Friday, December 27, 2013

Mixing Scotch with Royalty

My first day in Scotland was a very long one, especially since I had traveled nearly 24 hours to get to Linn House, the property owned by Chivas Regal. I was more than ready for my first meal and the lunch was a glimpse into the gourmet dining to come.

The table was beautifully set for lunch. I sipped the just released 2011 Brancott Estate Pinot Gris (delicious). It reinforced my desire to fit in a trip to New Zealand sometime soon.

The pork loin with turnips and potatoes was prepared perfectly and we finished up the meal with a plate of cheese, fruit and crackers.

Colin Scott, Master Blender at Chivas Regal, escorted me, along with Lauren Nodzak of Pernod Ricard, and Mahesh and Nina Patel (more about them to come), across a bridge and beyond the waterfall to Strathisla Distillery, where they make Chivas and Royal Salute scotch whiskey.

Strathisla Distillery dates back to 1876 and is the oldest distillery in Scotland. They use malted barley here, using a slightly different type for each whiskey. The water comes from Broome Hill Springs, just four miles away.

We walked through the production room before going into the barrel room and through to the Royal Salute vault, where the very best scotch in the distillery is kept.

The first Royal Salute Scotch Whiskey was created for the celebration of the Queen’s coronation in 2003 by Scott. It was aged again once he blended it. There were 255 bottles of Royal Salute 38 and they started at a selling price of $10,000. The last one was purchased in 2009 for $35,000.

We were able to taste some, with its rich vanilla/caramel notes, as well as a bit of gingerbread. It had certainly picked up a lot of flavors during 10 years.

As Scott acknowledged, “Scotch whiskey has more different flavors than any other spirit.”

Before we left the distillery we tasted quite a few of their other whiskies, including their 25 year old Strathisla, with a bit of a nutty taste; 21 year old Chivas, with sweet floral notes; and Royal Salute 21, made for the Queen’s birthday with a bit of apricot tones in a smooth blend.

After the distillery tour we headed to Ballindalloch Castle. It was about a 20 minute ride before we arrived at the 25,000 acre estate. We went past beautiful rolling hills, gardens, cows, and even an area of alpacas and llamas.

When we finally arrived into the circular driving, I couldn’t believe how stunning the castle was.

Claire Russell, who owns, runs and lives at Ballindalloch along with her husband, greeted us and helped me up through the passageways and staircases to my room.

The room was royally decorated with a large bed, vanity and chairs, as well as a big bathroom with an extra-long tub.

I didn’t have long to shower and change for our Black Tie dinner. I picked up a glass of Royal Salute downstairs and went out to the lawn for photographs.

Our dinner was extremely formal in a magnificent dining room that looked like it belonged in a castle! I sat in my assigned seat, next to the Duke of Argyle, along with Lauren, the Russells and the Patels.

The first course was a scallop appetizer and since I am allergic I was lucky enough to have to most amazing cheese soufflĂ© I’d ever eaten, with tidbits of pears and broccoli. I was happy to see the Brancott Pinot Gris once again being poured, along with a flight of Royal Salute whiskies.

Venison was served as a main dish, accompanied by scalloped potatoes. I’m not much of a venison eater and the site of the (sterling silver) buck in front of my plate confirmed that it was not for me. Instead I ate every morsel of the potatoes and vegetables, and had plenty of room for dessert – ice cream with caramel and banana.

After dinner, we had the presentation that I had come for. Mahesh Patel, whiskey collector and CEO of Universal Whisky Experience, was to become the first American to buy the Royal Salute Tribute to Honor.

Mahesh was presented the bottle (which cost him about $250,000) in a beautiful case, and he and Nina were handed white gloves so they could pick it up without damaging the 413 white and black diamonds on the bottle! I was speechless as I looked at it with the beaming new owners.

