Best Highland Way
Tatsuya Minagawa co-owns Craigellachie’s Highlander Inn with sleeping partner Innes Macpherson. Jason Caddy met with Tatsuya for a chin-wag over a coffee and a gander at his claim to fame: his Japanese whisky collection.
The always-busy Tatsuya Minagawa, 48, wishes he could be more like a flamingo once I tell him how this remarkable bird can stand on one leg and rest half of its body and brain while the other side remains awake. As co-owner of The Highlander Inn, he’s very much the face of this Craigellachie landmark bar and hotel, and sleeping partner Innes Macpherson is, he told me, happy to leave the day-to-day running of the hotel to Tatsuya.
One of the first things that came up as we got down to business was turnover and the likelihood of him wanting to repeat his success by expanding to unit number 2. But it seems that he has enough on his plate without contemplating a sequel to Highlander. He told me, “Turnover is increasing year on year and I don’t feel the need to open ‘Highlander 2’. We are doing well and I want to build on the success of what we’ve achieved so far. Although, I wish that I could be like that flamingo you talked about and be able to shut off one side of my brain because there’s always something to think about when you run a business and employ people.“
As one of its directors, Innes is now more heavily involved at the Spey Valley Brewery, and after chatting to Tatsuya for ten minutes it was plain to see how much he’s got to do. He was up and down dealing with everything he’s got to deal with on a daily basis, like deliveries and locals popping their heads in to say “hi”. Office manager Tracy was busy in the office, the cleaners were getting stuck into the hoovering and the man himself was busy coordinating deliveries as well as taking calls about his very first Spey Valley Brewery farm show in Cnoc.
The Highlander Inn is clean and welcoming and traditional in a way that is sympathetic to its surroundings. I think it’s to be applauded that it hasn’t had its heart ripped out by too modern a redesign.
As there were so many staff buzzing about we also talked about staff turnover in this industry and how retention and hospitality careers are dirty words, yet he remained characteristically philosophical about it like he is about most things. He explained, “The staff retention is the same as many businesses in this industry. This is not a big company, like Scottish Widows or something. On saying that my bar manager Billy has been here for four years and we have what you might call a non-verbal connection and that’s the way I like it. In my experience, a ‘do this, do that’ style of management doesn’t work, or falls on deaf ears. People have a brain. Let them find their own way.”
And so it came as no surprise to me that he’s also very relaxed about the prospect of leaving the place in the hands of his staff when he hotfoots it to Japan for a fortnight in a week’s time – a trip that he makes once a year. He says, “Japan is eight hours ahead so I don’t want to be contacted about every single issue. I want my staff to use their own initiative and breathing down their necks doesn’t encourage this, so it’s important that they feel confident enough to run the place in my absence.”
Tatsuya also told me that he tends to work in the office by day and in the whisky bar at night where he loves talking to customers, and he’s hardly torn over which he prefers. He said, “I work five days until 6pm and I have my head buried in spreadsheets in the daytime, but I much prefer to be behind the whisky bar, serving and chatting to all the customers from the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa – all over the world.”
Because The Highlander Inn was my penultimate port of call in a little junket that I happened to be doing for DRAM, including a spot of judging for the Scottish Bar & Pub Awards, I was able to talk to many people in the area before I met Tatsuya, all of whom knew him and none of whom had anything but praise for him. So I wasn’t surprised by how many people gatecrashed our interview, in the nicest possible way. Words like ‘legend’ and phrases like ‘a real character’ were bandied about. And Tatsuya is quick to allude to the fact that in a location like Craigellachie, “community is everything”. Yet Tatsuya Minagawa’s biggest claim to fame has spread far beyond this little Speyside village because, and according to the man himself, he’s the custodian of something rather special. “As far as I know,” he added modestly, “I have the largest collection of Japanese whisky in Scotland. The Highlander is a reasonably well-known establishment today and a business needs a USP. Our guests are global, attracted by our well-chosen, interesting whisky selection. People will travel for quality. We now have about 3oo whiskies but when we started, we only had about 50, like any pub in Elgin or Aberdeen, for example.“
He continued, “Just before I left Japan there was a downturn in whisky consumption in the country after the peak in ‘81 and ‘82 and Scotch whisky wasn’t popular. It was all bourbon. But that certainly isn’t the case today.”
