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Ylli Ferati: Whiskey Stories, Family Traditions, and the Wall of Whiskey
Ylli Ferati is the bartender at Fiori D’Italia in Anchorage, Alaska. He is also a fellow whiskey enthusiast.
He has built a loyal following for his bar through hard work, old-school values, and a true love of whiskey. In the aftermath of a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake, he rolled up his sleeves to rebuild and go on to greater success in the face of adversity. His bar has since been recognized as one of the best whiskey bars in the country, and is the best whiskey bar in the state of Alaska. Despite this success, he still considers himself a student of whiskey.
In addition to his own journey into the world of whiskey, he has honed his ability to help guide guests to new whiskey experiences. It is as close to whiskey ESP as you can get, and it comes very naturally to him. He is very keen to understand the deep connection that whiskey enthusiasts have with telling stories. Many of his guests have shared life events in the context of whiskey, and this has served to further fuel his passion.
Born to immigrant parents, the story of Ylli Ferati and Fiori D’Italia is the personification of the American Dream. Living core values handed down for many generations in his family have propelled him to well-earned success. However, he has not forgotten to take the time to give back. He has deliberately chosen his journey into the world of whiskey as a platform to give back to those who are less fortunate.
This interview is an opportunity to look deeper into the unique experience of this fellow whiskey enthusiast. For example, you will learn more about his connection to famed whiskey collector Mahesh Patel. Want an excellent Old Fashioned the next time you are in Anchorage, Alaska? We discuss his signature recipe. Finally, read all the way through to hear his answers to our new feature called “The Mashbill: Whiskey Network Wants to Know Your Recipe” – where we ask 5 whiskey related questions to our guests. You do not want to miss this!
My interview with Ylli has been edited for clarity and continuity, but every effort has been made to preserve the original conversation.
Mark Pruett: Today, the Whiskey Network welcomes Ylli Ferati. It is a great honor, and I am happy to have you here today. Let us take a moment and toast before we begin… Cheers!
Ylli Ferati: Cheers!
MP: The Whiskey Network is on a quest to connect with whiskey enthusiasts and explore the amazing things they do in the world of whiskey. For starters, you are a WBSE (Whiskey, Bourbon, and Scotch Enthusiast) member, you have a personal passion for whiskey, and you are a respected member of the whiskey industry. Tell me about your journey into the world of whiskey.
YF: My journey started about eight years ago. Due to an unfortunate situation, we had to part ways with the bartender in our restaurant, Fiori D’Italia, on short notice. I was thrown into the world of bartending. Since we have always maintained a wide selection of alcohol, it was quite easy for me to start with cocktails. Through the patrons of the bar, I was introduced to whiskey brands like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and The Balvenie. At first, I did not enjoy whiskey because I did not understand my own tastes. Some of the regular patrons encouraged me to sample many different types of whiskey. The sip that made me fall in love whiskey was The Balvenie 12 Double Wood. What spoke to me were the caramel, vanilla, and citrus flavors (and it helped that it did not give me “whiskey face”). From there, I moved into Dalwhinnie and as many other brands I could find. From there, I began to cross over into bourbon.
When I stepped behind the bar, I was thrown to the wolves (so to speak). As my experience grew, I caught on to something incredible about whiskey: the stories and the relationships. The amazing experiences and the friendships were different than serving someone gin or vodka. Whiskey always came with a story, and I love good stories. This comes from my dad being a historian, and they have always been a part of my life. My guests would share amazing experiences like the first sip with their son, introducing their daughter to whiskey, or other incredible life events connected to whiskey.
These stories fueled the momentum of my growing personal passion. As a result, the whiskey collection behind the bar began to grow. There are over 600 bottles behind the bar, and many of them were for specific people. From there it was very natural to offer someone an opportunity to try something new. This was before the bourbon craze, and people drank what they genuinely liked. It further inspired me on my journey.
