Charles Ferri looks casual as he approaches the gastropub he’s selected for our meeting. He’s sporting weathered jeans, a t-shirt, and his slightly long hair is peaking out from a black cap pulled low on his head. It boasts a big gold star on a black field, proclaiming his company Star Vodka as soon as you see him. He doesn’t immediately strike you as a New Yorker, coming off much more like a So-Cal surfer, which he apparently gets a lot. You might think it’s his day off, but he informs me with a smile that he’s just come from a meeting at the Core Club in midtown Manhattan, where they really want to start stocking Star.
He has a right to be happy. Star Vodka, his brainchild and main project for the last several years, is stocked in 35 locations around New York, including exclusive venues like the Standard Hotel’s Boom Boom Room. Since he began the research for his brand in 2009, things have moved in a smooth, consistent upward motion. Because they had to. For Ferri, Star wasn’t just a business venture—it was his way out.
In some ways, Ferri’s story is archetypal, able to be understood in the molds of iconic, mythic figures of American culture. He grew up with no money in Hopewell Junction, NY, just 70 miles north of New York City, with familial and societal pressures to go to college (SUNY Buffalo) and go get rich fast. He did just that, becoming a young all-star in the financial world, working at several major banks throughout his twenties and quickly becoming the youngest senior associate at his company. Ferri’s rise was Gatsby-ian (if more honest), with him having ascended to the rich, cultured cosmopolitan life everyone had always pushed him towards.
None of it was enough, though, and the first time Ferri missed a promotion it devastated him. “I decided, ‘Fuck them, I’m leaving.’” he says. “I’d been looking for a way out, I just didn’t have the balls to do it.” These things have a way of being addictive, and like the infamous Michael Corleone line, it wasn’t long before they pulled Ferri back in—the “they” in this instance being Deutsche Bank. And then he was really Gatsby. Thirty years old, a house in the Hamptons, two cars. The Life, as they say. Somehow, Ferri still felt like he had nothing.
Maybe it was the anxiety of having to support that lifestyle. Obviously, the more you have the more you need to make to keep all of that going, and Ferri could feel himself becoming entangled in the drive to just keep acquiring more. Ferri says the obsessions began to wear him down. Or maybe it was the growing disgust he felt for the financial world and what he saw as their culpability in the sleek, corporate homogenization of New York into a family playground with a Starbucks on every other corner. Ferri felt like it was becoming far more difficult to be original in New York, and lamented his role in a world that bore part of the responsibility. He became fearful of cruising right past Gatsby and into Gordon Gekko territory, so he sold everything, the house in the Hamptons, both of the cars. “People thought I was losing it,” he remembers. “They kept telling me I just needed to take some time off.” They tried to pull him back in again, but at his goodbye party each of his superiors pulled him aside and told him “I wish I was you.”
During those years of anxiety and disillusionment, Ferri escaped to the New York nightlife of Chelsea and the Lower East Side. Every night, he would go out and party, seeking release. Part of it was a late-blooming youth revolt that Ferri hadn’t had time for as a hard-working kid in a financially struggling family. He didn’t want to wear a suit every day, he wanted to grow his hair out. The downtown life seemed to promise an alternative, with people of all walks of life mingling amongst the gritty throb of underground house music.
While it’d be easy to read Ferri turning to partying as a process of unraveling under the pressures and despairs of his career, he views it as a very positive, formative phase of his life. It was a liberation, and he felt like he owed something to New York’s nightlife culture. This was the world he turned to when he finally left the banking world for good. He became a partner in Serena, a lounge below the legendarily decadent Chelsea Hotel, and the Star Room in the Hamptons. It was the exclusive Star Room’s idea that “If you were someone special, you got in,” that provided the basis for what would become the governing principle of Star Vodka: the more you tell someone you can’t have something, the more they want it.
It was seemingly at odds with the liberation Ferri valued in nightlife, but it became a sort of mantra. He renovated Serena into the Star Lounge, predicating it on the same operating procedures as the Star Room, each cultivating throngs of people outside waiting to get in. He became enmeshed in nightlife culture, hosting parties, bringing in celebrities, keeping people coming back for more.
It was around this time that he started to conceive of starting a vodka company rooted in the same ideas.
