All posts by Susie O

Visiting Mexico’s Riviera Maya with The Beach Planner

I love to plan vacations. Like, really love to. But, between my consulting agency, freelance writing, and the time I put in for y’all here, I have less time to do the research to make for a great trip than I’d like. So, when I was planning a trip to Mexico and found The Beach Planner, and after hearing what she does, I was more than happy to let her take the reigns.

It sounded too good to be true—Devin Alenky, a former personal assistant, she opted for the beaches of Mexico over New York City to do what she loves—plan travel for the most adventurous of us. (We’ve all wanted to take that kind of a chance, right?) Her attention to detail and conscientiousness make her the perfect travel planner. From airport transportation to upgraded lodging and even restaurant and bar suggestions (including some menu item suggestions!), she handles the nitty gritty for you.

Each group she works with is given a completely tailored experience—bachelor(ette) parties, couples, families, etc.—she can make the best suggestions for your group, whatever your situation or budget. Her services allow you to take your vacation beyond the all-inclusive to see get than a cookie cutter experience our of your vacation. “When booking an all inclusive resort, one essentially never leaves the hotel,” says Devin. “People are often hesitant or even afraid to wander the area on their own.” As a result, Riviera Maya travelers miss out on the true culture here, the real gems of Mexico.”

The Beach Planner assists with every aspect of your vacation, including:
– lodging
– airport transfers
activities like cenote tours (cenotes are natural sink holes used as swimming holes), mermaid school, private boat charters, zip lining through the jungle, and cooking classes
– dining and cocktail recommendations
– fitness class recommendations and ways to stay active
– currency exchanges
– general recommendations, travel tips, and more
– local event notifications

The best part of the completely tailored trip planning experience offered by The Beach Planner is that her trip planning services are free as long as you book your lodging through her. Tell me, honestly, how is this not worth it?!

In the coming weeks, I’ll write up the experience Sarah and I had specifically in my Riviera Maya travel guide—from airport transportation complete with bus beers to a full day of rooftop pool/beach club hopping. We were blown away by the detail, but ultimately happy to have found someone who wanted to make our experience so authentic and enjoyable. … because sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy a vacation from time to time.

So, when are you heading to Mexico … and taking me along?


THE BEACH PLANNER
thebeachplanner.com
@thebeachplanner

Gold Bar Whiskey: It’s What Outside That Counts

I firmly believe there is a time and place for everything in the world of spirits. Yes, it’s nice to find a really great sipping whiskey or a gin with a few different notes that make a unique G&T, but I’m also intrigued by novelties. Visiting a new place? Hit me with your crazy, local novelty liquor. (Even you, Chicago … malört me.) Got a crazy bottle or random flavor idea to throw at me? Well you should know I’m the guy who went on like a full two year moonshine bender, just because I could. And I’m the guy who agreed to review Captain Morgan’s Jack-O Blast for Susie.

If you want to know exactly how Gold Bar Whiskey tastes, the easy review is that it’s fine. It’s a tad sweet with notes of honey and vanilla plus a bit of heat at the end. I would recommend it in a cocktail over it being a sipping whiskey. (And some cocktail recipes are included for you below.) There’s a bit of information on the bottle about being finished in French oak wine casks from Napa Valley (swanky), with a cursory line about the contents being a mash bill of rye, corn and barley. But the bulk of the information is about the gold packaging and the art on it. So, again, this is all fine. You will sip this, nod and go “alright, cool,” like me and our three other tasters, then you’ll start talking about the packaging if it hasn’t already been a large part of the conversation.

So, about the packaging … drumroll … it’s a giant faux gold bar.

Lay it flat and pretend you stole it from the world’s drunkest mint while cackling like a super villain.
… Use it for balance and display it, letting all your friends know that you have achieved the level of success required to drink from a golden container.
… Allow it to be a conversation starter about how the United States made a mistake abandoning the gold standard in the 1930s.
… Do a few “Austin Powers: Goldmember” lines until no one wants to talk to you. “I love goooold … the taste of it, the smell of it, the texture.”
… Use is as a photo prop. (Because, you will.) Make sure to search Instagram for those aspirational shots that will make you feel like you are part of something. By drinking gold, you truly become gold … right?

