The art of drinking and flying
Ask the average traveller about an airline’s reputation, and chances are the first thing out of their mouth will focus on one thing: booze.
Considerations like extra legroom, entertainment options and proclivity for losing luggage may be more practical, but there’s something about the availability and quality of sweet, sweet alcohol 35,000 feet above the ground that excites us. Perhaps it’s the novelty. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how unbearably painful travelling through the air can be. Or maybe we just like to drink.
Unfortunately, drinking on an airplane isn’t as simple a task as walking into your local bar and ordering up your favourite martini or craft beer. Availability and quality can be slim to nonexistent, and then there are the inflated prices that come with airlines’ knowledge that their thirsty customer base has no other option. There’s also always the question of whether imbibing will result in an atrocious post-flight hangover or, worse, an encounter with law enforcement.
The experienced flier knows drinking on a plane is a fine art. It’s a delicate balance between finding the best drink menus, how to balance a chequebook and understanding the way alcohol affects your brain miles above the ground.
It’s no accident that airlines are increasingly focusing their marketing efforts around their alcoholic offerings. Air Emirates is perhaps the most famous and effective example of this, airing viral commercials featuring Jennifer Aniston, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pelé indulging in their A380’s upper deck bars where passengers can sip on bottomless Moët and Chandon champagne (or if you’re first class, Dom Perignon) or use onboard Wi-Fi to Google a recipe that the bartenders will happily replicate.
The advertising has paid off. Anecdotally, when I told friends about a recent trip to Dubai, their first questions weren’t about the city or culture, but rather whether I’d get to frequent the Air Emirates’ bar. The airline recently announced new improvements to their bar design starting in July, including soundproof curtains, LED mood lighting, 55-inch LCD screens and subwoofers for surround sound. Ironically, when the bars were first launched in 2008, there were concerns no one would actually use it.
Now, the onboard bar is the new premium standard for business and first class air travel. Other airlines offering onboard bars include Qatar Airlines (known for serving Krug regardless of whether you’re first or business class), the Absolute-sponsored Korean Air and Virgin Atlantic (where the largely British crowd is infamously rowdy).
It’s common knowledge that our taste buds respond differently mid-air due to changing air pressure and lack of humidity, making crafting a tasty cocktail a bit more complicated than it is on the ground. The benefit of planes with staff bartenders and mixologists is that they know a Bloody Mary needs extra spice and just about every alcoholic concoction needs an extra dose of acidity or salt to make it taste just right. A strong spirit base is key and it’s best to avoid drinks with herbs or flowers because they lose their freshness in a quick 30 minutes. Some of the best cocktails to please your altered in-flight palate include Tom Collins, Singapore Slings and Moscow Mules. A simple gin and tonic is also a sure bet.
Other major trends include stocking business and first class pods with personal minibars and cocktail lists that go above and beyond the standard ho-hum rum and coke. If you’re looking for unique drinks, Cathay Pacific brews its own craft beer for U.K. flights, Delta serves up craft options from some of its U.S. destinations and Scandinavian airlines partnered with Coppenhagen-based brewery Mikkeler to create four exclusive brews, including a sweet and sour Belgian ale fermented in mango juice.
Meanwhile, Air Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Caribbean Airlines are among those that offer cocktail menus, including classics like mojitos and unique recipes like Caribbean’s mix of 21-year-old Appleton Estate and pineapple ginger. Singapore Airlines also jumped aboard the mocktail craze, offering options like the SG Fiesta (pineapple, orange and cranberry juice with a hint of lemon) and Tropical Sparkle (lime cordial, 7-Up, orange juice, tomato juice). For those happy with simpler offerings, Southwest Airlines entices passengers with affordable $5 mixes like scotch and ginger or tequila and orange juice.
One of the great dividers of drink menus in the sky is whether an airline serves real champagne. Perhaps it’s that the real deal makes up for some of the indignity of being transported by glorified cattle carrier, or maybe it plays into nostalgia for the days when flying was considered a luxury. Sparkling wine just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Either way, the quality, brand and authenticity of onboard bubbles is an often-cited selling point. British Airways serves Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, Singapore Airlines pours Dom Perignon 2004 and Emirates offers a choice between Dom Pérignon Vintage 2005, Dom Pérignon Vintage Rosé 2003 and Moët Hennessy. The only airline to serve a complimentary glass of champagne in its economy class is, of course, Air France (but you only get one).
However, just because you can drink champagne and bourbon highballs to your heart’s content doesn’t mean you should. There’s an oft-quoted piece of wisdom that claims every drink imbibed in the air equals three on the ground. Scientists dispute the accuracy of this, but many acknowledge that the lower levels of oxygen may decrease your ability to metabolize alcohol. This may be the reason behind some of the more infamous drunken passenger stories over the years, including that time Conrad Hilton stumbled around a plane calling other passengers “peasants.”
Don’t forget the epic hangovers that result from over-imbibing on a plane thanks to a deadly combination of jet lag and the ease with which dehydration strikes in the air. Mixing alcohol with the extra sugar and salt used in plane cocktails is an easy recipe for bloating and headaches, making it wiser to stick to wine or spirits on the rocks.
One of the best perks of flying first or business class is free-flowing, high quality alcohol. But is the upgrade really worth it? A business class ticket typically costs double or triple the amount of an economy class fare. The psychology is similar to that of all-inclusive resorts: you may pay more than you would using cash, but the stress-free appeal of ordering whatever you want and however much you want without looking at prices is powerful.
On many overseas flights, including Air Emirates and Air Canada, unlimited house white and red wine, beer and spirits are included in the price of an economy ticket (granted, with less selection and minus the ultra premium brands). From a pure economical perspective, access to “free” drinks shouldn’t be a consideration when debating whether to splurge on an upgrade as the savings are nonexistent and, often, you’re paying more for the idea of luxury rather than the perks themselves.
Some airlines try to entice customers with the promise of a free beverage. This includes Porter Airlines, who competes with larger airlines by offering a choice of complimentary wine or beer (and although many passengers don’t know it, you can request a second). While, again, the economics of choosing an airline for free drinks that would otherwise cost between $5 and $10 are suspect, the idea that you’re getting a perk for free is enough to inspire customer loyalty for many.
Between frequent delays, cramped seating and that demon child kicking the back of your seat while his or her parents doze away, it’s understandable why so many passengers turn to drinking and flying. As airlines become increasingly competitive, they’re taking drink options to new heights and knowing what to look for can mean the difference between a nightmare in the sky and a flight as smooth as the Johnny Walker Black in your hand.