Monday, February 24, 2014

Q&A: Fraser Elphick of The Highlander Inn

Scotch whisky is no doubt a cornerstone of Scotland's tourism industry. Men and women behind the distillery positions from stillmen to marketing play a major part in the contribution of the Scotch whisky industry to the Scottish economy. Among a few icons such as tartan and haggis, whisky is arguably a huge part of Scotland's national culture - it is the "water of life" that is one of the country's biggest earners.

Venturing away from blenders, stillmen, and marketing teams there are other resources promoting Scotland and its national drink. Resources in the form of iconic whisky bars that convert many hesitant drinkers to the joys of Scotch whisky. One such notable establishment is The Highlander Inn that is situated in the centre of Craigellachie, Speyside. Although The Highlander Inn needs no introduction to connoisseurs it is worth mentioning that the establishment is recognised as one of Scotland's best known "Village Inns" and a "hot spot" for whisky tourism.

For the past thirteen years principal representatives of The Highlander Inn (owner: Duncan Elphick with team in tow) have annually made their way to Japan to naturally promote whisky and their establishment. Whiskies R Us got a chance, on the teams last visit, to go behind the stick and chat with the newest representative and important figure of The Highlander Inn - Bar Manager: Fraser Elphick (the owners son).

Besides the fact that The Highlander Inn is family owned and run, what aspects of the whisky/hospitality industry made you jump on board?

Fraser: Before starting I really didn’t know a huge amount about whisky. I did however want to learn, and knew it was something I could easily become passionate about. I felt that it would give me an opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Every day I would get to talk to someone new. Interesting and enthusiastic people from every part of the globe. All congregating in the home of Scotch Whisky, Speyside, ready to tell their tales and share their thoughts on different drams makes for an excellent place to work. This is maybe not why I came, but is certainly why I stay, and love it.

You have been bar manager at The Highlander Inn now for over two and a half years. In what direction do you see yourself heading in the next five years, and is there anything new you would like to see happen or develop?

Fraser: Interesting question. It is always important to adapt. Times change and fashions change. Just like every aspect of the whisky industry. We have to move with these times. However the Highlander Inn is not, and certainly dose not aspire to be a “trend bar”. We are fairly traditional and our focus for the Highlander is to always provide friendly service and good quality food. It’s important to me that we continue to grow our status abroad as one of the best whisky bars in Scotland. However we must still appeal to the local community as a place to go for a pint after a hard day repairing old casks at the local cooperage or managing the stills and warehouses in the many surrounding distilleries. With this mix of people from abroad and distillery workers all talking away it makes for a great and authentic atmosphere. We also have been doing our annual single cask bottlings for many years now and I would like to see this continue. Perhaps over the next couple of years we might increase our number of single cask bottlings whilst continuing our special annual release. I believe that the Highlander Inn could become more than just one of the best whisky bars but a small, but well known “brand”. We will see though. We can’t forget what we are best at and that is our core business, The Highlander Inn.

The establishment has had an assortment of high-profile guests/patrons come along including that of Akuto Ichiro. What kick-started the relationship between The Highlander and the founder of the Chichibu distillery?

Fraser: Duncan first met Akuto-san in the very early 2000’s when he visited Speyside with his dream to build a distillery. He returned to Speyside several times over the years to visit barley producers, the cooperage, and, of course, Forsyths who were commissioned to build the stills for Chichibu. This friendship has grown over the years and we even share an exhibition stand at the Limburg Whisky Fair in Germany every year. He has a great team of people, almost all of whom we’ve met, especially Manami Momma, Chief Mashman and Yumi Yoshikawa, Brand Ambassador, who worked at the Highlander Inn for 2 years until May 2013.

Do any other famous folk from the industry frequent The Highlander Inn?

Fraser: Wow, difficult! There are too many to mention by name so I’ll just stick with their roles, Whisky Writers, Distillery Managers, Master Blenders, Brand Ambassadors, Independent Bottling Company Owners, Owners of famous whisky bars all over the world, as well as well
known collectors from Italy, USA, Sweden, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Netherlands – in fact, all over the world. – at least 1 ‘famous’ person every week!

The whisky list at the establishment has an abundant selection of Japanese whiskies, last I counted there were 38 opened bottles that includes two new recent additions: single cask Yoichi 1981-21yo / single cask Komagatake 1988-25yo (plus an assortment of unopened bottles from the card series), and the majority of them have become quite hard to find even in Japan. Does the impressive increasing selection mean your patrons have an adventurous side and take a liking to whiskies produced in Japan - how do locals perceive whisky from the land of the rising sun?

Fraser: Most of the people traveling from abroad on whisky tours will have heard about Japanese whiskies and read or been told about their quality. Usually however they haven’t been able to try many and although they have come to Speyside to drink Speyside whiskies they cant pass up on the opportunity to try some Japanese Drams while they are in The Highlander.

Many of the local drinkers are a little shocked, but curious, that we stock so many. We are after all in the center of Speyside. Often, in fact, people had no idea that Japan made whisky. Asking questions like, how is it made? Is it made from rice? Is it matured in Casks? I explain the Japanese whiskies that we stock are produced in the same traditional way as the Scottish Whiskies. In some instances more traditionally. For example Yoichi still coal firing its stills. I let them know that Japanese Whiskies are a high quality product that has been made by people who love whisky. It is a product that I believe deserves a place in our bar. By this point they really want to try one and always enjoy. I doubt however they will stop drinking their regular Scottish tipple, but now and again will dip their toes in and a try different Japanese whiskies.

You've traveled a bit with work, what have you seen on home soil as well as Japan in terms of the whisky industry that has excited you lately?