Ok, if you made it this far, I will again stress the whiskey is fine. You can make a pretty decent cocktail from it. I’d recommend it as a novelty for parties or housewarming parties, because think how cool it’ll be to be thought of every time someone comments on the giant gold bar on your friend’s bar. Again, there’s a time and a place for everything, so if you need to set a scene or mood or just want the pics from your next gathering to pop, this is a cool way to switch things up.

The Libertine

LIBERTINE
4oz Gold Bar® Whiskey
2oz Fresh Lemon Juice
2oz Simple Syrup
2 Sprigs Fresh Rosemary
2 Tsp. Orange Marmalade
1 Tbsp. Maple Syrup
1 Tbsp. Fresh Orange Juice
1 Egg White

New York Sour

NEW YORK SOUR
2oz Gold Bar® Whiskey
1oz Lemon Juice
1oz Liber&Co Gum Syrup
.5oz Red Wine


Gold Bar Whiskey
goldbarwhiskey.com
$39.99 -$49.99 per 750ML bottle
ABV: 80 proof, 40% ABV
Mash: blended whiskey, approximately 88% corn, 9% rye, 3% barley
Finished: French Oak Cabernet wine casks from the Napa Valley
Age: no age statement

Available in 27 states and 12 countries globally. Distilled in San Francisco, CA

***Brian was given a bottle of Gold Bar Whiskey to try out for a complete review.*** Images courtesy of Gold Bar Whiskey.

The Easiest Host Gift for the Fall

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Big Betty. The opinions and text are all mine.

Halloween. Potlucks. Thanksgiving. Football watching parties. Sunday dinners. Holiday parties. It gets exhausting thinking about how many times you’re going to be visiting someone’s home and, if you have some manners, toting a host/hostess gift. I’ve got you covered, my friends.

This cute company, Big Betty Wine (the real OGs thanks to their first hit product, the glass that fits a whole bottle of wine) has come to the rescue. All you need to do is order a pack of their Brews for You “six pack cards” and stop by your local Trader Joe’s on the way to the party. I love stopping into Trader Joe’s as they have seasonal and favorite individual beers your can pull to create your own six pack, therefore making each six pack special to that host.

Keep a pack of these gift card boxes and Sharpie in the car to scribble a little note to the host, and you’re done. (Really … it couldn’t be much easier. And you’ll look like Superguest for not showing up empty-handed.)

The six pack “cards” ring in at $9.99 for a four pack (with Prime shipping, thank you), so stock up on these and save yourself the $3.95 you’ll usually spend on a one-time use card. (Because he can use this gift box again … and it’s all about reduce, reuse, and recycle, rigth!?)

What would your perfect six pack be?


BREWS FOR YOU
ilovebigbetty.com
Instagram: @bigbettywine

#Brews4You #ad

 

Halloween. Potlucks. Thanksgiving. Football watching parties. Sunday dinners. Holiday parties. It gets exhausting thinking about how many times you’re going to be visiting someone’s home and, if you have some manners, toting a host/hostess gift. I’ve got you covered, my friends.

This cute company, Big Betty Wine (the real OGs thanks to their first hit product, the glass that fits a whole bottle of wine) has come to the rescue. All you need to do is order a pack of their Brews for You “six pack cards” and stop by your local Trader Joe’s on the way to the party. I love stopping into Trader Joe’s as they have seasonal and favorite individual beers your can pull to create your own six pack, therefore making each six pack special to that host.

Keep a pack of these gift card boxes and Sharpie in the car to scribble a little note to the host, and you’re done. (Really … it couldn’t be much easier. And you’ll look like Superguest for not showing up empty-handed.)