MP: There is seems to be a division between those who enjoy Scotch versus bourbon. What is your experience with that?
YF: There is, but the reasons may not be what you think. For example, if someone sits at the bar and says “I hate Scotch” it usually comes back to a similar story. They got into the liquor cabinet growing up and stole a drink of Lagavulin (or something like that). As a result, they believe that all Scotch tastes medicinal, and like peat. That is when I enjoy serving Glenmorangie, The Balvenie, The Macallan, or a Dalmore. Their response is always to be surprised at the taste of those brands. It is a big misconception about Scotch with novice drinkers who may have had a bad experience at some point.
Bourbon tends to be sweeter. For example, Crown Royal and Jack Daniels are popular gateway brands because they are easy to drink. From there, there are many possibilities to introduce people to because of that flavor profile.
MP: The difference is that not everyone encounters someone who is experienced enough to guide them into the world of whiskey. That would be you. You are perceptive in understanding how to guide someone from what they currently like into something new.
YF: Right. Bourbon is immensely popular right now. For example, someone will come into the bar and ask if we have George T. Stagg. I let them know that we do not but will ask what they normally drink. Often, they confess to not being a regular whiskey drinker but for some reason they are demanding a super-rare, allocated brand. It is almost like there is stigma to other brands that are not as prestigious. That is where you need to knock them back to the start and get them to try the basics: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and Maker’s Mark.
MP: It is unfortunate that some people have become “label drinkers.”
YF: Agreed… you hit it right on the head. People must go deeper than labels with whiskey. To enjoy it, it is critical to recognize what flavor profiles work. Is it smoke and band-aids? Or is it something sweeter? This is something that gets lost in translation as people get into drinking to whiskey, bourbon, or Scotch.
MP: I would like to discuss the topic of stories and whiskey. It is true of any bar, but given that you are in Anchorage, Alaska, there must be incredible stories above and beyond the norm. Can you think of one story that comes to mind that is unique and has stuck with you since you have been bartending?
YF: There are so many, but one does come to mind. This story will help you understand how small the world really is. My mother was at the dentist. His son and daughter in-law were visiting Scotland and went to the whiskey shop at Gordon & MacPhail. In the store, the son was talking about his father going to a whiskey bar/restaurant in Alaska. One person in the store began to ask more questions and wanted to know if his father knew the name of the place. The person asking was Stephen Rankin, and I had spent time with him in London on a visit with Mahesh Patel. Gordon & MacPhail is one of my favorite independent bottlers because they capture exactly what independent bottling is to perfection. I have done a few classes with them.
Ultimately, for the kids of my mom’s dentist to be in Scotland and to have someone so important remember my bar and who I am is incredible. Stephen wrote me an email and a social media post letting me know that someone was in his shop talking about my bar. Following that, the dad/dentist came into the bar and confirmed the story. That is insane! It is such a cool story to tell.
MP: It is small world and you just never know when these things will come up. Great story!
This is a great segue to focus on the bar. There are three accolades that I can call out that you have been awarded: “Top 8 Whiskey Bar in the U.S.”, on the list of “America’s Best Bourbon Bars”, and “Best Whiskey Bar in Alaska”. These are heavy-hitter honors and should not be taken lightly. Congratulations to you for the honors. You are clearly doing something right.
YF: Thank you.
MP: The journey of the bar itself is quite a story, specifically regarding the earthquake and transformation that happened afterwards.
On November 30, 2018 there was a 7.2 earthquake that ripped through your hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. Your first reaction is to make sure that your family was safe, and they were. The second reaction turns to the bar. Please take me through that day.
YF: The earthquake was pretty horrific. I was in bed that morning and woke up to shaking and rumbling. I quickly made sure my family was ok and then I went straight to the bar. When I arrived in the parking lot, I could already smell the alcohol. My parents were in the restaurant preparing for a large party that night. They were safe but crying when I arrived. It is probably the only time I have ever cried in a bar. Some people would have walked in and just seen that the booze had been wasted. For me, I was seeing over 8 years of work destroyed.