So how did Tatsuya wind up in a small village in Scotland, some 5,662 miles from his native Japan? Said Tatsuya, “I’m from a small city in Japan called Yamagata that’s about half the size of Edinburgh. I moved to Edinburgh 20 years ago when I was in my early 20s and I have always been into whisky and so I wanted to go to the whisky country. I planned to stay here for a year and I thought, wow, this is alright. A nice country.”
He continued, “Previous Highlander owner Duncan Elphick, who was Manager of the Craigellachie Hotel at the time, was looking for someone to run the hotel’s whisky bar with accommodation thrown in. (It’s just over the road from The Highlander.) This was 2003. As I was based in Edinburgh and loving it at the time working at M’s on King’s Stables Road, and as I’d been up here one or two times, I thought ‘no chance, too remote’. He managed to twist my arm and, surprisingly, it was far far better than I thought. Two years later Duncan bought The Highlander with Innes, and I moved over here where I was offered a director’s position shortly afterwards. Duncan decided to sell his share of the business to me and move on in 2015.”
And, being the son of a Sushi chef, hospitality is in Tatsuya’s blood. He explained, “My late father was a sushi chef, and my mother, who’s still alive, also worked in the restaurant. I also have one sister. Both her and my mother are still in Japan.” But does he ever miss home? “A good friend is a good friend – even if I haven’t seen them in a year or two, so I don’t feel like I am missing out.”
Away from the job, Tatsuya keeps very fit by utilising the beautiful surroundings – but the needs of the business are never far away from his motoring mind. He explained, “I run six miles four times a week but no marathons and no competitions these days. I get my best business ideas when I’m running and what a terrific backdrop for it.” And this is a man with plenty of modesty and ‘heart’ as well as what must be a healthy heart with all that running. He continued, “This business is successful because, as well as my ideas, I have heart, knowledge, passion, personality. And a lot of luck!”
Tatsuya has also seen many changes in his time, which have shaped the business and its offering. He explained, “Ten years ago people’s expectations were ‘no expectations’, but today they have grown and so has our business offering. Because of the internet, everybody is going to get negative reviews from time to time. Some rooms in The Highlander are noisier, sometimes people have to wait a little longer for dinner when everybody arrives at 7.30pm because we have a small kitchen. So some negative feedback is fair enough. But generally speaking, people detach from any negativity if the service is good, which it is.”
So what about the current business climate? I asked him. Any challenges? He said, “Speyside is booming and of course we benefit from this. We are lucky to be surrounded by 50 great distilleries, fishing, and The Speyside Way. The Macallan has just opened a brand new distillery and all of this brings a ton of people flocking to this small village. It’s all good.”
In case you happen to be wondering, I was up in Speyside judging the Wm Grant Bar Apprentice for this year’s Scottish Bar & Pub Awards and, coincidentally, this is something that Tatsuya’s incredibly passionate about. He explained, “I took on a bar apprenticeship in Japan aged 18 and my father also did an apprenticeship in cheffing when he was that age. In Japan, the hospitality industry is taken far more seriously than it is here. I think things are changing in the UK though – albeit very slowly, but they’re changing nonetheless. The majority of people still mistakenly believe that two people making G&Ts will do it in exactly the same way or that there is zero art or flair to it.”
He continued, “I pride myself on the fact that many of the more professional bartenders use both Japanese techniques as well as Japanese tools behind the bar, and Japan remains one of the best places in the world to kick-start a career in this industry because of a wide availability of apprenticeships. The same can be said of Hong Kong and Singapore.”
With his wife, who is also Japanese, also working in the hotel, The Highlander Inn is also a bit of a family affair. To a point. Said Tatsuya, “My wife works in housekeeping and also looks after the décor. I have a son of nine who loves football but has no interest whatsoever in following in my footsteps.”
I left Tatsuya and made my way to my final port of call on my trip, judging at the Glenfiddich Distillery with said Bar Apprentice candidates, and you’ll have to wait for the awards and our next issue for the outcome of that one.