The six pack “cards” ring in at $9.99 for a four pack (with Prime shipping, thank you), so stock up on these and save yourself the $3.95 you’ll usually spend on a one-time use card. (Because he can use this gift box again … and it’s all about reduce, reuse, and recycle, right!?)

What would your perfect six pack be? Visit my Instagram and comment on the post about Brews for You before October 6 for the chance to win your own pack of gift boxes!


BREWS FOR YOU
ilovebigbetty.com
Instagram/Twitter: @bigbettywine

#Brews4You #ad

Throw It Back with the Harwood District

It feels like the ultra-hip Uptown/Downtown Dallas neighborhood, the Harwood District, is constantly introducing tasty, new restaurants, bars, and hangout spots, so it’s hard to believe that Harwood International is actually celebrating their 30th anniversary this month. To celebrate this milestone, each of the beloved Harwood District concepts are throwing it back to the 80s by adding old-school “Throwback 30” favorites to their menus—think Sloppy Joes and Monte Cristos. Obviously, this is my kind of party, so I had to check it out.

I went to The Grove at Harwood to enjoy the last days of summer and taste the limited-edition Frozen Bleu Hawaiian cocktail—their Throwback 30 item. Sitting in the sun, sipping this drink, and listening to the mellow remixes of top hits that were playing, I could have sworn that I was at the beach and not in the heart of Dallas. It was that relaxing! … and then a semi drove by and honked. 😂

Their take on the Frozen Bleu Hawaiian is sweet, but (luckily) lacks that super syrupy taste that you sometimes get with frozen cocktails. (Yaaaaa no thanks.) Their FBHs is served in custom Throwback 30 cups complete with branded stir sticks with a flag featuring a mix tape—a symbol everyone from the 80s knows and begrudgingly loves.

The Grove is always a good time and they have so many activities to keep you occupied while you sip on cold beverages, make your way through a bottle, or chow down at their very own food truck. Grab your pup and your friends and head over before the summer is over. And don’t forget to try this throwback cocktail while playing a friendly game of sand volleyball or giant Jenga.

In honor of this milestone anniversary, all seven of the restaurants in the Harwood District will be throwing it back to the 1980s with the addition of popular throwback favorites to menus, including: 

Magnolias: Sous Le Pont: Don’t Stop Brew-Lievin’ Cold Brew – a fun play off of the popular 80’s rock band song by Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Marie Gabrielle: On Wednesdays Marie Gabrielle Restaurant and Gardens, an urban escape featuring a 1.5 acre garden, river birch trees, an 8,265 square-foot pond, as well as interior and exterior accommodations, will serve Sloppy Joes.

Mercat Bistro: Inspired by a French steak dish named after 19th century composer Gioachino Rossini, Mercat Bistro will add Tournedos Rossini to their menu. 

The Grove at Harwood: The Grove will be featuring their take on the refreshing tropical cocktail Blue Hawaiian – the Frozen Bleu Hawaiian.

Dolce Riviera: Introducing Fettuccine Mare e Monti, a traditional dish inspired by the sea and the mountains.

Happiest Hour: Join Dallas’ largest patio-bar for a celebration that includes a go-to classic, the Monte Cristo sandwich. This savory toasted ham sandwich will have you transporting back in time. 

Saint Ann Restaurant & Bar: Begin your meal at Saint Ann Restaurant & Bar by digging into their special Seven Layer Dip, which became overwhelming popular in the 1980s.


The Grove at Harwood
harwoodgrove.com
3019 McKinnon Street (Uptown/Harwood District)
(214) 663-1001

Andaz Napa—a Napa Valley Respite

Napa is hard. (Stick with me here.) Between multiple wine tastings and tours of more barrel rooms than you can count, rich food at every meal bloating you up (who can eat like that every meal!?), and the long drives through the valley, it all makes for a wildly exhausting “vacation”. So, after the long days of fun on my last trip to Napa, I was delighted to come home to the Andaz in Downtown Napa.