Everyone stuck around for a few more drinks, but I had been up for about 40 hours when I excused myself to get some sleep before another big day in Scotland

Friday, December 20, 2013

Scotland Surprise

Most of my adventures are planned in advance, but every once in a while I’m offered a last minute trip that’s just too interesting to pass up. This was the case when the public relations agency for Royal Salute Scotch contacted me and asked me to go to Scotland.

I had traveled with Pernod Ricard in England (Beefeater & Plymouth Gin), Cognac (Martell) and even Australia (Jacob’s Creek), so I knew this would be first class fun, but this trip surpassed my luxury fantasies.

It all happened so fast (within days) that I really didn’t have a chance to ask too many questions. I just knew I was the guest of Royal Salute, Chivas Regal and Glenlivet. I was also told that I needed to bring an outfit or a black tie dinner, which involved a castle, a Duke and the passing of a bottle of scotch. I figured that was all I really needed to know.

The adventure began on a Sunday with a flight from my local airport to Chicago. Once there, I enjoyed the British Airways Executive lounge. I was flying business class so I knew a big meal was ahead on the plane, but I had a few hours so I snacked on some hummus with pita chips and a small brownie with coffee while I caught up on a bit of work.

On the plane, I settled into my own little “cubby.” I had only experienced BA business class once before and it was even better than I remembered, with an outlet and two USB ports to keep my electronics charged. I often wonder what it is that British Airways does that makes First Class even better than this – and worth thousands more.

I was happy to accept a glass of the Tattinger Brut Reserve Champagne pre-dinner, but skipped the nuts in anticipation of the meal.

The starter was an excellent heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I chose the Black Truffle Tortellini with chestnut sauce and morel mushrooms for a main course and it was superb.

The ones were equally good and I was happy with what I had, a 2002 Bordeaux Blanc Sec.

I decided to skip the dessert that came with my meal, a lemon tart with honey mascarpone, and instead asked for the warm white chocolate chip cookies with some chamomile tea. As I watched two films (Admission, very good; Great Gatsby, awful).

I’m often asked how I can sleep on planes. The truth is that I’ve learned with this job to sleep whenever I’m given the chance! I often find it most difficult on European flights because you really only have about four hours to sleep before they are waking you up for breakfast.

In the case of British Airways business class it was a cantaloupe, honey and lime smoothie, a warm croissant and a warm bacon (I thought it tasted more like ham) roll.

When the plane finally landed I was ready to really stretch my legs, but I had forgotten just how much walking you really need to do in London’s Heathrow Airport.  There were also the stops (which I don’t remember from my last trip), where they took my picture twice.

Despite my “fast track” status, it still took me over an hour to get to my gate for my flight to Aberdeen, Scotland.

Even though there was only one class of service on this hour and a half light, British Airways once again impressed, with a cheesy egg burrito and morning cocktails, though I didn’t imbibe.

Once in Aberdeen I found that there was also a film crew making a video for Chivas and the lack of room would have me staying in Ballindaloch Castle instead of Chivas’ Linn House. I certainly wasn’t going to object to staying in a castle, but I was glad I got to at least have lunch at Linn House.

There was only a short time to freshen up before I met with Colin Scott, the master blender at Chivas Regal, to begin my introduction to scotch.

Friday, December 13, 2013

One Night Only: Back with the Bands

Those who have followed my work know that I streamlined my focus in the last few years from writing about tennis to mostly travel, wine and spirits. There’s actually much more to my journalistic background and I got to revisit it recently.

My first published writing was in college and it was all on entertainment. I wrote about theater, movies and celebrities, but most of it about music. I now describe myself as the “Almost Famous” (one of my favorite movies) kid, as I was way too young to really appreciate what was around me at the time.

I had finished high school early and spent the last of my teen years going to college full-time (Long Island University, Post) while I spent most of my nights at concerts. It was the 1980s and there was always plenty happening in music on Long Island and in New York City. I got to see a lot of it from the front row and backstage.