MP: Whiskey Network, if you needed any excuse to get to Anchorage, Alaska… now you have a big reason. Go try the Old Fashioned at Fiori D’Italia. Make sure to tell Ylli that the Whiskey Network sent you.
Last question about the bar… tell me about the Wall of Whiskey.
YF: My dad started The Wall of Spirits to meet the needs of the regular customers that had been coming to his restaurants since the 1980’s. When I got behind the bar, I paid attention to what my guests were drinking and talking about (attention to detail is my thing). Whiskey was the number one thing at that time. However, I did notice that some of them were stuck drinking the same thing. As I started to learn more, I would ask my distributors to give me other product similar to the regulars. Next, I would introduce those to my guests. Soon, I began to push out the vodka and gin to make room for all the whiskey. My regular customers who would only drink Glenlivet were now into Glendronach and liking it. I got people drinking Dalmore, nobody in Alaska stocked that before I did. I love Dalmore through my personal connection to Richard Patterson.
The Whiskey Wall started expanding because of the new things I wanted to try. It was important to learn how to guide my guests to the right alternatives, rather than just push things onto people. This set the stage for my guests to come in and crave new things. It helped get some of them unstuck in their old ways.
MP: Was it Richard Patterson who took notice of the Wall of Whiskey? I believe the story is that he came in to visit the restaurant and the noticed this magnificent wall in the bar.
YF: I wish that it was Richard Patterson! We are trying to get him to Alaska. But in this case, it was Tom Turner (Master of Whiskey for Diageo at the time) who did that. He was in the restaurant for dinner and came into the bar. He handed me a card that said, “Dr. Tom Turner, Master of Whiskey” and I did not know what to make of that. At first, it seemed a bit pretentious, so I decided to do a blind test on him. He nailed it and knew what he was drinking with all three whiskeys I put in front of him. It was amazing.
He introduced me to the Universal Whiskey Experience (via Mahesh Patel) and that was a huge reason that my bar exploded on the scene. I am very thankful for that.
MP: Speaking of that, you have achieved a level of success. I commend you on that. You have a great work ethic, and you have personal principles that you stick to. What are your personal philosophies that have helped you along?
YF: It comes from my parents who are from the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. I am a first generation American. Even though I go back and visit every summer, in their time it was a vastly different place. It was difficult to live there because of the political climate, and it was not safe to speak your mind. My uncle was killed in the war.
My parents always preached respect, loyalty, and the value of earning what you get. Also, to treat people how you want to be treated. My father always was adamant about working hard now to reap the benefits later. Nothing comes easy. All these values were passed on to me and my brother. We are open 7 days a week and I am behind the bar every day. My brother is in a different industry but lives the same principles. These old-school values have been handed down over several generations.
MP: If you look at your success in the wake of the earthquake, how quickly you could rebuild, and the loyalty of your guests, it is all proof of your principles. It cannot be taken lightly that the honor of a Top 8 Whiskey Bar in the U.S. is a well earned success for you. Everything you have talked about has been the reason that your bar is so well regarded. Congratulations!
YF: There is a quote from my father that I have always enjoyed; “Don’t try to be the best, just do your best and everything else will follow” and I stick to that.
MP: It shows in everything you do. Especially how you consider the whiskey experience in your bar.
Moving to a different subject, you mentioned Mahesh Patel. You consider him a friend and mentor. For those who do not know, he is one of the largest collectors of whiskey in the world. His collection is valued at $10 million and is made up of 5,000 bottles. How did you get meet him and how did your friendship develop?
YF: It happened through Tom Turner, he told me that I had to go to the Universal Whiskey Experience (owned by Mahesh). The first year, I was not able to go but the second year I made it happen. I am glad I was able to do it because it ended up being one of the greatest experiences I have ever had.