Its beautiful, slightly rustic yet modern decor and the incredibly friendly valets welcome you and start your visit on a wildly high note. And to make the welcome complete, you’re given a glass of wine.       *Hello, new favorite hotel e-ver.*       The hotel marries natural elements and high-end design, giving guests a ridiculously comfortable yet luxurious experience. The lobby offers a ton of comfortable seating and is roomy enough to make sure guests aren’t crowded. (I mean, waiting on people is the whole point of a lobby, so you may as well do it comfortably!)

The location is right in the thick of things with easy access to the highway up to Yountville, Oakville, etc., and plenty of local shops and restaurants. Our room faced Main Street overlooking Oenotri, which ended up being one one of the many amazing meals we had in Napa.

The rooms themselves are clean and spacious with a comfortable flow. Look for hardwood floors, fireplaces*, a desk, and a fully stocked bar. Our room had a little sitting area that gave us an extra space to relax and unwind. Oh, and the bed … that bed was hard to leave. The pillows were perfect for a full cocoon situation.
Pro Tip: Looking at the room layouts while writing this made me sad that I didn’t think to request a balcony. So make sure you do that.

In my opinion, the most delightful part of these lovely rooms was its bathing options. Between the roomy eastern white marble bathrooms with rainfall showerheads in wildly spacious (curtainless) walk-in showers and a freestanding soaking bathtub in the bedroom*, getting clean was always an enjoyable process. And with so much room and Jack and Jill sinks, there wasn’t any elbow throwing to get mirror time.

Outside of the rooms, the hotel offered quite a few appealing elements. I was happy to stumble upon an outdoor oasis (apparently called The Mercantile Terrace) with cabanas and fire pits. I spent some time out there taking calls here and there and sorting through work emails in peace on their complimentary high-speed WiFi. Other standard perks like free non-boozy drinks and snacks in the room and wine tastings in the lobby made the us feel like we were real VIPs.

If all of this isn’t convincing enough, it’s a surprisingly affordable option when hotels in Napa Valley can cost you upwards of $700 a night. For my money, I’m staying here every visit. (They should just go ahead and put my name on a suite.)

I know this may sound like one of those “there’s no way this place was that awesome” kind of reviews, I have to insist it was. The Andaz Napa was such a delightful respite that it really is at the top of my list for future visits.


ANDAZ NAPA
napa.andaz.hyatt.com
1450 First Street, Napa, California
707-687-1234

Images courtesy of Andaz Napa. My visit to the Andaz Napa was partially comped.
*amenities available only in select rooms

Bartenders You Should Know: Austin Millspaugh

When you walk into The Standard Pour in Dallas, Texas, a quick survey of the men behind the bar will show you one of the most creative barmen in Dallas. Just look for the one with the beard … in a hat … and usually a scarf when it’s not 101º.

That’s Austin Millspaugh.

For years he’s been slinging well-made cocktails to the masses, but always tries to take classics or his own creations to a new level with a unique ingredient, unexpected substitution, or over the top garnish. (I just had a thought … could it be his hats are his own garnish? I’ll give you a moment to discuss.) If you’ve spent any sort of time at his bar, you’ve seen the mad scientist at work. Whatever his chosen kooky element, he usually can find a way to make a thoughtful, unique cocktail from it.

So, when he recently won regionals in the United States Bartender Guild’s 12th Annual Most Imaginative Bartender Competition presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE gin on May 31, Dallas celebrated, but we weren’t surprised. He was crowned regional winner and will compete against 16 other top barmen (and women!) from North America and England in London in September.

Those of us going to Tales of the Cocktail this week in New Orleans will have the chance to see Austin (and the other finalists) take on a training challenge to prepare them for London. Because practice makes perfect, no?

The cocktail that won the crown for Austin was his “Mi Cheng” cocktail. I’ve included the cocktail below … but let’s appreciate how f**king gorgeous it is. He knows that our eyes eat first.