I was there for one of the final performances of Freddie Mercury, actually panning Queen’s show because, like everyone else, I didn’t know how sick he was with AIDs and thought he had just lost his edge. I watched a little known band named Van Halen open for Black Sabbath and predicted that they would make it further than the headliners. I partied (not as hard as they did) with the Beach Boys backstage.

One of my fondest moments was watching Pat Benatar make a music video in the middle of the night on a deserted railroad track in Manhattan for You’d Better Run. It was two o’clock in the morning and when she finished she answered all my questions and then made pasta in her trailer for the photographer and me!

I recently had a chance to relive that experience. Even though it didn’t turn out exactly like I planned, it was still nice to step back a bit into the world of music.

Last month, I spoke with Phil Paolino of the band ERA 9 for an articlein Urban Expressions magazine. I asked the Canadian lead singer if he was planning on playing in the U.S. anytime soon. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that they did have a gig coming up – an hour away from me in a little town called Illiapolis.

I was invited to come to the show at Bunkers Bar and have dinner with the band, who I was told liked to cook in their trailer after the show.

Unfortunately, not all the stars aligned for that trip. A friend who was going to accompany me canceled at the last minute and the forecast called for snow and freezing rain later in the night.

I did make it to the Bunkers Bar, a quite impressive venue that’s basically in the middle of nowhere outside of Springfield, Illinois. It was a fun and casual hall that allowed you to get up close with the bands.

First up was a local young singer named Jake Danella whom I really enjoyed. ERA 9 was up next and they were even better than the tracks I had heard online. While my first impression had been of Nickelback, they have a wide range of their own and Phil Paolino is a wonderful performer.

I spoke with Phil a bit after the show and he told me how much fun the band was having touring with and learning from Pop Evil. His enthusiasm brought me back to the teen backstage soaking it all in and dreaming of a future chasing rock stars.

I was afraid of driving home alone in the snow too late and there was still The Letter Black performing before Pop Evil so we were looking at a very late night dinner. I reminded myself that I was a lot older than I was that night with Pat Benatar as I said goodbye to the band.

It was nice to delve back into my first career, but I think I’ll stay where I am.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Welcome to View from the Vines Travel!

I want to personally welcome View from the Vines Travel, a new sponsor to Wine And Spirits Travel. I think they are a perfect fit for the site and I hope you will explore their site as their banner has a permanent home on the left side of this page for the next year.

Owner/Operator Christopher Allison is a wine lover experienced in the wine regions of Western Europe and the Napa Valley. He personally creates each itinerary to best fit his guests. They include nearly everything -- from airfare to hotels and local excursions.

Be sure to check out View from the Vines Travel.

Also, while I have your attention, I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season. Thank you for visiting Wine And Spirits Travel in 2013. I had a few potholes in my travel road that should be smoothed out for more coverage in the coming year.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ringling, Food and More Massage in Longboat Key

I enjoyed a room service order of Vanilla Pancakes with bananas and Greek yogurt, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed that my second day at The Resort at Longboat Key was going to be rained out.

My schedule included time on the beach and in the pool, as well as tours of the extensive golf and tennis facilities. That had to be scratched, but my friend Lynn and I still scraped out a wonderful day.

We took our time getting ready in the morning and were happily surprised when the hotel once again sent two masseuses to our room. The massage was as good as it had been previously – even though it wasn’t the sunshine covered beach I was looking at from outside my window.

After the massage we headed back to the Sands Pointe restaurant for another memorable lunch. I had the Cobb Salad, while Lynn went for the tenders and mango salad, which was as good as it was the day before.

The hotel provided us with transportation to The Ringling. I have to confess that I was not overly anxious to go. I don’t have anything against the circus, I actually love it, but spending an entire afternoon at a circus museum? I couldn’t see it.

I was certainly wrong about this huge estate. John and Mabel Ringling were huge supporters of the Sarasota area and left quite a complex for the public, which has been run by Florida State University since 2000.

