Sep 042010
 

Ardbeg’s resurrection and subsequent explosion have been a phenomenon not often seen in the whisky world.  The tagline on the bottle ‘the Ultimate’ says it all.  By now, there is little chance of hiding the ATW bias for Ardbeg.  Fortunately, there is no guilt association…ATW has no ties whatsoever to this Islay giant, simply a profound respect for a great distillery that keeps producing exceptional expressions.  The man at the helm for Ardbeg since March 12, 2007 has been Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads.  Michael is a native Ileach, and has certainly paid his dues in the industry.  ATW was fortunate enough, and grateful, to secure a few moments of Michael’s time to get a glimpse into the life of both a burgeoning distillery and the man who makes it tick. 

Without further ado… 

  

ATW:  Having worked for Laphroaig, Jura and now Ardbeg, can you share a little about what has led you along the path of your whisky career?  

MH:  Probably a good work ethic and being in the right place at the right time!! I certainly didn’t plan it from an early age…in fact I thought it would be the last thing I would do, as my father and grandfathers worked in distilleries, I originally planned to join the police force or go to sea that were the options, somewhere i got lost!! :-) :-) 

   

ATW:  Can you think of a personal proudest moment or career highlight thus far?  

MH: Being able to travel to other countries, meeting new people and talking about something you love doing..
I don’t really have a proudest moment, although, I suppose being asked to take on the responsibility of looking after a well known Distillery is a bit of a compliment!!
 

  

ATW:  What does an average day at the distillery entail for you personally? 

MH:  Usually start around 0730 and check with the boys in the plant to see if everything was ok through the night. Every day is different, check my e-mails, plan budgets, meet company guests, ensure all our records are complete and up to date, check our stocks, carry out quality checks, and anything else that crops up. It is very varied and a lot of the times in doesn’t plan out!! 

 
 
ATW:   What can one expect when visiting Ardbeg and touring the distillery? 
MH:  The Distillery is in a beautiful location, we have friendly staff who will ensure you are made welcome and give an informative tour. Afterward you can taste some of our excellent whiskies, we also have cafe / restaurant at the distillery, the food is excellent and we have a lot of return visitors…it is a great place to spend 2 or 3 hours. 
 
 

ATW:  Has the involvement of Glenmorangie changed the direction Ardbeg has been moving in? 

MH:  Most definitely!! Prior to Glenmorangie being involved the distillery was closed, with a bleak future, now the place is vibrant, has a bright future and the popularity of our whisky is growing world wide. The company has invested heavily in the distillery and should be congratulated for what they have done over the last 13 years. 

 
 
ATW:  There has been an overwhelmingly positive reception to the recent entries in the Ardbeg range, not to mention the awards and accolades that have followed.  Does this add an element of pressure going forward or simply vindicate a team of hard-working and talented individuals?

MH:  I think it is a testament to forward-looking people who have pride in what they do. I don’t think pressure is the word!! We look forward to developing Ardbeg and bringing new product for the enjoyment of our followers and for any new consumers who may join us in the future.
It is always nice to get rewarded, it gives you confidence to know that your efforts are always appreciated.
 

 
 
ATW:  What is your current favorite expression in the Ardbeg range?

MH:   Ardbeg 10 years. For quality it is hard to beat!! 

 
  
ATW:  When not drinking Ardbeg, what is your single malt of choice?

MH:  I have a few, depending on the mood…Laphroaig 10, Longmorn, Clynelish, Glenmorangie Original & Signet, Jura 16. 

 
 
ATW:  For quite some time now Ardbeg has been in a position of having demand far outstrip supply. Are there any plans to increase production at any point in the future? 

MH:  We have no plans to increase the size of the plant. We have been building stock now for the last few years and what we fill now goes one hundred percent into cask for Ardbeg, nothing now goes for blending. 

 
 
ATW:  Most foreign markets are subject to the law of ‘whatever-we-can-get-here’ (*note…at the time of this interview, Aug 2010, Canada has just welcomed Corryvreckan).  For this reason, I’d like to ask what Ardbeg considers its core range of expressions, and how long that will stay static? 

MH:  The core range for Ardbeg is 10 years old, Uigeadail & Corryvreckan and this will be the range for the foreseeable future. 

 
 
ATW:  Can we ask your take on the somewhat controversial issue of whether or not, and to what degree, ambient atmosphere affects whisky maturation, and Ardbeg in particular? 

MH:  I am a great believer that where we are determines what we produce and atmosphere comes into that. We make whisky by the sea, we store it by the sea, the peat that is used comes from peat bogs sitting on raised beach and the Atlantic spray in the winter time is absorbed into it, so it all affects the final product. Movement of spirit in the cask is also important, cold the spirit contracts in the winter, warming and expanding in the summer, this all helps with the maturation process. Casks breath…slowly, but they do breath!! 

 
ATW:  For someone sipping their first Ardbeg, which expression would you suggest? 