MI CHANG
2oz Bombay Sapphire
0.5oz honey blend (bee propolis and black garlic)
2.5oz coffee blend (2 beans/ 2 brewing methods)

Combine all ingredients and shake. Top with Cream Blend (condensed milk, egg yolk, heavy cream). Garnish with drizzled Cajeta

A LITTLE MORE ABOUT AUSTIN

Where was the first place you sold a drink in Dallas? Blackfriar, and my first cocktail was at Blind Butcher (R.I.P.)

How did you learn to bartend? I learned beer first because I was trying to get my cicerone certification. I never ended up getting the cicerone because I realized I needed to learn more about spirits before knowing “everything” about beer. So, I started as an enthusiast and bugged everyone by asking questions. Then I started cocktailing at Blind Butcher and then went to learn from Eddie Ekin to understand technique, specifics, and such.

What’s your favorite cocktail to drink? A Clover Club or a Bijoux—sweet, funk and spirit forward.

What’s your favorite Sunday night drink? I still explore to see what other people are doing. I look for the weirdest drink on the menu. I wish I could just stick with a shot and a beer, but curiosity gets me every time.

Who was your most formative cocktail mentor? I’ve been lucky enough to have many. The Dallas bar scene is full of supportive, inspiring people.
Omar Yefoon—he gave me the real advice, mostly to get my head out of my ass and pursue the industry and art of it all more aggressively
Vincent Paul Martinez—He was an amazing man that passed this year and he really had a lot to do with me seeing bartending as a viable career path. I was very lucky to know him.

Japanese or Leopold jigger? Leopold, all day

We all know you’ve come up with some really outrageous cocktails. What’s your favorite drink you’ve ever created? Oh, that’s easy … the fois gras cocktail at Meddlesome Moth. It was a fois gras fat washed-mezcal, sherry, and Averna, and it was all Barrel-aged for a month, then bottled served in a coupe served with dehydrated fois and a touch of truffle oil.

 

Stop in to see Austin at The Standard Pour in Dallas, Texas. He won’t be able to make you his award-winning cocktail (the ingredients are pretty damn complicated), but I’m sure he’ll mix you something incredibly creative and delicious. He is one of the 16 most imaginative bartenders, after all!

Truluck’s Debuts New Menu Items and a New Happy Hour

Truluck’s has been a longtime favorite of my sister’s and mine. When she first went to college and I’d visit, we’d stop in just to have dessert. Their Jack’s Sack was always our favorite—a chocolate shell hiding pound cake, berries, and whipped cream that the guest gets to crack and mix. It’s not just delicious; the destruction of the presentation is really rewarding.

It’s nice to see a longtime favorite with twelve locations continue to give diners new options to enjoy instead of adopting an “if it isn’t broken …” mentality. They recently released not just a new cocktail menu, but also a new happy hour and new menu items. The new happy hour is stupid good. (And I know happy hours.)

The new happy hour can be enjoyed Monday through Friday, 4:30-6:30pm and includes select cocktails starting at just $5.50 and appetizers starting at $6. More into wine? They have 12 from just $6 a glass.

The new cocktail list has a bit of everything among the 20 new cocktail options. Some new offerings have a slight tropical feel (like the Heart of Gold with pineapple juice and smoked orange syrup or the Sao Paulo Punch with cachaça, run, and pineapple syrup), some with a downright tiki vibe (like the Singapore Sling and the Uptown Swizzle) and others with a more traditional origin (like the Amaretto Sour 2.0, Uptown Manhattan, and the Aviator).

New food items like the Shrimp Primavera Flatbread can be enjoyed alongside old favorites like their shrimp cocktail (giant shrimp served over dry ice to keep them chilled) and Kung Pao Cauliflower. See the full menu of 20 cocktails, wines, and food items.

Beyond their new cocktails and appetizers, they continue to offer a large, thoughtful selection of wines and whiskey options (and obviously a full bar and beer). There aren’t many combinations I enjoy more than a dessert and a dram. I enjoyed the Balvenie Caribbean Cask with their Carrot Cake … and it was good.