The Ringling consists of a Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Ca' D'zan, Asolo Theater, Art Library and the Bayfront Gardens. There is a (thankfully covered) tram that takes you around through the estate.

We started in C’Dzan, the 56 room, 36,000 square foot mansion John and Mabel Ringling hired New York architect Dwight James Baum to build.

In addition to being an architectural masterpiece, it was filled with original furnishings and even clothing from its owners. Each room appeared to outdo the previous. Even through the rain, we could remark at the view from the deck of Sarasota and its keys.

The Museum of Art was equally impressive and we couldn’t begin to put a price on the paintings in those rooms. I also enjoyed the Circus Museum, where we saw a film on John Ringling, whom I knew little about. (The story is definitely worth checking out.)

We headed back to the room in time to get dressed for our dinner at Portofino, a fine dining Italian restaurant at the Lido Key Resort. We were met there by Nancy Thielman, the spa manager for the resort’s new Island House Spa, which I was disappointed to find out was opening just after our visit. Also joining us for dinner was Sandra Rios, Director of Communications for Resort at Longboat Key Club.

Sandra and Nancy told us about the upcoming Island Spa House (sounded incredible) and the loyal residents and guests who return to Longboat Key each year. Ironically, some of them came over to say hello while we were eating and told us we have to come back and enjoy this place when the weather is better.

The dinner progressed from one fantastic course to the next. We shared the Portofino Flatbread, with sundried tomatoes, goat cheese and spinach in a balsamic dressing that I’m going to have to figure out how to duplicate at home. Next there was a tasty spaghetti squash appetizer that had tomatoes and mozzarella covering it.

I had the Pasta Bolognese, with tender meat and al dente pasta, while Lynn said the Linguine in Clam Sauce was as good as it gets.

We got an assortment of dessert with our cappuccinos, but the winner was definitely the Semi Freddo Cioccolatta e Nocciola, a chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo with crushed amaretti cookies and toasted hazelnuts in a raspberry coulis. I thought it tasted like a frozen Rocher chocolate.

While the weather didn’t cooperate for us to fully enjoy the resort, the experience in Sarasota, Lido, Siesta and Longboat Keys was enough to let me know it’s a place I want to return to. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

From Lido to Longboat on Sarasota Keys

It had been a fun and relaxing two days at Lido Beach Resort, but it was time for my friend Lynn and me to leave Lido Key and head to Longboat Key.
We left the resort first thing in the morning to head downtown to the Sarasota Opera House. Sam Lowry, Director of Audience Development, met us at the door for a private tour. 
We were lucky enough to get to see every corner of this historic building, which opened in 1984 and went through an extensive ($20 million) renovation in 2008.
The building had been kept its history in the renovation and Lynn and I were impressed with the special touches, from the detailed woodwork around the stage to the gold crest in the cream colored Grand Atrium.

I had never been to the opera and I fantasized about putting on a floor length evening gown and socializing in one of their well-appointed member lounges while waiting for the curtain call!

After the Opera House, we returned to the Lido Beach Resort to pack up. The clouds were beginning to form and we hoped that it was just one of those quick Florida rains coming in as we drove to Longboat Key.
The Resort at Longboat Key Club was very different from the one we had just left even though they are sister properties. It seemed a bit more luxurious, though certainly in an understated way. It was the service that was the most noticeable as we were welcomed in a way that made it clear the staff was there to fulfill the guests’ wishes.
Our suite was not yet ready so we went to Sands Pointe restaurant for lunch. The menu was quite extensive and we couldn’t decide what to order, so we shared the Smoked Turkey Club (turkey, provolone, tomato, arugula and avocado with herb aioli) and the Chicken Cabana (chicken breast with grilled pineapple, applewood bacon, pepperjack cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and barbecue sauce). 
They were both good, but we favored the chicken and really liked both side dishes – Sweet Potato Salad and Mango Cole Slaw.
We headed to our suite right after lunch and it was well worth the wait. We had two full bedrooms, a large kitchen, dining room and living room. We found some welcome and unique touches, like the cocktail mixing tray in our fully-equipped kitchen and books and games in the living room.
The only thing better than the suite was the views from the multiple balconies we had. I got to enjoy one of those views during a phenomenal in-room massage. We were there just before the hotel’s Island House Spa opened so we just missed touring and exploring that, but I hear it is beautiful.

