The region of Speyside is one of the six major Scotch whisky production regions in Scotland. A village there called Craigellachie is especially popular among whisky lovers.
In this village is the Highlander Inn, a bar where whisky lovers gather from around the world.
In fact, the owner of the bar is Japanese.
What is it about the Highlander Inn that captures the hearts of whisky connoisseurs?
We got word that its owner and bartender Tatsuya Minagawa was temporarily back in Japan, so we headed to the Highlander Inn Chichibu, a branch of the Highlander Inn in Japan to meet him.
We spoke to Minagawa to find out the secrets behind the refined moments and spaces he creates in his bars.
Speyside, the sacred land for whiskey enthusiasts
Scotch is a whisky that is produced in Scotland.
Scotch is one of the five major whiskies made in the world, including Canadian, Irish, American and Japanese whisky. Among these, Scotch stands out and is widely recognized. Moreover, Scotch is said to account for nearly 60 percent of all the whisky consumed in the world.
The reason why Scotch is so popular is likely due to its long tradition and the environmental factors surrounding it.
Scotland has a diverse natural environment which allows for a wide variety of high quality whiskies to be made. It also has a long history of delighting whisky connoisseurs around the world.
The production regions of Scotch can be divided into six regions and each has its unique characteristics that are based on their different climates.
This article will focus on the northeastern area of the River Spey where Speyside is located, which is known for producing many balanced, elegant and well known Scotches.
Minagawa owns and runs a bar in Speyside, and he explains why the region attracts so many people.
“Speyside has more distilleries by far than any other region in Scotland. There are over 50 distilleries here today and recently some have started to produce peated whisky (a smoky flavor added by peat fires), which are rare in this region. It is the best place in the world to experience the diversity of whisky.”
In fact, three of the top selling single malt producers in the world are located here in Speyside.
There is no doubt that Speyside deserves to be called the true home of Scotch.
Meeting the world of bartending in Kyoto
Minagawa was born in Yamagata Prefecture and he began his career as a bartender at the age of 18 in Kyoto.
“After I graduated high school, I went to Kyoto right away with no plans. I chose Kyoto because I had visited the city on a school trip and I liked the quaint atmosphere, but really I just wanted a job and a place to live.”
Although he moved to Kyoto with no plans, he soon found his first job at a barbershop. He chose the job because it included housing, but he did not stay long and quit after only two weeks.
Nonetheless, his friendly personality helped him become well acquainted in the city within those two weeks and he already had a few favorite restaurants in the area.
The reason he started working in the food service industry was due to these early connections.
“The restaurant owner that I became friends with connected me to some housing and so I lived day to day from there. One day I heard there was an opening for a bartending position and I got the job. My family in Yamagata worked in the food service industry so I always liked being in food service environments. It was a great opportunity for me.”
As it turned out, this job changed the course of Minagawa’s life.
Moving to Scotland drawn by curiosity
Minagawa had a feeling bartending would suit him well and it turned out to be so.
He learned the basics of serving and making cocktails from scratch, and enjoyed conversing with the customers who visited the bar daily. It is not hard to imagine that the 18-year-old Minagawa, who still had his Tohoku accent, was well received by the regular customers.
Soon after Minawaga turned 20, the owner of the bar he worked at gave him an unexpected gift.
“We went out drinking and he gave me a bottle of whisky as a birthday present. I remember that night well. He gave me a 17-year-old bottle of Ballantine, a Scotch blended whisky. It was the first time I really enjoyed the flavor of whisky.”
Ballantine is a blend of over 40 whiskies and it has a deep flavor and aroma. It is a popular brand that still has many fans today.
At the time, it was a luxury whisky that young people could not afford because of high tariffs and liquor taxes. The experience of drinking this whisky had a deep impact on Minagawa’s taste.
Minagawa became fascinated by whisky and has immersed himself in its appeal ever since. It also drove him to become more immersed in his craft as a bartender. It was only natural that he developed a desire to further his craft by working in Scotland, the homeland of whisky.
“As a bartender, of course I was curious to know what the homeland of whisky was like. Moreover, I thought if I spent a year or so working there, I could brag that I had experience working in Scotland. At least at the time, that was my lighthearted motive.”
As he approached the end of his 20s, Minagawa left Kyoto and traveled to Scotland. Ultimately, he ended up moving there permanently, so as they say, fate works in mysterious ways.
From Edinburgh to Craigellachie and an fateful encounter
The bars of Scotland were a lively place for social interaction.
The local regulars and passing travelers start gathering in the bar from early afternoon and start conversations while buying each other drinks and getting a little tipsy.
With whisky and other drinks as their common language, they spend their time freely in the relaxed environment.
The laid back atmosphere suited Minagawa well and he spent the first four years in the bars of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.
One day he had a fateful chance encounter. He met Duncan Elphick, the owner of the The Craigellachie Hotel, which is known by all whisky connoisseurs in Europe.
“At the time, Duncan was looking for staff who were knowledgeable about whisky and he very enthusiastically invited me to come work for him at the Craigellachie Hotel. I wasn’t excited about the thought of going to a country town like Craigellachie, but everyone around me told me it was a great opportunity and that I should go so I decided to accept the offer for just a couple months.”
However, the moment he stepped into Craigellachie, Minagawa became captivated by the town.
“The nature that surrounds the town was incredibly beautiful and all the hotel staff were great people. The whisky bar of the hotel was well stocked with a collection that demonstrated Duncan’s good taste. I remember being excited about having come to such a great place.”
Although he only promised to stay a couple months, he ended up staying for two years.
Eventually, Duncan decided to sell the Craigellachie Hotel, but in order to help Minagawa and a few other staff members keep their job, he bought a small hotel just across the street. This hotel was the Highlander Inn.