Stop by one of their twelve locations during happy hour to enjoy their new half price options. While you do, you’ll be entertained by talented musicians and treated to incredibly attentive hospitality. Now, that’s the right way to unwind from a hard work day.


TRULUCK’S
trulucks.com
Uptown: 2401 McKinney Avenue (Uptown Dallas) | 214-220-2401
Southlake: 1420 Plaza Place (Southlake) | 817-912-0500
(+10 other locations)

Travel Must-Haves

I’ve been traveling a lot more the last couple years since I quite my “job”. I like to think I’ve gotten better at it, but I’ve also realized that part of being good at traveling is having the right stuff so I can arrive at my destination somewhat refreshed. So, here are some of my must-have items when I hit the road!

1. AWAY Luggage with Ejectable Charger
This suitcase is my new best friend. With four wheels that roll like butta and a tough, hard shell to keep your valuables safe. What’s more, you’ll never need a charge because the bags have a built-in (ejectable) battery! Even more exciting for someone like me who travels with a laundry bag is that there’s one built right into the bag. And they’re cute as hell.
$225-$295 at AwayTravel.com

2. TRTL Travel Pillow
Some of the most helpful travel items look … well, ridiculous. Case in point: the Trtl “pillow”. It’s a neck brace that you wrap around with the super soft tail with velcro. It’s machine washable and super light, so it’s easy enough to travel with.
$29.99 on Amazon

3. Powerbank
If your plane doesn’t offer electrical outlets as some are now, this will save the day. Arrive fully charged with this powerbank that holds more than five charges for an iPhone.
$29.99 on Amazon

4. TILE Bluetooth Tracker
These little bluetooth beauties help you keep track of your luggage using an app! While it won’t ensure your luggage shows up at your destination, you will know exactly where it is!
~$40 for a 4-pack on Amazon

5. L’Occitane Lavender Hand Cream
Keep your mitts moisturized with this heavenly smelling goop. With shea butter and essential oils, you can avoid the usual horror of dry skin! (Other scents and sizes available.)
$12 for 1oz on Loccitane.com

6. Bucky Eye Mask
Traditional eye masks can be too tight, not fit our noses, or tend to just be downright heinous. This lightweight, foam mask is contoured and allows room for blinking and plenty of room for eyelash extensions for us ladies! (Available in 23 colors.)
$9.99 – $22.99 on Amazon

7. OLEHENRIKSEN Banana Bright Eye Crème
Right before landing, dab a bit of these vitamin C-rich cream below your eyes for a quick brightening effect.
$38 at Sephora

8. Cooling Eye Patches
Flights often mean early mornings, so get rid of those bags with these depuffing eye patches. Bonus: they’re natural and paraben-free.
$16.95 for 12 pairs on Amazon

9. Go2 Compression Socks
For long trips, it’s important to keep your blood flowing. If you’re (God forbid) in a middle or window seat, it can be difficult to get out and stretch your legs. Compression socks can help reduce swelling on these long flights … and we finally found some that aren’t hideous. (They come in 35 colors/designs!)
$12.13 on Amazon

10. Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless Headphones, Series II
If you’re anything like me, the kid in the row behind you playing a video game with the sound on is basically the devil. Instead of having to deal with confronting the parents, best to get some noise canceling headphones. I’ve tried a few, but these are the winners. Bluetooth and soon to be Amazon Alexa-compatible, you’ll find plenty of use for the 20 hour battery life.
$349.95 (or custom for $449.95)

StretchLaces
(Not pictured.) If you haven’t found the perfect travel slip-ons, these stretchy laces make it easy to shimmy out of your kicks.
$8.50 for three pairs on Amazon

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK BAG
I always travel with a bag of travel goodies that come in handy in a pinch. Make sure to pack helpful, little items like Advil, Simply Sleep, mouthwash, mints, hand sanitizer, ear plugs, etc. … and don’t forget a small bottle of your favorite booze.