Arriving in Craigellachie at lunchtime, Whisky Magazine's publisher and I pulled up outside a small inn that sits upon the narrow road that snakes its way through the centre of the village. Painted chiefly in white, with rich green woodwork around its square windows and tall front door, it was a welcoming sight after a long drive. As we descended the curving staircase to the bar, my employer remarked over his shoulder, "Welcome to the beating heart of Speyside, it's a real Who's Who of whisky down here!"
I suspected that I was having my leg pulled. Perhaps in my enthusiasm for this first trip to Speyside, I had given the impression that I naively expected to find one of the magazine's 'Icons of Whisky' behind every corner. Yes, clearly this was a joke at the newbie's expense, I thought, before narrowly avoiding a collision in the hall with George Grant of Glenfarclas.
As I recount this tale to Tatsuya Minagawa, the new owner of The Highlander Inn, he smiles and nods with recognition - that this had happened to me clearly comes as no surprise. "Well…" he begins, considering his words carefully. "Sometimes - I'm trying to be humble, you know - but sometimes, perhaps, I do find myself thinking that possibly this place is the centre of the whisky universe!" he exclaims, before lowering his voice again and adding bashfully, "On Speyside, at least."
In truth, Tatsuya has no need to be modest. With countless trips to Speyside now under my belt, I've heard much the same said countless times by many. Indeed, The Highlander Inn holds a special place in many hearts; this is not only on account of its reputation as a great hide for those seeking out the lesser-spotted whisky personality, but also for its impressive back bar, which includes an remarkable collection of Japanese drams - reputedly the largest outside of South East Asia.
Nevertheless, Tatsuya maintains that the distinguished clientele hasn't changed the character of the bar; it has and will ever remain a relaxed pub with a local feel. "No £200 cigars here," he says adamantly. "We have a good mix. Sure, we get the - what would you call them - 'international whisky celebrities'? But then we also have the locals, from pensioners to teenagers enjoying their first drink!" he grins. And if anyone is going to know The Highlander's clientele, it's Tatsuya, having previously worked there for nearly seven years as bar manager under the previous owner, the illustrious Duncan Elphick.
But how did a man hailing from Kyoto, a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, find himself in Craigellachie, a small village in Moray? "I moved to Scotland in my late twenties and worked for a while at a whisky bar in Edinburgh. At the time, Duncan was managing The Craigellachie Hotel, but he needed someone to teach the staff about whisky; we met by chance at an event and a little while later he invited me to join his team," Tatsuya begins. "Of course, I had to think about it," he adds, recalling his dilemma. "I had a community of friends in Edinburgh at that time and while I'd not say that it's a big city, compared to Craigellachie…" he trails off, seeing that I can clearly empathise. "But all of my friends said I should go and that it was a great opportunity. After all, it was just supposed to be for two or three months at most!"
But a few months turned into two and a half years, and when Duncan later left The Craigellachie Hotel and bought The Highlander Inn, Tatsuya went with him. There he remained until, in January 2012, Tatsuya accepted the position of European Brand Ambassador for Suntory whisky - a role he held until early 2015. "It really was a great job and I honestly do like their whisky; it was particularly special as I remember watching my dad drinking Suntory when I was a child. What made it even better was, during all that time, I was still able to live here in the village! So yes, even when I was doing that, I'd pop into The Highlander, have a pint and see Duncan," he adds, reminiscing.
"Then, I came in one day and Duncan said he was putting the hotel on the market. I couldn't believe it!" he remarks, wide eyed. "He was the kind of guy that I could see working at sixty-five and even seventy-five! But he decided it was time to retire and I made my mind up quickly. I told him, "Duncan. If you're selling, I'm buying." He sits back in his chair and finishes recounting the history, "I think he's delighted I took over. The last time we spoke he said. 'Now life is better than ever' - he's even moved to Spain!" It's clear that Tatsuya is pleased to hear the change of pace is suiting his friend and mentor well, and he adds with a wink, "I even joked with him that maybe I paid too much!"
So what can we expect next from The Highlander Inn, now that the torch has passed? "Well, next month the Chichibu International Brand Ambassador, Yumi Yashikawa, is coming all the way from Japan to do a special whisky tasting for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival," he says, before revealing that she too also used to work at The Highlander Inn. Clearly the place not only attracts whisky celebrities, but also creates them as well.
On the Back Bar
"The great thing about this bar is that what we have is always changing, so what I tell you today might not be here tomorrow! But here are two of my current favourites." Tatsuya Minagawa
The Manager's Dram Clynelish, 1998 61.8% ABV
"This bottling wasn't really 'released', but instead was given to people who worked at the distillery - so as you can imagine, it's very good. It also means that when it's gone, it's gone! It is one of my current favourites though."
Oishii Wisukii (Delicious Whisky) 36 Years Old 46.2% ABV
"Back in the 80s, a 17 Years Old blended whisky changed my life. It introduced me to how delicious whisky could be. Unfortunately, some people look down on blended whisky. With this bottling I hope to show them that blended whisky really can be delicious! The wonderful label design is by Japanese designer and artist Takeshi Abe, who also designed a number of labels for the famous Ichiro's Malt Card Series. Hopefully he will continue to create these excellent labels for future releases from Oishii Wisukii range."