Come on in, grab a drink and make yourself at home

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You know the saying, “There’s no place like home”? Home is a shelter from storms, where we feel most safe and comfortable, and for most of us in the travel retail industry, I’m sure there’s nothing like returning home after long trips away for work. Spending time at home is a luxury – being able to host our friends and loved ones even more so.

For its fourth annual Masters of Wines and Spirits (view the full story here), DFS Group has brought this idea – that entertaining at home is the ultimate expression of luxury – to life, creating a warm and welcoming space for guests to experience its largest and most diverse collection in the history of the event.

DFS Group President Global Merchandising Harold Brooks explains: “Every year, we scout the globe and collaborate tirelessly with the world’s most loved wine, Champagne and spirits houses to curate collections of great range and rare quality. I can think of no better way to enjoy and celebrate such fine creations than in the close company of friends and family, in the most intimate of settings – one’s home.”

“Home” is a colonial black and white house along Singapore’s Mount Pleasant Road, built in the 19th century, where privileged media guests – including The Moodie Report – were treated to a preview tour and private dinner before the gala on 8 November.

Sharing their insights on entertaining and hosting at one’s home were internationally renowned wine critic and author James Suckling (below) and leading mixologist and spirits expert Michael Callahan (second below), who summarised those insights into six key elements.

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The Six Elements of Entertaining at Home by DFS

#1: The Welcome Set the tone for the evening by starting off with something light, sweet and bubbly.

“Champagne is the perfect way to welcome guests. Its fine bubbles to the palate are like beautiful music to the ears. I can’t entertain without it.” – James Suckling

“A welcome cocktail should be thoughtful and elegant, while being unintimidating and approachable.” – Michael Callahan

I showed up half an hour early for the media preview dinner, thanks to a punctual driver – graciously arranged for by DFS – and smooth, off-peak traffic. Despite my arriving in the midst of a busy pre-dinner rehearsal, I was warmly welcomed by DFS Consumer Marketing Manager Zann Ng and taken on a preview-on-preview tour – it doesn’t get more up close and personal than this – of the house by Associate Merchandising Manager, Wines & Champagnes Randy Wong.

As other members of the media began streaming in, we were offered glasses of Perrier-Jouët Champagne – as James Suckling would have it – and welcome cocktails created especially for Masters of Wines and Spirits by Michael Callahan. The introduction of key opinion leaders such as Suckling and Callahan began last year, a move that certainly added a new dimension to the whole experience.

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[Mixologist at work: Michael Callahan serves up a refreshing cocktail fit for the tropics]
Fresh from the buzz of pre-dinner drinks, we sat down to dinner as the wait staff fussed around us – making sure our glasses were filled and preferences noted. Harold Brooks, with his trademark hospitality, greeted the three tables of guests – which included media and esteemed brand partners – and thanked them for their presence and longstanding support. “We believe that luxury should be experiential, immersive and personal,” he said, as he explained this year’s choice of venue and how the DFS team has strived to create the most intimate and elegant of settings to convince us all that “this is the place to be” for the 2014 Masters of Wines and Spirits.

“So on behalf of all of us here at DFS, I wish you a warm and wonderful evening and please make yourselves at home.” And we sure did…

#2: The Company – Great company, like fine wine, adds life and character to the dinner table.

“Sharing an evening with company is a moment to share special bottles to create a unique experience. It’s like creating your own personal theatre for them based on beautiful wine, delicious food and gorgeous ambiance.” – James Suckling

“There are few filters on who may walk through our door, so as long as they have a willingness to try something interesting and perhaps new.” – Michael Callahan

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Thankfully, I didn’t have to choose between great company and fine wine – there was plenty of both. I had the privilege of sitting beside Harold Brooks, who has been instrumental in driving Masters of Wines and Spirits since its inception and is retiring from his current role at the end of this year to return to his native US; and Diageo Global Travel & Middle East (GTME) Strategy & Global Customer Director Craig Norwell, who had moved from Australia to Singapore less than two years ago with his young family.

With glasses of Château Angelus Vintage 2011 and Penfolds Grange 2010 in hand, we spoke of new beginnings (in San Francisco for Brooks and Singapore for Norwell) and, as is always the case when I hear from foreigners how much they love Singapore, I came away with a newfound appreciation of the country I call my home.

#3: The Meal – Memorable food and drink pairings are a guaranteed recipe for a night to remember.

