Mar 012011
 

One of the most fascinating pieces I have read in years is an interview with Tom Waits done by…Tom Waits!  The ever-charismatic Waits knocked one after another out of the park and had me both in awe and stitches through the whole article.  I think it is something unique in that the interviewee is finally able to say what they want to say and not be confined to call and response.  It opens up all sorts of doors that wouldn’t necessarily be opened.

 Most of us know Ralfy by now.  Being the affable chap that he is, Ralfy embraced this one head on and immediately agreed to share some insight.  And this is why we love him.

I won’t bother with a big lead in, as you either know him already, or will once you’ve read his piece.

Ralfy Interview with Ralfy

February 2011

For allthingswhisky.com

 

Ralfy:  Hello there, ralfy

Ralfy:  … Hello, malt-mate !

 

Ralfy:  What’s up?

Ralfy:  … Just checking over my latest recording, which happens to be WhiskyReview 183 – Caol Ila 30yo MacKillop’s Choice, an Independent bottling of thirty year old single malt at £90 ($143 Can:) … an affordable old malt for it’s age and worth the effort!

The emphasis with the Vlog (video-blog) is to advise anyone uncertain of what to expect from old whiskies, and how to get the best out of the smell and flavour.

I am also drinking a strong cup of coffee and will shortly smoke a lovely Nicaraguan cigar out in the garden potting shed so as not to upset my dear old mum with the smoke-smell … bliss!

 

Ralfy:  The Vlogs tend to be your speciality … why’s that ?

Ralfy:  … Well, I started two years ago with a conventional blog-format which I made ‘different’ by being flippant and humorous about the Whisky Industry marketing flannel and other stuff.  There are so many whisky related blogs that have appeared over the last few years so that to get noticed you have to provide something original and informative, or anything at all in the way of content which will potentially attract an audience.

I had the time to set things up then due to a shoulder injury keeping me off work for three months, and it was early on during this convalescence that my brother suggested I buy a video-cam and “do something”.

Having checked what was already on-line, It seemed to me that my completely irrational obsession with Scotch Whisky and the many years of non-methodical smelling and tasting had provided me with an approach to talking about whisky which was unorthodox and potentially entertaining.

A ‘Vlog’ was recorded in my back room (thereafter called the Artisan Studio) and after four (flustered) takes, I was reasonably happy with the results.

It was posted on YouTube and less than two years later and with thirty six hours of recordings now showing, over a million viewings have taken place. … Excellent !

 

Ralfy:  What’s the reason for the Vlogs success then ?

Ralfy:  … An informal, simple, unpretentious, irreverent, humorous, eccentric, disorganised chat which passes across my experience to encourage viewers in choosing, enjoying and thinking about whisky and other spirits.

 

Ralfy:  And what will we see over the next few years with your ‘stuff’ ?

Ralfy:  … More of the same, moderated, adjusted and enhanced by viewers feed-back and comments.  That’s one of the things about the internet format, it’s still new and fresh, anyone, and I do mean anybody at all … with originality and a knack for presenting their topic of choice can very quickly get noticed and gather an audience, all with a minimal outlay of cash and without the expense of publishing books, a professional reputation or T.V. contract.

With traditional media like radio, magazines and television, professional presentations are created at increasing expense which then go out to a large, but geographically restricted and potentially passive audience where people will generally experience the event once if they’re interested, … then it’s gone, either into archives or onto dentist waiting room tables.

The internet blogger can rattle off a short presentation in minutes with no editing, no expense, no script, no make-up, no ‘meetings’, no managers, no hassle … and soon after, can upload onto the internet for an interested, inquisitive, ‘waiting’ International audience who after reading or listening or watching (as many times as they want, whenever and wherever they want) then have an opportunity to comment, approve, criticise, add some content and generally interact.

The whole style of on-line commentary can be as unorthodox and unconventional as you want to make it and it does help to be as ‘different’ to traditional styles as possible, so I tend include all my bloopers, stumbles, mistakes and other mini-disasters whilst recording so long as the affable opinions and knowledge are passed across to the viewer who will hopefully be entertained as much as informed.

Hard at work in the Bothy

 

Ralfy:  Significant stuff ralfy … What do the Whisky Industry think of this situation then?

