The Influence of Big Liquor Brands, Part Two: David vs. Goliath

In the second half of a two-part series exploring brand influence, PUNCH asked Simon Ford, Jordana Rothman and Wyatt Peabody about everything from marketing schticks to honest brand education to environmentally conscious products.

small batch whiskey

In part two of a two-part series (part one) exploring the influence of big liquor brands, PUNCH spoke with Jordana Rothman (journalist), Simon Ford (owner, 86 Spirits Co.) and Wyatt Peabody (writer and spirits advisor) about everything from marketing schticks to honest brand education to environmentally conscious products.

Jordana Rothman | Journalist

What is your initial feeling about the influence of big brands in the spirit industry?

Nowhere is the divide between the haves and have-nots in the spirits industry more visible to me than at the huge cocktail festivals. The disparity really crystallized for me a few years back during one such festival, when I caught up with a friend who had launched a small, craft brand. He was running covert tastings out of a backpack in the lobby of a hotel, as media and industry types zipped between blockbuster brand events. The very fact that I don’t want to drop a name here and risk this person landing on a festival blacklist is telling, and frankly it’s a shame.

Is big always bad?

I think the knee-jerk reaction that big is automatically bad and corrupt is awfully reductive. Many of these brands enjoy their massive marketshares because they are excellent products with long, respectable histories of distillation. The consumer ought to know about these brands, particularly when they provide a benchmark understanding of a spirit category. The onus is on the establishment to have the integrity to provide a broader view, and to avoid the ethical potholes that result in menu buyouts and over-the-top branding. I have a ton of respect for what Thad is doing at Bar Agricole, where notions of quality and traceability are the only forces driving the inventory. Can everyone truly afford to do it that way? I don’t know, I’m a writer not a bar owner.

As a journalist who writes on spirits, you must be getting pitched left and right by spirits brands. How do you sort through and separate what’s real and interesting from the schticks?

Yes, bottles arrive at my doorstep unbidden all the time; I taste almost everything and try to let my palate be the first line of defense against garbage. I’d like to think that when you work in this field for a long time you develop some immunity to the labeling and marketing noise. At the very least you know the questions to ask when you’re side-eyeing a fishy press release.

As to that aforementioned “almost.” Alco-pop is often immediately discarded. Products flavored with bubble gum, frosting, whipped cream and the like aren’t of interest to me unless I’m stunt tasting. And although it isn’t always the case, I joke that the more elaborate the packaging, the less I tend to care about what’s inside. If it arrives handcuffed to a messenger in a weapons-grade attaché case it’s probably some “ultra-premium” schlock. If it’s swaddled in bubble wrap and duct tape and looks like it has a good chance of being flagged by homeland security…come to mama.


Simon Ford | Owner, 86 Spirits Co.

Going from working for Absolut and Pernod Ricard to starting your own small spirits company, what’s the greatest difference between the two?

It’s apples and oranges. One of the biggest differences is when you’re at a big company, you sit on a big budget and your job is to go out and market that brand. You don’t have to worry about anything else—product formula, quality control, shipments, distribution, legal, finance—all you have to worry about is spending all that lovely marketing money. You deliver the message to the consumer. Now that I have my own company, it’s far more complicated. Everything is important.

How do you compete with the bigger companies?

Well, you don’t. What’s difficult about going up against massive companies is that they can drop their prices whenever they want. It’s difficult. There’s something very real about smaller companies. Most didn’t think about their target markets, or key points or advertising. They just thought about the product, and the gap they’re filling and making something that people enjoy. Half of these little brands are started by bankers who have a ton of money. The other half are great producers.

You’ve entertained bartenders for years with big budgets. Do you think it ever goes to far?