Fraser: As far as Scotland is concerned, the recent dramatic increase in expenditure on enlarging distilleries – for example, Macallan, Imperial, Dailuaine, Glendullan, and in the recent past, Glenlivet , and that’s just within 20 kilometres of Craigellachie! And then there are all the new craft distilleries being built in Scotland at the moment to keep the balance between the large corporations and small independent distillers. As far as Japan is concerned – obviously the worldwide growth and success of Chichibu in the 5 years it has been producing, and one can’t forget Suntory’s ‘Highball revolution’ in Japan over the past few years. Try a “ TSP” - Talisker, Soda, Pint at the Highlander Inn ~ Tokyo.

Although you have had your fair share - Whiskies R Us wants to buy you a Japanese whisky. What will it be?

Fraser: Now - Nikka Pure Malt Taketsuru Sherry Wood finish perhaps, or maybe the Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel annual release. In another 24 years time, I’d love a bottle of Chichibu 30yo, to share with Akuto-san, Manami and Yumi!

The Highlander Inn Craigellachie homepage can be seen here

Monday, February 17, 2014

Silver Seal Chichibu Single Cask Release

The Silver Seal Whisky Company has unexpectedly announced the forthcoming release of a single cask Chichibu, which has been specially selected and bottled for the prestigious independent bottler. Talk of this bottling apparently began last year between the president of Silver Seal and Akuto-san respectively. 239 bottles have been drawn from cask# 659 (bourbon barrel - floor malting) and bottled at 62.4% abv. The cask was put down in 2010 and bottled this year (2014). Unfortunately, it appears this will be made available only in Japan. E Power, the importers of Silver Seal in Japan gave hints of their forthcoming edition on their Facebook page (here). As most of you know there has never been such a collaboration... until now that is. This release will be made available from the 26th of February however, it appears most of the outturn has already been accounted for. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Back to Basics (2): Nikka Black 8yo 40% abv

This efficiently low cost blend is made from Coffey grain and malt from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries respectively (according to the back of the label). The average price for this blend is usually around 1,380 yen (2014), but it can be purchased at a cheaper price depending on place of purchase, same goes for the Malt Club featured in Part 1 (here).

Nose: Surprisingly decent with no overly harsh elements. Medium, fruity malt without any overpowering grain. Distinctive green apple skin, red skins lollies, trademark grape bubble gum (Hubba Bubba), and citrus sherbet (more on the orange side). If your patient it transits to blueberry herb tea. The grain becomes present after a while in the glass but its buttery, and reasonable. From here hints of lightly sugared cornflakes and mashed banana with water. Some faint wood vanilla, and again cereals.

Taste: Mild saltiness (salty caramel?) on first contact with your tongue that mingles with mild pepper. Not that much to compare with the nose in terms of fruitiness. Herbal. Spicy barley sugar. The grain is much more present here...tongue tingling and mouth numbing. Water ramps up the grain and adds mild bitter vegetables, and buttery spiced vanilla . It is a bit spirity, with cereals.

Finish: Relatively long with mild herbs and pepper. Your mouth continues to buzz for a while. There is some kind of solvent evident also (but not off putting).

Comment: A fairly good nose really. If there was a bit more to the palate then it would be a reasonably decent low cost blend. This is another whisky where the nose wins hands down, and possibly well suited for highballs.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Back to Basics (1): Nikka Malt Club 40% abv

Every year, both domestically and internationally, a bountiful volume of Japanese whisky hits the market. Some releases can be extremely limited in outturn (but affordable), while certain brands can be particularly expensive to those with a limited budget. That, plus there are the "Japan only bottlings" that make it extraordinary hard for enthusiasts outside Japan to obtain - naturally this can be quite frustrating for some. What could also be equally curbing, perhaps, is when you, the reader, see reviews of "unattainable whiskies" for what ever the reason. As a purchaser, consumer, and reviewer of Japanese whisky it's easy to forget about the more attainable whiskies. This got me thinking. Refocus my attention for a short while and return to the simple principles of everyday Japanese whisky: extremely affordable, general, and readily available in most places, allowing most people the opportunity to buy, try, and relate to reviews. This mini series: Back to Basics, will explore mainstream mass produced brands that everyone can hopefully enjoy. To kick-off the series Whiskies R Us will start with a familiar favourite among some of you - Nikka Malt Club.

Nose: Young, light, but clean and fresh. Light blueberry muffins and/or cheesecake. Mellow purple grape bubblegum. In my opinion it smells a lot like the Hokkaido 12yo pure malt. There is a very high portion of Yoichi going on here (again, just an opinion) - young Yoichi but pleasant. But thers's no mistaking the Miyagikyo over time with the lovely Pineapple lollies (Allen's). I would be lying if I said there were no solvents present - floor wax perhaps. This batch/bottle has the tinniest hint of peat is naturally malty.

Taste: Relatively smooth, peppery, young, border line watery - but with a dominant mixture of herb leaf and the smallest hint of licorice. Cinnamon and nutmeg on the spice front - small resemblance of cinnamon sweet mustard (savron). Envelope glue. Then, nuts. Although this contains no grain whisky it has characteristics of grain whisky - this is emphasized with water therefore, none needed.

Finish: Light herbs and spices. Moderate with pepper/salt. Malty with a bit of a grapefruit peel feel.

Comment: Fairly simple straight up whisky but extremely affordable and well worth the measily 1180 yen. Not a lot of punch but certainly nothing worth complaining about. I prefer this as a highball than neat.

Take a look at what goes into the Malt Club (here).