Best Highland Way

August 14th, 2018 | Posted in:

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.


New gin to help raise funds for Doddie Weir’s MND charity

Mon 18th February 2019

English spirits ­producer 45 West Distillers, which produces Burleighs Gin, is working with ­Scottish rugby ­legend Doddie Weir’s chari... Read more.

Absolut creates new bottle label in support of LGBT+ History Month

Mon 18th February 2019

Absolut vodka has taken ink used in hate signs from around the world to create a new limited edition bottle to celebrate LGBT+ History Month... Read more.

All four Majors live on Sky Sports in a spectacular 2019 beginning with the Masters Tournament in April

Mon 18th February 2019

The drama and emotion of all four Majors will come to life for Sky Sports customers this year as the biggest names in golf hunt down the mos... Read more.

William Grant & Sons announce new Chief People Officer

Thu 14th February 2019

William Grant & Sons has appointed Kerry Christie as its Chief People Officer effective June 2019. Kerry will be based in Scotland and w... Read more.

Andy McCue to step down as The Restaurant Group boss

Thu 14th February 2019

The Restaurant Group, whose brands include Frankie & Benny’s, Wagamama and Chiquito, has announced that chief executive Andy McCue... Read more.

Scotch Whisky exports on the up in 2018

Thu 14th February 2019

Official figures from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have revealed a strong year for Scotch Whisky exports in 2018, with global growth by bot... Read more.

Year-on-year revenue growth of over 300% for Scottish craft gin brand McQueen Gin

Wed 13th February 2019

Stirlingshire-based true craft spirit brand McQueen Gin has announced year-on-year revenue growth figures of over 300%. ... Read more.

BrewDog reveals more details of first US bar outside Ohio

Wed 13th February 2019

Scottish brewer BrewDog has revealed more details of the ‘Doghouse’ bar it will open in Indianapolis, which will be its first US... Read more.

Buzzworks Holdings reports another year of growth

Tue 12th February 2019

Buzzworks Holdings has reported an increase in turn over, up 9 per cent from £14.8m to £16.2m, for 2018.... Read more.

Diageo submits plans for flagship Johnnie Walker visitor attraction in Edinburgh

Tue 12th February 2019

Diageo has announced that plans have been formally submitted for the flagship Johnnie Walker visitor centre in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh attr... Read more.

McGinty’s Group set to serve up £500k bar and restaurant in Aberdeen

Mon 11th February 2019

The McGinty’s Group has lodged plans with Aberdeen City Council to transform the former Esslemont and Macintosh (E&Ms) department stor... Read more.

Beer sales in UK on-trade up, says BBPA Beer Barometer

Mon 11th February 2019

Sales of beer in the on trade increased by 0.1% on full year 2017 sales, according to the latest Beer Barometer sales data from the British ... Read more.

Carlsberg reports full-year UK volume down 3%

Thu 7th February 2019

Carlsberg has reported total volume fell 3% in the UK for the year ending 31 December 2018 in a slightly growing beer market. Of its UK perf... Read more.

SIMS AUTOMATICS: CELEBRATING 50 YEARS AT THE TOP OF ITS GAME

Thu 7th February 2019

It’s not every day that you come across a family-run business that’s celebrating 50 years of successfully supporting and supplying the S... Read more.

KINGSBARN DISTILLERY’S SINGLE MALT TAKES FLIGHT

Wed 6th February 2019

A long-held dream to distill fine single malt whisky in the East Neuk of Fife has become a reality for the founders of Kingsbarns Distillery... Read more.

ORO GIN WINS SILVER AT THE WORLD GIN AWARDS 2019

Wed 6th February 2019

Oro Gin, from the Dumfriesshire-based Oro Gin Distilling Co, picked up the silver title in the London Dry Gin (UK) category at the World Gin... Read more.

New rum for Deeside Distillery

Wed 6th February 2019

A North-East distillery has launched an exciting new venture with the creation of the UK’s first single cask cask-strength ... Read more.

Plans to extend historic Melrose pub given the green light

Wed 6th February 2019

It’s always tricky trying to secure planning permission when a pub’s steeped in history but The King’s Arms in Melrose High Street has... Read more.

LADY LIBERTINE OPENS HER DOORS WITHIN THE EDINBURGH GRAND

Tue 5th February 2019

The Edinburgh Grand has added a further art deco inspired bar and dining experience with the launch of Lady Libertine. Lady Libertine is the... Read more.

Elliots to be renamed Vic’s & The Vine following refurbishment

Tue 5th February 2019

Buzzworks Holdings has closed Elliots bar and restaurant in Prestwick for a refurbishment and rebranding that will be unveiled at Easter. It... Read more.