MH:  Has to be 10 years old, however we have a gentler version called Blasda which is less than half the phenol level of the 10, however this is limited, so the 10 without doubt. Our new bottlings over the last couple of years have been excellent, this is since Glenmorangie took over the distillery in 1997 and is testament to our wood policy. 

 
ATW:  Can you share any hints as to what may be next for Ardbeg? 

MH:  I’m afraid that would spoil the surprises for the future, what I will say is that we will continue to make and develop high quality whiskies which people will enjoy and hopefully then spread the word, after all it is the ultimate Islay malt!!! 

 
 
ATW:  Any final thoughts you’d like to share? 

MH:  I always think we are in a great business, the people who make Ardbeg are passionate about what they do. Single malt enthusiasts are also passionate about single malt whiskies, they are all good ambassadors and I hope the enthusiasm (especially for Ardbeg) continues and helps spread the word to future generations!!!  

Hearty thanks from ATW, Mickey.  

Keep visiting.  Curt is off to Islay in a couple of weeks and will be visiting Ardbeg (along with the 7 other distilleries on the isle).  Much more will be posted on the distillery and the Ardbeg range.  ATW will also have reviews of Ardbeg’s Rollercoaster and Supernova up in the coming months. 

Slainte. 

Aug 212010
 

Greetings, ATW Readers.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year and a half, we’ll assume you have at least an idea as to who Ralfy Mitchell is.  Instantly likeable and refreshingly down-to-earth, Ralfy is the whisky world’s video review phenom.  After trading email many times with Ralfy over the course of the past year, I can attest he is every bit the kind soul you see on his 10 minute videos.

A native of Glasgow, Ralfy’s proximity to both sources and resources is invaluable and an absolute goldmine for his global viewers, many of whom may never step foot on the shores of Scotland.

ATW has thrown a few questions at Ralfy in hopes of gaining a little insight into what makes the man tick and what has driven his whisky blog into the upper echelon of online malt resources.

With no further ado,  ATW is happy to share an (e-) dram with Ralfy…

 

ATW: Ralfy.com and you as an individual have become somewhat of an internet phenomenon.  For those who have not visited your site, who is Ralfy, and what is Ralfy.com? 

RM: … ralfy is a Scottish boy who loves his Whisky and most other quality Spirits.  He is an eccentric malt-head and dram-punk who has connected some basic, (and I do mean basic), lap-top knowledge, a Flip camera and a back room ‘studio’  (table, chair and cupboard) into a home-spun video blog called a Vlog.

With 146 of these Vlogs lasting up to ten minutes each,  ralfy shares unedited anecdotes, information, infotainment and personal opinions on smell and taste of many whiskies, all interrupted by Distillery visits and on-location presentations relating to malted-stuff.

This is cobbled along with other more normal Blogs including ‘whiskystuff’ and ‘whiskymarks’ into  basic-format Google Blogs held together by a Face-page called www.ralfy.com.

It shouldn’t work but it seems to work.

ATW: Can you provide a little bit of background into the inception of Ralfy.com?

RM: … I tripped over a kids scooter in St Andrews on the sand dunes just past the first hole of the Old Course (Golf!)

As a coffin-carrying Undertaker, the resulting shoulder damage meant me being off work for a massive three months, and with never had a Doctor’s sick line for twenty years of working, after the first four week I was climbing the walls !!!

My brother suggested a Flip cam as a distraction, and after playing with it a while, recorded my first whisky review Vlog of Glen Breton Canadian Single Malt.

I chose this Malt as it was getting a hard time off the Scotch Whisky Association over the use of the word “GLEN’ which was considered in whisky terms as Scotch-related and would confuse consumers.

I was pissed-off that the Glenora Distillery south of Inverness, Nova Scotia shouldn’t get to use the word Glen when one in six Canadians can relate to Scottish ancestry,   … that I gave it a video review !

After four dress rehearsals, the video was ready in the fifth ‘take’

The Vlog-based ‘WhiskyReviews’ was added to the recently existing word-based “WhiskyStuff” and with some other blog-bases I was rollin’.

A truly global audience of malt-fans seemed to like the style and visitors have grown steadily ever since.

ATW: What criteria do you use to determine whether or not to review a product?

RM: whatever it is     …. would I buy it ?    … would I recommend it to others ?    … would I give it over 80 points out of 100 ? 

ATW: From the beginning you took your blog in a new direction with your three minute reviews, which have thankfully stretched into nearly ten minute reviews.  Having jumped into the video medium early on, where does Ralfy.com go from here?

RM: ... if it works, keep using it.   I do intend to get more adventurous with the video recordings and will soon be Flash-Vlogging where short two to three minute recordings go live for a limited period before being removed, thereby empowering a temporary moment in malty-time like a Distillery promotional or a Whisky Festival.

… tomorrow I will take ralfy.com somewhere else if the ‘moment’ feels right.  Importantly, I will try to keep it personal as much as I can as Whisky Industry decision-makers would like to grab the style/medium in order to regain control of the Official Marketing Message which costs them so much money to generate.