Ferri began to mull over a few questions. Anybody can do a club, but how many people can do a vodka? Why do people always have to mix them? Why does it have to be so harsh? And, derived from his self-described “super-patriotic” status—Why isn’t there an American luxury vodka with a global presence? Ferri endeavored to answer these questions, spending a healthy chunk of 2009 and 2010 studying vodka and how it’s made. He traveled to Russia, Poland, France, and throughout Scandinavia.
Returning home, Ferri began seeking out the American sources he would draw from to create his All-American vodka. After looking around the Northeast United States, he turned to the Pacific Northwest, finding a distillery in Oregon that offered something special. Though the distillery primarily made gin, he worked on a special vodka formula with them. The primary characteristic of Star is that it’s distilled five times through lava rock, which is a natural bio filter. This process is what makes Star so smooth compared to other vodkas. Other selling points Ferri developed included making Star from non-genetically-altered corn, as well as making it gluten-free. The shrewdness of Ferri’s businessman days met with his creativity, and he created a product that had all the right, of-the-moment aspects: a bit of exclusivity blended with a more relatable “Made in America” ethos, a vodka that was a high quality liquor while also incorporating appealing natural elements. Star Vodka was born, and Ferri marketed it as he always wanted to: You should drink it straight.
Not everything was easy in those initial years. Self-funding the entire venture strained Ferri’s resources and forced him to make concessions. He designed everything, but then there was the legal fees, the trademarks. He reluctantly turned to a French glass company for the bottle. He chose a unique, squared-off bottle: something he found to be stronger, more American in appearance, despite its French creator.
Star began in limited production. His parties began to become Star themed. He began hosting tastings. He relied on word-of-mouth, and the word was good. But he needed to up the sex appeal. For him, that meant refining the design, sourcing, and construction of the bottle, finding a glass company stateside and making it truly All-American. He also smoothened out the edges so that the bottle still had a presence, but was easier for bartenders to use. The veins in Ferri’s neck bulge when he gets to this point, he’s so excited. It’s around this time that I noticed his Star hat has a little American flag on the back.
This year, Star has become poised to become more mainstream. Winfield Flynn, an iconic liquor store on 37th and 3rd in Manhattan, was the flagship store for Star. It’s spread throughout other shops and bars in New York, but now people from further afield are seeking it out. Ferri has received offers for the high-end celebrity escapes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as well as from clubs in Las Vegas, Orange County, and Chicago, and even Austria and Switzerland. Star has been featured or advertised in OK!, Cosmopolitan, Details, and inTouch. The way the industry and laws work in the United States hold controlled expansion back, though. To legally sell Star throughout the States, Ferri needs distributors, middle-men, and his big-name competitors have considerably more expansive resources to deal with the biggest distributors. When I spoke with Ferri, he had recently considered striking out on his own again, starting a separate company to handle his own distribution.
What it comes down to is Ferri likes the idea of creating and having control over something. It makes total sense. Having come from a childhood without means and an ascendency in the impersonal world of finance, Star is something that Ferri can actually use as expression, something he can call his own. While its success thus far thrills him, it’s paramount to Ferri that the company stays lean. The crucial thing is that he remains in control of it, that it remains of him.
He’s made himself synonymous with the brand. The meeting that day at Core Club was one of many; Ferri spends a great deal of time basically out in the trenches talking to people who are potentially interested in Star. But embodying a brand certainly has its glamorous side, too. As the brand and Ferri have become one in the same, he’s become in-demand for people’s events and high-profile parties. Last month, he did a series of New York Fashion Week parties, including one with OK! that was full of reality TV stars from the likes of The Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New York City.
Without an office or specific schedule to be tethered to, I asked Ferri what a typical day looks like for him. When not at home in Hell’s Kitchen, he occasionally wakes up in his girlfriend’s apartment in Montclair, which overlooks the New York City skyline. It’s an image so iconic as to be overly-weighed down with all sorts of myths and symbols, but it’s made real for Ferri for how it represents all of the permutations of his life, his rise, his despair, his escape. Everything that is his is in those city walls. He’s smiling. He doesn’t need to answer to anyone and, for the first time in his life, feels like he’s in control of something, maybe even his own future. And what’s more American than that?