There’s a fine balance. At Pernod Ricard I did everything I possibly could to educate and entertain in the ways that people in our industry would enjoy. It was relevant and it was to better our industry. It’s my dream for the 86 Co. to reinvent the industry so little brands can educate and entertain in the same way. The greatest empowerment I had during my time at Pernod Ricard was the resources to create education programs for bartenders. My philosophy was to try and give back to the community that was supporting us by selling our products. That philosophy hasn’t changed now that I am with a small startup. It’s just the budgets that have changed. It’s difficult because suppliers who have these huge budgets and resources can incentivize which distributors will work on which brands. “Here’s $100. Focus on our brands.” Everything is stacked against the smaller guys. I wish it wasn’t pay-to-play. It’s a catch-22 for me having been on both sides though. But when you hear someone say, “Tanqueray just gave me $10,000,” you’re like, “How can I compete?”*

You’ve worked on the big brand side for so long and then you switched to creating your own, which includes sourcing your own products. Give me an example of who some of these producers are and why you’re using them.

The 86 Co. knew that if we wanted to bring our spirit ideas to life we would need to partner with the best distillers we could find that would work with us. None of our founders are qualified distillers. We believe it’s a craft that takes a long time to learn, and even longer to perfect, so we went on a very timely mission to try and convince master distillers from around the world to partner with us to develop recipes and formulas and make our spirits for us. Fords Gin is made by eighth generation Master Distiller, Charles Maxwell at Thames Distillers in London. Our good friend David Suro of The Tequila Interchange projects connected us with the Vivanco family who have been growing agave in Arandas for five generations. We created Tequila Cabeza with them. We managed to collaborate with a rum making legend on Caña Brava when we convinced Francisco “Don Pancho” J. Fernadez to partner with us. “Don Pancho” was the Minister of Cuban Rum for 35 years before setting up a distillery in Panama in the early ’90s.

How conscious are you that these producers are sustainable/ethical/environmental?

It was really important to my business partner and I that we create a socially conscientious company, which is actually quite a hard thing to do. But we didn’t want to use that as a marketing tool. We would much rather talk about the agriculture, production and quality of the liquid inside the bottle than how many rainforests we are saving. That said we do make considerable efforts to respect the environment. The first simple step that we took in an effort to be sustainable was making our spirits where the raw materials grow, which we achieved with three of our four products (its very difficult to do that for gin as botanicals come from all over the world). Then we chose to work with partners that work with local farmers or grow ingredients themselves, as well as ones that use as many organic and low pesticide ingredients as possible. Next we made the decision to ship our distillates at high proof and in bulk to the US and add the water and bottle our spirits here. This reduced our carbon footprint considerably because we aren’t shipping bulk glass and water around the world. Of course the only spirit we can’t do this for is our tequila.  As most people know, tequila, made from 100% agave, has to be bottled in Mexico. We do, however, use the closest glassmaker to the Tequila distillery to produce our glass bottles. Also, our labels and boxes are all produced from recycled paper and cardboard. I do believe that we are doing as much as we can as a cash-strapped startup, but I know we can get also get better at this and we could certainly do more for charity. If our situation becomes more comfortable I hope we can dedicate more time to improving in this area.

Small brands aren’t necessarily better, but neither are big brands. How do you expect bartenders/owners to make the decision between the two?

The decision should never be between which spirit brands are big or small, but rather which ones taste great. But I know it’s not as simple as that. Marketing certainly complicates decision making because we get bombarded by so many different messages. We question if the brand is cool enough, whether or not it’s aspirational or hipster enough, if it’s small batch, how long the distiller has been around, if Diddy drinks it and so on. In an ideal world, it would almost certainly be about flavor, taste, quality and value. The best bartenders will chose a product based on quality vs. price (creativity has a bottom line) and more bartenders are becoming skilled tasters. Skilled tasters will force companies not to launch low-quality products, which is progress.

These are really exciting times for the spirits industry, I have observed more changes on the back bar in the last five years than in the previous 20, and I have never seen so much choice. The larger companies are probably becoming concerned about losing marketing share, but I embrace these changes. I don’t lose sleep when I hear about a company that makes billions dropping a few percentage points. Entrepreneurs arguably drive our industry forward just as much as the larger companies. They just both do it in different ways. Entrepreneurs are great innovators; can you imagine a big company launching a Jerry Thomas Bitters?

You’re a master at creating relationships between bartenders and brands. How important is this to selling a product, big or small?