Ralfy:  … The older, traditional ‘executives’ (if they notice) are bemused and probably mildly irritated, but not too fussed so long as the standard Blended Scotch volume-sales grow in China and Russia … that’s where the main cash is.

The younger Industry professionals are generally more aware and comfortable with it because (luckily for the Industry) it is clear that the biggest majority of on-liners are sympathetic and enthusiastic, with no real Trolls (bad-guy internet’rs) spoiling things with a CrapWhiskyList Blog.com ( it will happen eventually! )

Recently, the Industry big-guns have extended hospitality and other sweeteners to successful whisky-bloggers in order to build relationships and this is a good thing, not just to acknowledge, but reward commentators who have spent time and effort on their Sites.  All the commentators are different in personality which adds a refreshing variety to the ‘mix’.

The hospitality is an option though, and any long-term commentator is wise to keep a certain distance from Industry Reps: as it is now clear that we are at the stage where readers and viewers are alert and sensitive to marketing-spin loaded blogging.

 

Ralfy:  A bit of conflict between producers and customers with the internet the field of action then?

Ralfy:  … Conventional marketing schemes have been focused recently towards Internet bloggers with attempts to offer bottles of whisky for ‘approval’, (I refuse the offers by the way! ) but significantly, the orthodox marketing message can very quickly get scrunched-up, re-jigged and lost completely due to the interpretative skills of internet’rs, both bloggers and audience.

I think at this stage everyone can see just how influential the Internet will continue to be as regards the successful promotion of any product and I am pleased to see that some producers are slowly responding to repeated and much discussed demands by whisky drinkers on-line for authentic craft-presented (no added colour, chill-filtering and 46%vol:) bottlings of Malts. (e.g. the Real Whisky Campaign which has still to find it’s big moment! )

Quite simply, a small number of reputable commentators (like Serge @ whiskyfun and John @ whatdoesjohnknow) will steer the attitudes and expectations of the far greater numbers of whisky-inquisitive customers Globally.

My own view is that the all drinks Industries should review their standards carefully.

We are after all willing to pay more money for true quality Spirits than mediocre standard blended whisky because we value the intrinsic smell and flavour and quality has value in economically tough times.

If the quality is not present, sales are lost, then reputation is diminished.

The internet has been the most important arena for whisky-fans to resist the dumbing down and ‘blanding’ of whiskies which the Industry have intermittently been accused of trying to achieve in the pursuit of greater profit margins.

- Just ask them about substantial investment in genetic modification of barley and even oak!

- Just ask about marketing consultants advising that creating a poorer quality product empowers the value of aggressive marketing messages!

- Just ask about “inactive cask” tolerance levels!

To some ‘Career Executives’ in the Industry, smell and flavour costs money, and costs must always be cut cut cut! for their bonus bonus bonus …. the deficit can be patched up later with enhanced marketing budgets!  People who actually know about production have their influence marginalised in decision making.

I think you can tell that this pisses me off!

That’s why I am a fan of the small Distillers though they to can have their shortcomings.

 

Ralfy:  Well, tell us why you’re increasingly a fan of the small Distillers (dispute some shortcomings)!

Ralfy:  … Small Distilleries the World over are the custodians of the traditional contemporary culture of production of alcoholic spirits, whether Whisky, Whiskey, Gin, Rum, Tequila … or whatever!

Large multi-national producers are by their very nature committed to huge volume and mass production as part of their survival and monopoly.

Nothing wrong with that you understand, but for me, something important gets lost …. Identity!

For example …the only part of Talisker which relates to Skye is it’s production as a raw spirit.

The only part of Springbank that relates to Campbeltown is … absolutely everything!

The small Distillers have by default a social commitment offering proportionally greater jobs per cost of production, community focus, tourism in remote areas, social interaction, uniqueness … and an enhanced personal product benefiting from local grain, hands-on production and a lack of over-rewarded top-heavy bureaucracy and ingrained politics which features in muti-nationals.

Importantly, the Big Distillers can buy the attention of on-liners with helicopter rides, large measures of old whisky. meals and other flattering stuff! … and in doing so comfortably keep themselves ‘in the frame’.

