Whisky People #3 – Ralf Mitchell

by Oliver Klimek on September 11, 2010

Fact Sheet

Name: Ralf Mitchell (“Ralfy”)

Year of Birth: 1962

Place of Residence: Glasgow, Scotland / Isle of Man

Profession: Undertaker

Whisky Involvement: Video commentator

Portrait

Today’s guest is living proof that the internet has the power to turn a simple person into a celebrity. A Glasgow undertaker named Ralf Mitchell did something a little bit uncommon and all of a sudden found himself confronted with a level of publicity that he would never have expected.

Most of you will have heard the story before, but anyway. Forced to stay at home due to a shoulder injury, Ralfy started to record videos in which he is reviewing whiskies as well as sharing general whisky knowledge sitting at his kitchen table in front of his whisky cabinet. On his site ralfy.com he had already started a whisky blog before where he published written whisky reviews and ratings.

Ralfy’s whisky vlogs as he likes to call them became so popular that he has been continuing to publish them ever since. Apart from the “home videos” he also records visits to distilleries and festivals where he interviews other whisky people. And then there are his field trips where he reviews whiskies on location, be it up on the ben or down in the glen.

What is the secret of the man in the zippered jumper who seems to remove his tweed country cap only at bedtime? Ralfy was certainly not the first one to record whisky reviews on video, and he will surely be not the last one either.

I thnk the key to his popularity is the obvious authenticity of his videos paired with a natural talent for presentation. Nothing looks rehearsed or even staged, it’s just as if he was sitting at the table with you chatting about whisky over a dram. Without having met him in person, viewers are convinced that what they see in the video is 100% genuine Ralfy and not someone playing “nice chap” in order to sell you something.

But it’s not only about the presentation; there is a lof of substance in Ralfy’s videos as well. Even if you may already know the bottles he reviews, there is always the chance to learn something new about whisky because Ralfy loves to spice up his vlogs with bits of general and useful whisky knowledge. Not to forget his often stated aversion against industrial treatment of whisky with caramel or chill filtration.

Ralfy has been a member of Glasgow’s Whisky Club for three years where he holds the position of Chanty Rastler (“chamber-pot shaker”), his task being to let distillers know when their whisky was not quite as excellent as expected.

Apart from whisky, Ralfy is also interested in all kinds of other spirits from around the world, or in his own words: “Whisky, Rum, Tequila, Grappa, Eau de Vie, Mescal, if it’s alcoholic, … and quality flavour, I’m interested.”
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Just recently, Ralfy has sold his house in Glasgow to move to the Isle of Man to look after his mother. But he has promised he will continue to vlog and also attend whisky events.

Interview

Was there some decisive moment of “initiation” that turned you from a casual whisky drinker into the malthead you are obviusly now or did it just sort of happen?

The decisive moment from Whisky casual to Anorak was a bottle of Bunnahabhain 12 yo about eleven years ago. It was a present from my Dad and I mixed it with tonic water until I ran out of tonic water and used tap water instead. As the water got less and less the flavour got more and more. … I found that I loved the complexity I had never noticed before.

Are you surprised by the amount of recognition your vlogs have earned you in the internet whisky community?

I never expected to receive so much recognition and positive feed-back from so many people so soon. In fact I never expected anything !

ralfy.com started as a conventional Blog but with my decision to record video Blogs (Vlogs) in the form of 10 minute, unedited, informal video clips mainly of reviews of bottles, I seemed to hit an appreciative audience looking for a ‘Malt friend/advisor’ rather than for an Expert presenting a Marketing message or whisky cliches. I appreciate 98% + of comments and feed-back being mature and genuine with little hassle from Trolls (pests). ( that can haunt some on-line commentators).

In your vlogs you are very outspoken, some of your favourite terms are “artisan distiller”, “caramel” and “chill filtration”. Have you experienced any displeasure about your opinions when you met whisky producers who might feel addressed by your criticism?

It’s hard to say with the Scotch Industry whether they see me as a Malt-pest or harmless anorak spending lots of cash on alcohol !

I am certainly perceived to be out-spoken on various issues (which does help reinforce my independence from the Industry) but I never slag individuals or whiskies off, …. I strive to keep things positive, pragmatic and cheery whilst I present myself as a fellow traveller on the malt-road sharing the journey by passing on my experience as a whisky-fan and not a lecturing Malt-snob preaching superior knowledge and insights at a grateful passive audience whilst soliciting free-stuff from the Industry like special bottlings, lunch invites, cocktail parties, cash or fancy trips, all which lay in wait to trip up the unwary Blogger and compromise their voice.