Since I was the only person have ever come to the show from Alaska, he called me to talk about it and learn more about me. It was an incredible experience. When the show was done, we connected again, and he let me know that other people in the group were very complimentary of me. I love learning, so my mission was to taste, study, and learn from all the experts present. I am thankful they took notice. I have been a regular at the show for 6 years and been able to grow some incredible relationships as a result. A personal highlight was being able to drink with Richard Patterson (the Dalmore). That was an experience. I was waiting for him to dump a drink on the floor.
After my first show, Mahesh and I began to randomly communicate via text and phone. Our friendship grew from there.
MP: You have shared your experiences with him at the show. Are you able to share any personal experiences related whiskey that you have had with Mahesh outside of that?
YF: I flew him up to Alaska to do a charity event to benefit Habitat for Humanity. We worked hard to raise a lot of money for them. On this trip, I was able to show Mahesh my world, which is quite simple compared to his. He runs a structural engineering construction firm and whiskey is his side gig.
Alaska is a wonder in an of itself. It was an honor to show him what it is like here. Flying him through the mountains and landing on the Denali glacier was a unique experience for him. On that trip we were able to talk about personal and business. That connected us. Unfortunately, we were not able to fly with any whiskey bottles to enjoy on the glacier. However, we did share a 1964 Glenfarclas together. That was a truly unbelievable whiskey highlight.
MP: That is exactly right, it comes back to the experience of sharing whiskey together.
YF: He was sitting at my bar and I told him he could drink whatever he wanted. He did not go for the Dalmore 25 or The Balvenie 30. He went for the Royal Salute 21. It is nice to see someone who is at that level who can still enjoy a Glenfiddich 15 or something that simple.
On a subsequent trip to London, we connected again. I lost my grandfather, and he lost his father, within a two-week period. All of this in the backdrop of us having tea-time in the Tower of London. We talked about real life.
It was absolutely amazing because whiskey got me to that point.
MP: Once again, that goes back to the connection between whiskey and experiences. He did not go for the 30-year-old whiskey, but in that moment of connection that 15-year-old whiskey probably tasted even better. Such an amazing story.
MP: You mentioned Habitat for Humanity. Can you tell me more about your work with charities?
YF: I have done events for Habitat for Humanity where we do a show and a whiskey tasting to raise funds. It felt great to know that we contributed to help someone in need build a home.
In addition to that, I was fortunate enough to attend the Sentebale Charity Event with Mahesh. This charity benefits children impacted by HIV in Africa (the country of Lesotho). This was started by Princess Diana and continued with Prince Harry. They raised over £1.2 million in less that two hours. It was a much bigger scale that what I was used to.
MP: It is incredible that you take the time to give back, especially given your 7-day work week. You have been truly fortunate that whiskey has brought you many great things and you choose to help others with that.
YF: The community is who supports us. They keep us in business. You must always give back, especially to those less fortunate.
MP: At the beginning of this I told you our mission was to connect with whiskey enthusiasts who do amazing things. I must tell you, through the course of this interview, you have shared so many amazing things that you have done in connection with whiskey. Very well done, it was been an honor to get to know you.
I would like to close the interview with a special treat. It is 5 questions that we ask our guests to answer.
The Mashbill: Whiskey Network Wants to Know Your Recipe – Ylli Ferati
1. What was the last whiskey, bourbon, or Scotch that was in your glass?
2. Do you prefer to drink your whiskey in a specific type of glass?
3. What is your unicorn bottle?
4. I am looking for a gift for a friend, my budget is $50-$75, what do you recommend?
Dalmore Cigar Malt, 1920 Old Forrester, Wilderness Trail Rye
5. What is your favorite toast?
I always say Sláinte and Cheers!
With that being said, I will offer you a toast and drink. Sláinte and cheers to you.
Sláinte and Cheers to you. Thank you to the Whiskey Network!