ATW: Why do you think people so easily relate to you, both personally and as a mentor on their whisky journeys?

RM: … I have made it clear from the start,    … I am not an expert.  What I produce at ralfy.com is a personality-driven informal experience where I share my ten to twelve years of constant whisky voluntary-immersion with just an average nose, average taste, an average wallet and flannel-free opinions, and I don’t work for the Industry, and I don’t get paid, and I don’t look for freebies from Distilleries as a reward for nice comments !   Sometimes I make a mistake and a blooper, but I don’t edit it out, I just carry on and keep things as non-television and as chatty and humorous as possible.    

You just don’t get this sort of thing on the T.V.

… People relate to that,  people like the reality of it.

ATW: All modesty aside, you have become somewhat of an authority in the whisky world.  At the very least, a well-respected resource.  Did you imagine it would happen as quickly as it seems to have?

RM: … well that’s the internet for you, and it is changing the World for sure.  The more you play with the format, the more you see the possibilities.   I don’t see myself as an authority in the traditional sense, more an experienced tour guide who has travelled more of the malt-trip than most but will readily admit   …. there’s so much more to learn for ALL of us.

And yes,  … the Internet can make things happen very quick !

ATW: What sort of prep work goes into one of your whisky review vlogs?  Do you spend a lot of time with each whisky before you sit down in front of the camera?  Is there a ‘dry run’?

RM: … there’s a sort of half-a-dry-run thing of cobbled notes with basic facts, but really, my flow of delivery is best where I just grab the cam, a glass, a bottle and go for it    … flying by the seat of my malt-pants.   If I really stumble, I can go again but that doesn’t seem to happen very often.   That’s practice I suppose,  and years of acquiring general knowledge on Spirits, especially Whisky.

ATW: In one of your vlogs you took us on quick tour of a portion of your whisky cabinet/collection.  Can you tell us what the crown jewel in your collection is right now?

RM: … oooooh !  let me see now   ….. er !  …. um !  …. Rare Malt Selection St Magdalene 19yo as I know it will be a supreme Malt experience when I open it, smell it, savour it, and drink it.   

Malts give you a conversation for a moment,  good Malts give you a longer conversation over time,    … the great Malts leave you enlightened and wanting more of the conversation but your time runs out and they leave you behind.  An open-minded malt-fan learns this.

ATW: What is the one whisky out there you are itching to taste above all others?

RM: … In the back of a Clynelish Warehouse many years ago lay an unassuming barrel of aged Brora that just got used along with thousands of other barrels in a big volume Blended Scotch.

I want to go back in a time machine and in the silence of the casks, fill a glass of this Whisky and silently glide upon the storms and whispers of the smells and flavours which unfold like a treasure map of all desire.  I would like to fill a bottle and go to share it with those I know would understand, and appreciate, and cherish the moment.

It’s not out there, and that’s why I’m itching to taste it.  

ATW: How about three brilliant malts we should be looking out for?

RM: … how did I know you would ask that ?   OK then,    … Glendronach single cask,  Longrow 10yo,  Old Pulteney 17yo  

ATW: Three brilliant blends to look out for?

RM: … Compass Box Asyla,  Ballantines 17yo,  Te Bheag

ATW: Your thoughts on the best of the world whiskies right now?  Any recommendations?

RM: ... my first thought is how fast it’s all happening !   and how varied, exciting and original many new-generation World whiskies are.

Look out for Amrut Peated, recent Sullivan’s Cove, Penderyn Single Casks, Forty Creek, Cooley’s Tyrconnel, and something fantastic from some unlikely place we just would not believe could make good Whisky,   …. and anyone, anywhere could be the first to discover it.

ATW: What trends are you seeing in the whisky world that you are pleased with?  What directions seem to be a little foreboding to the future of whisky production?

RM: … I’m pleased every time I see a label that says NO Chill-filtration, NO E150a Caramel, 46%vol:  and “made by people”

and I have forebodings about GM grains, yeast and oak, Nanotechnology in foods and drinks and powerful men (always men!) who want to be God and relegate us all from whisky customers living with good stuff to whisky consumers existing on bland stuff all for the sake of ‘margins’ of profit.     

ATW: What can we look forward to in the next couple of Ralfy whisky reviews?

RM: Penderyn Welsh Whisky and St Georges English Whisky.   …. yummy !

ATW: In closing we’ll toss one of your own questions back at you…three tips for enjoying whisky?

RM:

1 – never drop a good bottle of Whisky   … till it’s empty.

 2 – never spill a glass of good Whisky   … till it’s finished.

3 – even when your not sober    … act sober.

ATW: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

RM: … when you pick a glass of Whisky up for smelling, sipping & savouring     … slow it all down  ….. slower gets you further !

Keep tuning in to www.Ralfy.com for regular additions to his ever-expansive video library.  I promise you’ll learn something.

Thanks, Ralfy.  Slainte!