With the internet’s growing Global influence as an educator and informer, well provisioned cash-rich Marketing Departments wish to control this medium through sponsorships e.t.c. to keep the ‘Message’ to their liking. Some ‘bunnety’ anorak coming along and gaining an audience not within their sphere of control, … they don’t really like it.

The sensible Industry people see that I am generally considerate and educational along with being entertaining, so they give some passive support and the occasional compliment plus a decent dram at whisky tasting Festivals …. But not too many compliments !!!

More and more members of the whisky industry embrace social media like Twitter and Facebook. Do you see this as a mere marketing stunt or as a chance for the conusmer to communicate better with the people who produce their favourite tipple?

Twitter and Facebook are just accessories of the internet which give practical options for communication for everyone. Traditional Blogs and more structured web-sites do this well and understandably the Industry wants it’s voice heard too within these formats. A whisky is nowhere until people know about it and where to buy it.

At the moment nearly all whisky commentators do refreshing varieties of good presentation in relation to whiskies whether it be structured conservative marketeers or the more authentic freelance commentators doing their thing on limited finances, perhaps making them more imaginative and creative.

Whisky blogging and journalism tends to focus almost exclusively around single malts while blends make up the bulk of the global whisky market. Are whisky writers too elitist or whisky buyers too uneducated or whisky makers too much focused on volume sales?

True ! most on-line commentary relates to Malt whiskies, and I have made a point of featuring many Blended Scotches in my Vlogs as I know this is useful to a younger, inexperienced audience who cannot initially afford Malts or perhaps want to move from Blends to Single Malts having gained an introduction via decent Blends like Teachers Highland Cream and Black Bottle.

Whisky makers focus on volume sales as that is where the real cash profits are. Malts account for only 7% of whisky sales although this percentage is growing steadily, but most of the opinion forming internet talk is about Malts, not Blended Scotch which perplexes the Industry who are wary of increased expectations of quality. If customers want better Malts today, a bigger group of Blended Scotch customers may demand better quality Blends tomorrow.

You are an undertaker. Some people might argue that it is impossible to really love this kind of job. Are they right?

I have been an Undertaker for over twenty years living and working in Glasgow. Have I loved the job ? … well ‘love’ is not really the right word, I have found it to be a varied, rewarding, life-enhancing job with no two days the same.

I would rather have been an Undertaker than be doing many of the jobs relating to the Whisky Industry, thats for sure. A Cooper, too much hard graft, an Ambassador, too much travel and saying the same thing in different Countries.

Common Questions

1. Please share a memorable whisky moment with us. This might be a fantastic dram, someone you met or any other situation that left a deep impression in your memory.

Many years ago on Skye I worked in a Hotel as a seasonal waiter for ‘College’ cash ! A local character prided himself on producing great hooch bottled in soda bottles and of a presentable quality which he ‘shared’ round local bars, … but he was never caught distilling.
… the reason was simple, he was buying the whisky at a Glasgow Wholesaler and decanting into the soda bottles to make it appear that he was a good ‘hoocher’.

He just loved the reputation and status, but couldn’t be bothered with the challenge of actually making the stuff !

2. What percentage of your life do you dedicate to whisky (sleep ignored)? Do you think it should be more or less, or is it just about right?

I have a dram most nights, two or three (perhaps four) glasses and a bottle of ale. I don’t get drunk, I don’t binge and I never dram on an empty stomach. … got to keep it moderate, flavour first and no dizzy turns. Particularly when recording Vlogs once or twice a week which takes only thirty minutes at a time. … yippee !

3. Your three tips for whisky novices

Don’t waste time on bad whiskies.
Don’t waste time in bad company.
Don’t put all your money in the Bank.

4. Your three tips for experienced whisky lovers

Learn to identify more what makes good whiskies.
Learn to keep good company when drinking whisky.
Learn to keep an open mind with Spirits.

5. What was the last dram you had and how did you like it?

I Had a dram of 20 year old Benriach at the Glasgow’s Whisky Club Tasting a few hours go and loved it’s traditional character. …. 90/100

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