I love the hospitality industry. It’s filled with good people who strive to make others happy and who build relationships every day. It has become an industry founded on community and strong relationships, and I have made some of my best friends within it. I would be lying if I said that hadn’t helped us sell a few cases of booze, but I also know that my friends in the spirits and bartending industry have integrity and want to deliver a great product to their customers. They wouldn’t purchase our spirits if they didn’t like them. I think my relationships got me through the doors and into the meetings, but the spirits sold themselves. (And I was cautious and asked most of them for their approval on the liquids before we launched. Is that cheating?)

Who are some of the industry figures you think bartenders can look to as a resource for spirits education and unbiased opinions?

Naren Young is always good for a fair assessment and an honest opinion on anything. It’s one of things I love about him. Sasha Petreske, Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders are three people that have always put quality before anything else at the bars. I have never seen them compromise that for a relationship or a trend, which is probably why they have set so many. For education I need look no further than Dave Wondrich who always tells it as it is and no one does research quite like he does. I also have a huge amount of respect for Paul Pacult and Doug Frost for their candid and honest assessments and vast knowledge on spirits. Steve Olson for his high octave energy and passion when teaching. And I don’t think I ever stood behind the bar with Dale DeGroff and didn’t learn something. Finally, I have to give recognition to one of my business partners at The 86 Co., Dushan Zaric, He lives to teach and likes to focus on things like ‘how to build a strong bar team’ or ‘how to be mindful as a bartender.’ His angle is very inspiring.


Wyatt Peabody | Writer, Spirits & Wine Advisor

You’ve been an advocate for small and rare brands for a while. What do you make of the recent wave of brand ambassadors?

The brand ambassador thing is lost on me. It all goes back to integrity. Now all these young kids are doing laybacks in bars. It’s lowering the standards for this period of history. Sadly the multinationals have the dough to throw around and buy bars. As a business owner, it’s attractive: “We’ll give you 10 grand to put our bottle of booze in your well.” And that’s okay. Cool, you can do that. Sadly, the spirits that I’ve devoted my whole life to don’t have the budget for things like that. Instead they’re the guys seeking out small, old, rare stuff and making it available to the rest of us. It’s the booze we’ve forgotten about in the interim.

Years ago, the idea of a brand ambassador didn’t exist. There was Simon Ford—such an incredibly authentic, lovable and rare soul. I have always been passionate about mezcal and tequila, so when Del Maguey was starting I was advocating for them, but I paid my own way. I would fly myself to New York to work on it. I bought it at retail price. Back then, you didn’t need me to tell you to take in Del Maguey—it was just the best in the market.

You deal in both wine and spirits. What is the main difference in how these worlds operate on the brand side?

There’s the straight-up payola example. Booze companies have cash for you to put their product in the well and take you places. There are the trips, the private jets, the clubs, drugs. You hear stories. It’s nasty stuff. You see so many bartenders becoming brand ambassadors. In some instances, you will see Master Sommeliers go from the floor to selling mass-market wines, but spirits brands generally have the big budgets. By the same token, within my fine and rare wine company, there’s always been the divide between booze and wine.

Do you think these worlds are coming closer together?

We’re seeing the reintegration of spirits into collecting. At Soutirage, we’ve always had a certain amount of luck as far as sourcing high-end cognac, old rhum agricole and whiskey. We had the largest collection of pre-Prohibition whiskey at one point. And now there’s the whole Pappy-collecting craze. I kept hearing about “Pappy, Pappy, Pappy.” It’s a blessing and a curse. And people want to try it, but it’s hard to get your hands on it. In a way, Pappy has dragged along the entire spirits and American whiskey category on up with it. It’s moved culture. And even thought it’s the bane of my existence, it’s a good thing.

Do you think smaller spirits companies, like Nicolas Palazzi’s PM Spirits, can change the game?

Nicolas is just so damn cool. The powerhouses he has to go up against on a daily basis, including the cognac houses—it’s impressive. A guy like Nicolas just wants to produce the best booze on earth, bottle it, import it and deliver it. He’s humble. He’s raising the bar for the rest of us. He’s creating a need, and the big companies bob and weave effectively. If you are humble and you have a serious focus and don’t want to compromise, then you leave your mark on this earth.

*Following publication, Mr. Ford contacted PUNCH to clarify that he was not accusing Tanqueray of any illegal or illicit activity.