it goes on all night. I actually believe they have a little nursery, so if your friends get a little bit too drunk, you can go and send them there and pick them up later. You get a tag for them and stuff like that. I’ve had a couple of nights there, and it’s always been life-changing. But I might be too old for that bar now.
T: Final question. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
S: Final plug, it’s not sad to say, actually: My entire life’s work has led up to making Fords gin. I worked in gin for so many years. My favorite drink in the world is a well-made Martini. So it would be a Fords Gin Martini, probably four to one, with orange bitters and a twist. Hopefully, it’s made by someone like Salvatore Calabrese. Someone like that could come along and make that final drink for me. That would probably be the last one.
T: Amazing. And you know what? If you’d said anything other than the gin brand that you’ve spent all this time and effort working towards and launching, and also being a Martini drinker, your gin brand has to be perfect for your Martini. How could it be anything other?
S: I mean, I do love it. It’s really weird. I spent three years developing the flavor and 15 years prior to that really deciding what made a good gin from my perspective and from a bartender’s perspective. I think it does make sense. But it feels awkward plugging it right now.
T: You’ve had so many other plugs from other bartenders. By this point, our listeners know that there is a genuine recommendation and something they should be going out and trying if they haven’t already.
S: Yeah, thanks.
T: Simon, thank you so much.
S: Thank you so much. This is great fun.
T: It’s been a lot of fun. Let’s go grab the world’s coldest Martini.
S: And a Gin & Tonic.
T: Of course. Oh my god.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.