Operator’s heart in The Highlander

Love of whisky led Tatsuya Minagawa from Japan to Speyside

Tatsuya’s love of whisky brought him from Japan to Speyside and The Highlander Inn, which he first worked in in 2005 and bought in 2015

IN the heart of malt whisky territory, a wee corner of a Speyside hotel is dedicated to the whiskies of Japan.

The display cabinet of more than 20 Japanese whiskies in The Highlander Inn is surrounded by photographs of the people and places behind the products; and, together with a further 20 Japanese whiskies behind the bar, makes for one of the largest collections in Scotland.

It’s an important part of the 300-strong whisky range curated by owner Tatsuya Minagawa.

But it wasn’t the spirit of his homeland that first got Tatsuya interested in whisky.

In fact, he admits he didn’t like whisky – Japanese, Scotch or otherwise – at first.

“I think I pretended to like it but I didn’t really,” said Tatsuya, who grew up in the Japanese city of Kyoto.

“Then I think I must have been 20 and I had a good Ballantine’s 17 year old and I thought ‘this is different’.

“I really enjoyed it. It got me liking Scotch whisky and interested in it and it just developed from there.

“Today everyone Googles everything but that was almost 30 years ago. I bought books, although there weren’t that many, and I studied books and tasting notes.”

The Highlander Inn is home to more than 20 Japanese whiskies

Tatsuya’s reading coupled with working in whisky bars in Kyoto provided a strong foundation, but it only went so far to slake his thirst for whisky knowledge.

And so his next, perhaps inevitable, step was to travel to Scotland.

Arriving in Edinburgh in 1998, Tatsuya worked in bars  in the capital before being offered a job in Speyside by Duncan Elphick, the then manager of The Craigellachie Hotel in the village of the same name.

“I had been up there a couple of times while I was based in Edinburgh,” said Tatsuya.

“But when Duncan offered me the job I said ‘it’s too remote’. I grew up in a city in Japan which is about twice the size of Glasgow so Craigellachie seemed very remote.

“But my Edinburgh friends said The Craigellachie Hotel was world renowned so I took the job and came here for what was meant to be three or four months.”

That was in 2003.

Two years later, Duncan bought The Highlander Inn across the road from The Craigellachie, and Tatsuya moved to work there, where he stayed until December 2011. A brand ambassador role with Suntory, promoting its Japanese whiskies across Europe, followed before Tatsuya returned to The Highlander, buying the business in 2015.

And whisky has remained a key focus at The Highlander during Tatsuya’s time as employee and owner, as he has expanded what was a range of 70 whiskies to the carefully-considered collection of 300 on the gantry today, working with suppliers including Gordon & MacPhail and The Whisky Exchange.

As might be expected, local drams feature heavily, with strong representation from Speyside stalwarts such as Aberlour, The Balvenie, Benromach, Craigellachie, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glen Moray, The Macallan, Mortlach and Tamdhu.

But The Highlander Inn’s Scotch whisky range stretches way beyond Speyside.

There’s several malts from each of the Islay distilleries, as well as a selection from each of the other regions; a couple of single grain whiskies; and a handful each of blends, blended malts and world whiskies from the likes of Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands alongside the range of Japanese whiskies.

Priced from £3 up to £94 for a Douglas Laing Xtra Old Particular Port Ellen 36 year old, the range is intended to cater for the broad range of tastes and budgets that makes up the eight-bedroom hotel’s clientele.

“We built the whisky very slowly,” said Tatsuya.

“We started with 70 whiskies; now we have 300 but it’s just a number.

“And we don’t only stock Speyside malts, that would be like a bar on Islay only stocking Islay malts; we have whiskies from all regions.

“Trade here is less seasonal; people visit the distilleries all year round.

“And our customers come from all over – Germany, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands. Britain is our biggest market, then Germany and the Netherlands.

“But it’s not just a bar for tourists; it’s a locals’ pub.

“Our biggest selling point is the service – everyone mentions the friendly service.

“If you provide friendly service… that’s what it’s all about.”