“I moved to the Highlander Inn in 2005. I was in my mid-30s and had built up a decent career as a bartender, but because we were short on staff I had to do all kinds of miscellaneous chores, from cleaning to making beds. Looking back now, it was a good experience and the days were not bad at all.”
The experience of creating and maintaining a space from bottom up, where various people come and go for a moment’s rest, was an experience that brought Minagawa back to the fundamentals of the service industry.
After working at the Highlander Inn for about seven years, Minagawa left the position for the first time.
During his time away, he worked as a brand ambassador for Japanese whisky and flew around Europe to promote it.
He said that more than anything, he looked forward to the occasional visits he made back to the Highlander Inn to have a drink with Duncan. He enjoyed sharing updates with Duncan, but at the same time, seeing the Highlander Inn as an outsider made him realize just how appealing the place really was for whisky lovers.
Succeeding and preserving the whiskey enthusiasts’ sanctuary
Around the time Minagawa’s job as a brand ambassador was coming to an end, he heard that the Highlander Inn was up for sale. The news took him by surprise.
“The Highlander Inn is a special place that has the potential to be a travel destination in and of itself. When I heard the news I couldn’t sit still and went to go see Duncan that same day.”
However, with old age and declining health, Duncan’s decision was set in stone.
Minagawa surprised himself when he spoke up and said that he would buy Highlander Inn.
As destiny would have it, the timing was just right as he had finished his job as a whisky brand ambassador and was free. Fortunately, he was able to finance the purchase smoothly and received the baton as the new owner of the Highland Inn.
Minagawa served beer, whisky and fish and chips. He also continued Duncan’s legacy of welcoming all customers with open arms so everyone can relax and enjoy their time at the hotel.
Minagawa wanted to preserve the space as it was.
“At the same time, it is important to make consistent improvements. When the interior or furnishings become old, we must renew it. We must always make an effort to provide a space and time where customers can have positive experiences. Of course, I’m sure when the owner changes, there are gradual changes that happen naturally, even if it is unintended.”
In that sense, Minagawa says that it was “lucky” that he was Japanese.
“The Japanese people have a strong sense of hospitality that is unmatched anywhere in the world. I myself am doing nothing more than what I saw my parents at home do for their customers, but it is very positively received in Scotland.”
Saying “welcome” and “thank you” in a direct way to each customer is like a habit that comes out naturally. However, it is these minor actions and details that make the visiting customers feel welcomed.
“When I first started running the Highlander Inn, I would often scold the staff for treating the customers coldly. However, when they saw that a simple smile and positive energy helps brighten up a room and create a fun atmosphere, their habits of good hospitality improved naturally.”
When the work environment becomes positive, it is not only good for the customers but also for the staff.
As the staff gained this perspective, the Highlander Inn soon became known as a wonderful place where everyone can have a good time.
A unique story in every glass
Before long Minagawa became well known as the whisky man of Speyside and the Highlander Inn became a popular destination for whisky. The Highlander Inn also became known as the “heart of Speyside.”
Now, they have regular customers that come from around the world, and some are second generation customers who have been coming since Duncan’s time of running the inn.
Many customers come not only because of the hospitality provided by Minagawa, but also to experience the lineup of whiskys that he has selected for his bar.
“I want to maintain a casual atmosphere, so there are many drinks that are available for a few dollars for the majority of people to enjoy. On the other hand, there are customers who want to enjoy a really good whisky and a bit of luxury, so I have some drinks that are priced at a few hundred dollars a glass in the selection as well.”
Many bars around the world celebrate the bar’s opening anniversary or the bar owner’s birthday in a festive way, but the celebrations held at Highlander Inn are especially grand.
“When my regulars and even one time customers come together to celebrate for me, it makes me so happy. Oftentimes, after having a little too much to drink I get a little carried away and open a rare bottle of whisky that has a market value of a few thousands of dollars to share with everyone in the room.”
Minagawa sometimes feels bad about his tendency to put profit in the backseat at times, but he believes the most important thing is creating a shared pace where people can happily enjoy their drinks.
“I have no intention of making a profit by deliberately raising the price of the drinks.” This comes from Minagawa’s pride as a bartender.
“It makes me very happy when my customers laugh at my silly jokes. No matter what it is, when you share something with another person, it is a joyous feeling. Thinking back, this is the best part of this job and I have felt it since I was 18 years old.”
Minagawa says that when a customer really enjoys their drink or asks for advice on what to order next, this kind of positive feedback also brings joy.
“When a customer really enjoys one drink, I try to offer a slightly different drink next. If they enjoy that, I keep expanding the experience with different drinks. Having these sessions with customers are the most fulfilling moments for me.”
The job of a bartender is to create a unique story for each customer through each glass of liquor served.
This is Minagawa’s definition of what it means to be a bartender.
Chichibu, where Scotland and Japan meet
Before he knew it, Minagawa had been in Scotland for a quarter of a century. During this time, Japanese whisky and the careful craftsmanship behind it, became very well received around the world.
In response to this positive trend, the Highlander Inn opened a branch in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture in 2019.
Chichibu is the home of Ichiro’s Malt, a brand that has swept the global whisky scene off its feet, and now attracts whisky connoisseurs from all over the world.
“Like our headquarters in Speyside, we often see local customers mingle with tourists and visitors and share drinks in our Chichibu branch. This is precisely the role of a bar that is well integrated in the local community. It is my hope that I can continue to preserve these places where people can casually get together, forget their daily troubles, enjoy getting drunk and have a good time.”
Minagawa has created original stories with each individual who has visited his bar. It seems that his own story, as the man who became fascinated by whisky, will continue for many more years to come.
Photo: Kaori Nishida
Translation: Sophia Swanson
Cooperation : Highlander Inn Chichibu