Small Distillers cannot afford this so easily and so I am increasingly featuring smaller and Independent Distillery whiskies in my Vlogs as a core feature of the ralfy-identity.

Viewers will notice that location Vlogs often feature small Distilleries and the characters who work in them and also other related services like Coopering and retail shops.

An important part of my personality as a commentator is an informal interaction with small Distilleries which works well because they are more than happy to open up the facilities which are great places to record many, if not all aspects of production.

 

Ralfy:  …And do they pay you like they do the professionals ?

Ralfy:  … No, I don’t even generally accept samples through the Post as this implies a commitment to review favourably despite providers’ assurances to the contrary.

In buying the bottles I review, I review the same whisky people buy and not a vetted small samples which the Distillers (for very legitimate reasons) ensure are the best version to promote their sales.

A perfectly understandable system which generally works for the Industry, but I avoid samples.

My costs (fuel, travel, food, buying bottles to review etc.) come from on-line linked advertising. I receive no payment from the Whisky Distillers. … it keeps things fresh that way! … and more fun too!

 

Ralfy:  So what do you see happening in the future ?

Ralfy:  … Chinese Whisky of good quality.  (Sooner rather than later)

Polish oak matured Vodka.

More World Whiskies from some very exotic places … hello Greenland!

Better quality matured and sipping Tequilas, Rums and even that Cinderella of Spirits, Cachaca.

Many Distilleries going into receivership and/or bought out.

Small Distilleries getting more noticed.

More internet sales of Spirits.

The internet increasingly influential in everything.

New hybrid Spirits.

Educational Drink Cruises as a holiday option.

Several new Spirit drinks never seen before like Rainforest Spirit and plant-Infused whiskies.

Marketing Departments going more ‘softly’ with messaging and more communities-interaction.

New grain-combo whiskies.

A Canadian Whisky renaissance.

Better Russian Vodka.

Scotland showing more self-respect to itself due to economic pressures, social unrest and unemployment problems.

The Isle of Man building it’s first proper Whisky Distillery.

… that’s enough predictions for now.

 

Ralfy:  Any advice for whisky-fans ?

Ralfy:  … Enjoy every drop from the bottles, but don’t drop the bottles.

Pick friends carefully, then share your Whisky generously.

Get your ‘system’ organised on the internet for working out where the best whiskies are and how much they cost !

Don’t suffer too much bullshit from anyone about anything.

Make time for silence in your life.

Smell and sip … slow, slow, slow !

 

Ralfy:  And finally ralfy, tell us about the Canadian Connection at ralfy.com.

Ralfy:  … There’s three !

… Firstly, it was the decision by the Scotch Whisky Association to spend a fortune in cash trying to prevent Glen Ora Distillery, Nova Scotia, Canada from using the word GLEN in its’ presentation of the Glen Breton Single Malt Canadian Whisky.

It was my personal sense of being deeply insulted and witnessing Scotland suffering offence with this ‘business’ decision that specifically instigated the first ever Vlog at ralfy.com WhiskyReviews (now review number 2)

Scottish culture, heritage and blood infuses Canada through generations and Scotland is very much a part of the fabric of this big Country.

… I cannot believe that any self-respecting Scotsman would have taken the litigious action of the Scotch Whisky Association.

… Another Canadian Connection has been the excellent hospitality of the organisers and people at the Victoria Whisky Festival in 2010 where I both recorded Vlogs and presented a masterclass ( a bit unorthodox, but it was popular! ) and despite offers from around the World, Victoria remains the only appearance of ralfy outside of Scotland at a Whisky Festival and this situation is likely to remain for quite a few years yet.

… The final Canadian Connection is (apart from having relatives in Canada) is my awareness that of all the Countries around the World, Canada has the best position in being able to re-invent it’s Whisky Industry with many exciting happenings going on including the use of Canadian oak for maturation, the refining of skills in multigrain distillation and the appearance of something genuinely new to the world of Spirits.  Check Davin’s excellent website canadianwhisky.org for Canadian-stuff !

 

Ralfy:  Thanks, Ralfy !

Ralfy:  You’re welcome.

Ralfy raises a glass

Y’see what I mean?  Thanks again, Ralfy.  Canada looks forward to having you back.

Slainte!

          – ATW

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!