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Highlander's Drams

by Gavin D Smith, 07/10

The Speyside region of Scotland is home to some of the greatest names in Scotch whisky, and also boasts a number of fine places in which to sample the produce of the area's many distilleries.

One of the finest and best known 'whisky hostelries' on Speyside is the Highlander Inn, located in the historic village of Craigellachie, within sight of the River Spey, some four miles from the 'malt whisky capital' of Dufftown and just a mile and a half from Aberlour.

Built during the 1880s as a private house, The Highlander building later served as a bank and has been a bar since the 1960s.

Wall cases are lined with enticing old bottlings, including 'dumpy, black and white labelled Cadenhead's offerings from the 1970s and '80s. These are all available for drinking, but a case containing the full set of 26 Diageo 'Flora & Fauna' bottlings' is strictly for show.

Duncan Elphick is proprietor of the Highlander Inn, and he first became interested in single malts following a visit to Glenfiddich distillery in 1979. He worked in a number of international locations, including South Africa, Iraq and Zimbabwe, ultimately being appointed general manager at the Craigellachie Hotel, opposite the Highlander, in 1997. "I raised its profile in the whisky world quite successfully," says Elphick.

In 2005 the Craigellachie was put on the market by its Danish ownership syndicate and Elphick attempted to purchase it along with a group of backers, but this did not come to fruition and instead Duncan turned his attention to the Highlander Inn, which was also for sale. "I was known here and I loved the area, so buying it seemed the sensible option," explains Elphick.

The Quaich Bar's manager Tatsuya Minagawa joined the Highlander team as Bar and Whisky Manager, and Duncan Elphick notes that "With his reputation and my reputation and knowledge of the area we were never going to major as a vodka bar!"

"The Highlander already had about 70 single malts, so there was a decent collection in place," he adds. "We had 540 single malts in the Craigellachie at that time, so we were not going to try to copy what we had done there - it would have been far too expensive, for one thing. So we took a different tack. We set a target of 200 whiskies, going for more interesting, unusual and older bottlings, such as those from the 1970s and '80s. We have quite a lot of independent bottling, too, and like to feature bottlings not available everywhere else. We now have 220 single malts and a fair selection of Japanese whiskies. I go to Japan a couple of times each year.

   "I wanted to make 'The Highlander Inn' a world brand, but it didn't quite happen. However, I knew a bar in Tokyo called the Cromdale Bar, which had a good selection of whiskies, good beer and food, and its owner Toshiyuki Suzuki has re-branded it as The Highlander Bar, though there is no financial connection between the two places.

"We're in a village of 420 people, whereas he's in a 'village' of 13 million people! We give him 'profile' and he gives us customers. I'd like to have a couple of other Highlander Bars in other parts of the world."

One of the most expensive drams on offer in the Scottish version of the Highlander is a 24-year-old Ladyburn, a rarity produced within William Grant & Sons' Girvan grain distilling complex. "There's nothing too outrageously pricey," says Elphick, "and we do sell drams of everything we have on offer. I'd like to get something really big, like a first release Black Bowmore, and sell it at cost, just so that people could experience it.

"For pure volume, The Macallan sells most, followed by Aberlour, and then our own, single cask bottlings. We sell very few blends. We started doing an annual release of our own single cask when we were at the Craigellachie, in 2001 and we've carried that on here. They now sell so well that that we also do special releases. A 36-year-old Caperdonich and a 27-year-old Caol Ila were both bottled last year. It's an eclectic choice; the whisky can be from anywhere, and it doesn't have to be a big name, though big names do sell better. We sell full bottles from the bar as well as individual drams."

The Highlander Inn produces whisky lists, offers dedicated 'tasting trays,' and boasts suggested tasting menu options, varying from 17 to 125, which are popular with both novices and real connoisseurs alike, particularly during the main tourist season.

Right: the complete collection of 'Flora & Fauna' bottlings.

"For visitors from the USA, Japan and European countries, the Highlander is a whisky bar," explains Elphick, "and for our locals it's a place for good bar food and Cairngorm cask ales. We have to balance the two. Internationally, we are regarded as one of the hot spots for whisky lovers, but if you don't have both the necessary knowledge and passion, all those bottles become expensive decoration!"

The Highlander Inn
AB38 9SR
Tel. +44 (0) 1340 881446

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