The days of young people drinking shitty beer and rotgut vodka are over. Nowadays, even Millennials prefer quality, whether that's craft beer or artisanal cocktails. But there's still one spirit they have yet to latch onto: Scotch, which is still seen by some as a drink for pipe-puffing, white-bearded old men. But one man is working to change that.
Michael Ferrie is a 31-year-old Scottish expat from Dundee and the managing partner at Caledonia on Manhattan's Upper East Side. This remarkable alley-wide Scotch bar is always packed—not with crusty rich guys—but twenty- and thirtysomethings, all drinking drams of the good stuff. The affable Ferrie can make anyone a Scotch lover, and I've long wondered how he does it.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Michael. So, when did you first try Scotch? Michael Ferrie: I was 16 and stole some Lagavulin 16 from my dad's liquor cabinet. A harsh introduction—I couldn't believe people actually drank that.
So when did you finally "get" it? I had a Glen Grant 10 in my early 20s. Compared to Lagavulin, I remember thinking, "This can't be the same spirit!" But they are, and that's what makes Scotch so exceptional.
How did you first start selling Scotch? In Scotland, I worked at a couple of nightclubs. Then, when I got to America in 2005, I was working in Irish pubs. I was always enthusiastic about selling Scotch while bartending—that's the economic patriot in me! When I started Caledonia in January of 2011, I went all out in getting people to try Scotch from all the different distilleries.
Why do you think Scotch is still seen as an older man's drink? It's always had that reputation for a couple of reasons: It's relatively expensive and younger people either can't afford a lot of it or want a cheaper way to get drunk. It takes a while to develop a palate for, too, so it's harder to appreciate at first.
Yet your bar is packed with twenty- and thirtysomethings drinking single malt. Well, obviously most of them just want to be my friend! But if I have to give a reason why so many younger people drink Scotch at Caledonia, I would say it's because of the complete lack of pretension in my place. I don't care if people drink Scotch on the rocks or with club soda, just so long as they are drinking it and learning to appreciate it.
That's a good point. You run the least pretentious Scotch bar I've ever been to. How do you separate yourself from those places that are intimidating to simply enter? I won't name names, but I really dislike stuck-up whisky bars. There are a lot of them in New York. I get the feeling they think they are doing us a favor by letting us drink there. I do love Noorman's Kil and The Flatiron Room, though. It should be fun exploring whiskies from the 100-plus distilleries in Scotland.
What do you recommend for people trying to "dip their toes" into Scotch's waters? I have a few I recommend to new Scotch drinkers: Jura 10, Benromach 10, Dalmore 12, and Glenrothes Select Reserve. I generally steer people away from the big distilleries as they can get those in any bar.
Do you have any regular customers that started off completely disgusted by super-smoky Scotches and now drink the most potent Islay offerings? We have definitely had some novices that have turned into complete "peat monsters," as we call them. It's a progression for a lot of people as they develop their palates and come to love the Islay whiskies.
What are your favorites? Bowmore 15 is my go-to; it's a fantastically balanced whisky. Other favorites include Laphroaig 25 (as long as I'm not paying), Scapa 16, and Dalmore 15. I generally don't drink a lot of very expensive whiskies as they are not worth the price. You are paying for the rarity and the marketing budget, not the quality. The vast majority of people wouldn't be able to pick out an 18-year versus a 30-year in a blind tasting—whisky snobs included.
How the hell do you remember all these Scotches, always offering perfect tasting notes? Immersion. I spend so much time behind the bar talking about them all night. Usually I'll ask customers what they've had before that they loved or hated and work from there. Once they have the first one I will get some feedback and try to hone in on a more perfect one.
What do you think of dopey Americans like me that fuck up the pronunciation of words like Bruichladdich or Islay? I never correct customers' pronunciations—it goes back to not being pretentious about whisky. How can you blame somebody for mispronouncing Bruichladdich? Americans struggle with the pronunciation of a lot of words anyway, like Caribbean. (Unless they are discussing the Johnny Depp movie, then they pronounce it properly. What's that about?)
What did you predict for the future of Scotch? That's tough. There has been a huge rise in bourbon and rye in the last few years. It's more accessible—cheaper, less stuffy, and made in America. Though I still feel single malt is a superior product. Don't get me wrong, the best bourbons are as good as the best Scotches but there are also some truly awful green whiskeys being bottled in America these days.
I'm hopeful more young people will start drinking Scotch, though the industry needs to concentrate more on the fun of drinking it and veer away from angling it as a luxury product. It should be a drink for everyone. Every time I hear somebody in the industry refer to their whisky as "The Macallan" or "The Glenlivet," I cringe.
Me too. Thanks for speaking with me, Michael.
Caledonia's House Rules, courtesy of Michael Ferrie
- There is no such thing as a best whisky. The best whisky is the one you love the most. Your job is to hunt this whisky down.
- Five percent off for Tinder dates. You need to prove it by showing us your initial awkward messages.
- No credit card minimum, but if you keep swiping your card all night you are wasting paper, killing trees, and in the long run killing all of humanity, you selfish bastard. Start a tab!
- Do not ask for free drinks, heavy pours, or "shots for your friend's birthday." It's beneath you.
- Gentlemen, this is a lady-friendly bar. If it's clear that they are not interested in you, then stop talking to them. Obviously this rule does not apply to me.