Phoenix rising

Anyone who read Issue 53 on Great Whisky Bars of The World will know that Whisky Magazine rates The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie pretty highly. Richard Jones discovers what makes this humble looking bar such a haven for whisky lovers
By Richard Jones
‘There can be only one!’ declared Christopher Lambert in the cult 1986 film Highlander, somewhat misleadingly given the subsequent sequels (three) and television series (two).Perhaps if you were born in the Scottish Highlands in 1518 and forced to fight other immortals in New York City nearly 500 years later, you could be forgiven a moment of confusion. However when it comes to whisky bars, there’s little doubt that the Highlander Inn in Craigellachie is pretty unique.It helps if you have a great location.Thanks to its sprawling topography and concentration of distilleries, the whisky region of Speyside lacks a single, undisputed capital. Yet the village of Craigellachie has more claim than most.‘The heart of Speyside’ is a much overused phrase beloved by tourist websites, but if any locality has earned the cliché then this is it.Situated at the intersection of the A95 and A941, immediately to the west lies The Macallan; to the southwest Dailuaine; to the north / northeast Glen Spey and Glenrothes; and to the south heading towards Dufftown sits Aberlour, The Balvenie and Glenfiddich.In fact at least 15 distilleries can be considered close to Craigellachie (including the eponymous distillery) with many more only slightly further afield. Which, of course, makes Craigellachie the perfect place for a quality hotel.“I feel we’re very much complimentary to the Craigellachie Hotel and the Quaich Bar rather than competitors,” begins Duncan Elphick, part owner and director of the Highlander Inn.“I worked at the Craigellachie for eight years and have a very soft spot for it. I believe it’s in both our interests to have two world class whisky bars in the same village. More business in the area is good for everybody.” Together with business partner Innes Macpherson and co-director Tatsuya Minagawa, Duncan bought the Highlander in June 2005. Since then its rise has been almost meteoric.“I’d known the place for nine years or so, and it’s been through good times and its been through its not so good times,” Duncan explains. “I thought that with my background I could do something with it.” Although separated by barely a few hundred yards, the contrast between the Craigellachie Hotel and its neighbour could not be more extreme. Where the Quaich Bar is pristine and polished with an atmosphere that borders on the reverent, the Highlander has a ‘lived in’, slightly ramshackle feel.As you descend the stone, red-washed steps, the bar offers a friendly, warming ambience. The décor is full or quirks and pattern clashes, the colour scheme would give Lawrence Lleweyln-Bowen palpitations.But the message is clear: this is a funloving, laid-back place with absolutely no pretensions.“Our market is totally different from a fivestar hotel,” observes Tatsuya Minagawa, a director of the Highlander and its highly accomplished bar manager. “There’s no point in us selling whiskies that are £200 a nip or try to stock every single bottling by every single distillery. I try to concentrate on interesting, affordable and drinkable drams.” When Duncan and Tatsuya took over the running of the Highlander, they sold around 70 single malts. Today that figure is up to about 125 and they believe the optimum figure is somewhere between 150 and 200.Amongst their number is the Highlander Inn 2005 Single Cask Bottling of Glenfarclas, an exclusive 32 year old (distilled 1973) malt at its cask strength of 50.4%.The whisky is sold at £145 a bottle (234 bottles available) or at £6.50 a nip (on an Optic!) in the bar. As you would expect the range is strong on whiskies from the immediate vicinity, but the well-chosen malts from other Scottish regions (as well as an extensive selection of Japanese malts) reinforces their claim that, “we don’t want to be known simply as a Speyside bar.” In addition to whisky, the inn also specialises in real ales, an attraction not always common in parts of rural Scotland.At the time of my visit they were selling two excellent ales from the Cairngorm Brewery Company.Although they’ve made considerable progress during a short time, Duncan still has ambitious plans for the place.“I want to become one of the best village or country inns and one of the best whisky tourist destinations in Scotland. I’d like to turn the Highlander Inn into a venue that is recognised for good whisky, good beer and good food. It’s a long term plan.” You could say, however, that Duncan and his team have succeeded rather sooner than they think.The Highlander Inn, Craigellachie, Speyside
Banffshire AB38 9SP
Tel: +44 (0)1340 881 446