As much as we were enjoying the The Resort at Longboat Key Club, the weather did not cooperate for our visit. It was pouring so hard in the evening that we were afraid to drive down to St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota, where we were scheduled to check out the stores and have dinner. 
We stayed on the property instead and actually ate in the Point Lounge. It was a relaxing and casual meal while we sipped Chandon Champagne and enjoyed Arugula Goat Cheese Flatbread along with Truffle Mac N’ Cheese.
After dinner we called it a night, hoping Mother Nature would cooperate and let us explore the beach and pools of the Resort at Longboat Key Club.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sun Shines Through Lido Key & Mote Aquarium

My friend Lynn and I woke up to the bright sunshine at the Lido Beach Resort. It was our first trip to the western keys off Sarasota and had been a good one so far.

I had breakfast through room service and thoroughly enjoyed chocolate chip pancakes with blueberries while watching the waves off my balcony. We had a pretty full day and I was hoping to have some time to also get close to those waves.

We were starting the day with a trip to the Mote Aquarium and Research Center, which is dedicated to the ocean life in the area. We learned about Eugenie Clark, still diving and supporting the aquarium’s research into her 90s. We saw some of the research in the form of a project trying to breed octopus in captivity.

One way the Mote Aquarium and research laboratory raise money is through farm by raising sturgeon to harvest caviar and sell it. I found it to be quite fascinating as the process was explained.

Sea turtles are a big part of life here and the aquarium hopes to educate those in the water about respecting their space. There is a full laboratory for research and a hospital to help heal rescued marine life.

This included manatees found in the area injured from boating accidents. We also saw and pet some stingrays while they were enjoying the shade.

Before we left the aquarium to head back to Lido Beach Resort we spent some time with the resident bottlenose dolphin. Moonshine is a rare pantropical spotted dolphin that was rescued after being stranded in the Keys. He’s quite friendly and seemed to enjoy doing tricks and getting attention from the crowd around him.

I had read that the Brunch at Lido Beach Resort was one of the best in the state and it did not disappoint. It was wonderful, but nothing was as good as the view. From every window of the restaurant there seemed to be another picture-perfect scene. We toasted brunch with a glass of champagne, before sampling the buffet. There was quite a lot of seafood, which Lynn and I are both allergic to, but there were still plenty of options to leave us satisfied.

We started with some cold salad items, including a Caprese Salad with yellow, orange and red tomatoes. We passed on the custom-made omelets in favor of some of the hot dishes. I think the Blintz were my favorite, filled with creamy cheese. I also enjoyed the Chicken Florentine.

Dessert was a tough choice, offering everything from bread pudding to warm chocolate chip cookies (my favorite).

After that full meal I took a walk on the beach and then enjoyed a Wolfberry Mojito at the pool. By that time I had digested all that food and even did a few laps.
In the evening, we drove to Siesta Key for dinner and to check out the beach, which has been voted the “Best Beach in the U.S.” It was quite nice, but it does take a lot to impress me having grown up near the beach and seen so many around the world.

It was just before sunset and we were told that locals gathered at this time on Sundays for a drum circle on the beach. We stayed for a bit to listen to the music and watch the dancing, but it was rather cloudy so we didn’t see much of a sunset.

We did find a little Italian place in downtown Siesta Key called Falvios. It was a great choice and we shared a plate of ricotta and spinach filled ravioli as well as a perfectly cooked pasta with tomatoes, eggplant and fresh mozzarella.

We were pretty exhausted by the time we got back to the Lido Beach Resort so it was an early evening before another big day in Florida's Other Keys.