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.