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
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.