Oh Caledonia

Oh Caledonia

Meet one of New York's hardest working bartenders

People | 19 Jul 2013 | Issue 113 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Many are the bartenders who dream of owning their own bar. Few, however, are the ones who actually do. Fewer still are the ones who own three bars in New York City. Michael Ferrie is one of those rare few. The young Scot got his start years tending bars in Aberdeen. Realising his was a universal trade, he flit out to New York City in 2005. He pulled pints for six years in Irish pubs around Manhattan until he met Steve Owen, an Edinburgh native who opened a Scottish pub called Caledonia on the Upper East Side in 2009. In 2011, Ferrie joined him as a partner. At that time, the bar stocked 85 single malts. Ferrie nearly doubled the inventory and designed an engaging, user-friendly menu. Today the list features about 200 whiskies from around the world. Then, between this past April and June, he and Owen opened two more Scottish pubs. This time in Brooklyn. We sat down with this ardent whisky evangelist.

Q: Bar-goers from Berlin to Bangkok are well familiar with the classic Irish pub. But you run Scottish pubs in the US. How do you differentiate Scottish from Irish pubs?

A: I think pretty much every bar in the city that has Guinness on draft calls itself an Irish bar, but there's nothing to distinguish one from the other. We try to focus on quality rather than the average Irish bar in the city.

And obviously, we have a single malt whisky selection.

Q: Is there anything about the bar's look or design that makes it an authentic Scottish pub?

A: Steve is a contractor and he's from Edinburgh, so the cobblestone on the floor in Caledonia replicates the Edinburgh streets. The bar-top is made of old bookcases that he sealed together.

I think what's most impressive about the space is that Steve handcrafts everything himself.

Q: There are so many whisky bars in New York that some might say the market is over-saturated. And yet you've opened two new bars within three months—Isle of Skye in Brooklyn's notoriously hipster-rific Williamsburg neighborhood, and Duke of Montrose, which is close to the Barclays Center, the monstrous new sports and concert stadium. Those are bold projects. How do you stay competitive?

A: There aren't many Scottish pubs anymore, so we have a niche. Steve and I decided we could really expand on this. I know there are a lot of whisky bars, but we keep up a philosophy of "whisky for all," rather than going down a higher end, pretentious route. Duke of Montrose is in Park Slope, a few blocks south of Barclays Center. There are lots of sports bars nearby, so people looking for a more mellow experience can come for a couple of drinks, have a bite, then go to the arena. Also, there are a lot of high-rises going up in that neighborhood, so it was a no-brainer to be where there's so much growth.

Q: What goes into creating a "whisky for all" gestalt?

A: For me, "whisky for all" is about establishing the right ambiance and drink list and hiring the right bartenders so people never feel that they can't ask questions and don't feel bad when they mispronounce a distillery name. I like to get people to taste as many different Scotches as they can. A lot of people go into bar and see Bunnahabhain and think "I don't know how to say that, so I'll have a Macallan." If someone wants a great single malt on the rocks, they can get it. No questions asked.

Q: Given that you want people to experience as many Scotches as they can, do you think you'll expand your menus any time soon?

A: There are bars with bigger collections than what we have, but we want people to drink whisky without feeling overwhelmed or out of place. At some point, you have to get really expensive whiskies if you want to expand your list. If you're in Midtown or Lower Manhattan and people are coming in with corporate cards, you can sell single malts for $100 a pop, but for a little neighbourhood bar on Upper East Side like Caledonia, we wouldn't move those. Plus I'm not fan of really expensive whiskies. They never feel worth it.

Q: It seems like your approach has proven successful. Do you agree?

A: Bars are built on regulars. I like people to fall in love with the bar. We have a few people who come to Caledonia three or four times a week.

Some people are pretty apprehensive about whisky at first, then months later they're ordering Bladnoch 17 from Gordon & MacPhail or Mortlach or something you don't see every day.

Q: Well, I wish you all that success and more Brooklyn. Goodness knows there are plenty of enthusiastic young whisky lovers out there, whether they know it yet or not.

A: Let's hope so.
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