“Wine and food should create a crescendo together building to a beautiful moment for everyone. It’s not just about food and wine pairing.” – James Suckling

“Starting a meal with a beautifully aged-spirit and ending it with an herbal digestif is always a safe bet regardless of the meal that’s served.” – Michael Callahan

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Over the course of my work, I’ve been lucky enough to dine at some of the finest restaurants. While I’m not much of a foodie, I can honestly say this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life.

The six-course dinner featured a wines and spirits pairing menu created exclusively for Masters of Wines and Spirits by Singaporean chef Willin Low – a fusion of Singaporean and Southeast Asian favourites blended with modern flavours and cooking techniques. It was a refreshing reinterpretation of some of my local hawker centre staples, such as the humble bee tai bak (which reminds me of childhood meals made by my late grandmother) and chicken rice, and a fitting homage to Singapore.

Now where can I get another serving of that pandan-infused panna cotta in salted gula melaka (below)…

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[Still dreaming of this dessert…]
#4: Conversations & Entertainment – Sharing a rare spirit or special cocktail is the perfect conversation starter.

“Everything is entertainment when trying to create the perfect moment.” – James Suckling

“A great ice breaker is to make note of something tactile that the person is wearing, allowing them to speak a bit about themselves.” – Michael Callahan

Joining James Suckling and Michael Callahan at the dinner were six brand ambassadors who offered their perspectives on the art of hosting: G. H. Mumm & Cie Brand Development Manager Thomas Lignier (Perrier-Jouët), Château Angelus Public Relations Officer Bong Grelat-Tram, Martell Heritage Director Jacques Menier, Penfolds Winemaking Ambassador – Asia Simon Cant, The Glenlivet Heritage & Brand Experience Director Peter Prentice, and Johnnie Walker Global Brand Ambassador Jonathan Driver.

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[The Glenlivet Heritage & Brand Experience Director Peter Prentice making The Moodie Report’s Melody Ng feel at home]
Not only were they passionate speakers, sharing with the audience the stories behind the pouring wines and spirits, they were also gracious and affable off-stage, sharing co-hosting duties with finesse. Ms. Grelat-Tram shared with me pictures of the stunning Château Angelus and Peter Prentice, my dinner companion at last year’s event, was a riot as usual.

Suckling and Callahan ensured a smooth flow of topics, with nary a dull moment. Their easy chemistry was affirmed on the second night of the media dinner, during which they reportedly ditched their cue cards and – with the help of great wines and spirits – just went with the flow.

#5: The Setting & Ambiance – Create a sense of intimacy with small details that leave a big impression on guests.

“The wine selection can make or break the atmosphere of a special dinner or event.” – James Suckling

“Pay attention to the little details such as lighting, temperature, and decorations as they influence the mood of the evening.” – Michael Callahan

When choosing the venue, DFS was attracted to the aesthetic of the black and white house, said to be one of over 500 remaining buildings built during Singapore’s colonial period at the beginning of the 19th century. “As a piece of architecture, it is truly quintessential Singapore,” Harold Brooks noted.

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[A typical black and white house (photo for illustration only, credit: expatliving.sg)]
The two-storey structure, with its open veranda, high roof and signature rattan blinds, certainly had a rustic charm. However, when DFS first took over the place it was “in shambles”, but its team – which can now add “flipping houses” to its résumé – gave it a total makeover in record time.

All that and a fresh coat of paint does not make a home, and certainly not one that will house a multi-million dollar collection of wines and spirits. The specially selected furniture, décor and props – from the antique typewriter, to the vintage telephone, to the fish bowl with real goldfish – demonstrated the same attention to detail that master distillers and craftsmen have devoted to the masterpieces on display. These all came together tastefully to create a setting that elevated the products, while ensuring they remain part of a cohesive whole.

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#6: Post-Dinner – Close the night with a final toast, farewells and the promise of more to come at the next gathering.

“Conversation, laughter, fun music, and Champagne (even the occasional cigar) is a wonderful end to a dinner.” – James Suckling

“A friend once acquired a sherry that was bottled when George Washington was in office. Instead of hoarding it as a collective, he opened it and we all got to try a piece of history.” – Michael Callahan

All good things, as they say, come to an end. The hours flew by as glasses were emptied and eyelids grew heavy, but fortunately DFS is making good on its “promise of more to come”.

“Our team has spent a year curating this assortment – this is not something that happens overnight,” said Harold Brooks. “It is truly a labour of love for our team, and if I’m being honest they have already started on the next Masters of Wines and Spirits in 2015.”

DFS has certainly outdone itself this year in terms of the creativity of presentation and the localisation of the experience. As I bid adieu to my short-lived home from home, I wondered what kind of surprises the travel retailer will spring next year. Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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