The return of travel: prized bottles, luxury lounges and in-flight drinks

Sandy beaches and far-off adventures might be on the horizon. But for Joel Harrison, the return of international travel also signals excitement in the form of airport duty-free and sky-high G&Ts

Words by Joel Harrison

clouds and plane wing from window in flight
International travel has much to tempt the drinks lover, from unique duty-free bottlings to stylish airside lounges

An ancient Chinese philosopher once said: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ In 2021, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a complicated series of QR codes, medical swabs and rereading the smallprint for various cancellation policies. Not quite the catchy coda of a Chinese teacher.

The process of getting back on a plane might be as complicated as the plot of a John le Carré novel, but the rewards are rich and the experience even richer – and I’m not just talking about the destination. For airports are the Narnia of the drinks world, a mythical and mystical land where nothing is ever quite what it seems; increasingly they are a place to discover new bottlings, unusual spirit expressions and more and more interesting cocktails.

Business lounge – travel
There can be few people who haven't enjoyed a glass of fizz or a cocktail either pre-flight or while up in the clouds

The first great experience of any airport is surely duty-free. For some, this is a chance to land a litre of gin and enough cut-price cigarettes to put Keith Richards to shame, but if you look a little closer you’ll find a kaleidoscope of unique, unusual and often rare bottles of spirits only available in airports around the world, some even unique to individual terminals.

This initiative of curating bespoke products for duty-free, or what is known in the trade as Global Travel Retail (GTR), was pioneered about a decade ago by the clever folk who ran most of the world’s major airports. To add extra incentive for people to fly, airport operators started asking drinks companies not for bigger, cheaper bottles of their best brands, but for unique offerings that could only be found airside. That was when GTR emerged as a major sales source for spirits brands.

Macallan whisky boutique – travel
In-demand single malt The Macallan now has a series of whisky boutiques in airports around the world, including London, New York and Dubai

These days, Scotch whisky tends to provide the richest vein of travel retail bottlings. The major players all have interesting, bespoke options available at the airport. Examples include the highly sought-after Highland distillery The Dalmore, who offer three travel retail-only expressions called The Trio, The Quintet and The Quartet. Famed single malt The Glenlivet has a 26-year-old single-cask bottling only available at London Heathrow, while Johnnie Walker has a series of bespoke blends for sale only in airports.

The Macallan, oft-considered a ‘first growth’ of the single malt world, even has its own airport boutiques at JFK (New York), Taipei, Dubai and London (Heathrow T5), where eagle-eyed collectors, investors and (hopefully) drinkers can indulge in a special bottling – The Macallan Boutique – quite a few of which seem to make their way not into people’s drinks cabinets but onto auction sites. Maybe this is a cunning way for travellers to recoup the outlay for all those Covid-19 tests.

If this cornucopia of curious collectables and consumables doesn’t whet your appetite for air travel again, then maybe a quick drink will. Historically, airports have been something of a desert for drinking, with the odd oasis at the airport lounge. This is changing, with bars such as The World is Flat in Singapore’s Changi Airport providing first-class cocktails. Add to this the continued development of airline lounges, places where once the order a of glass of Champagne would put staff into a tailspin.

These exclusive areas are now embracing the step-up in tastes for better cocktails. Case in point: this week, British Airways announced a partnership with a mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) on a new seven-strong cocktail menu for the enjoyment of travellers with access to the airline’s Concorde Lounges.

In-flight gin and tonic – travel
A G&T is Joel Harrison's in-flight choice ('the finest drinking experience there is')

However, for me, the best drinking experience in the world comes in-flight: a humble gin and tonic, served onboard while cruising along at 40,000 feet.

Be it in first class with a proper glass and a fresh slice of citrus, or sitting towards the back of the plane, with a plastic cup, fast-melting ice and a slice of lemon from a jar, there is nowhere else a drink can be served with a garnish of clouds, or views of deserts and oceans, cities and sunsets. It’s surely, the finest drinking experience there is.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • This past month, I’ve had the chance to visit south-west England, and a quick stop-off to Somerset Cider Brandy, which has stocks of apple brandy well over 30 years old, was very welcome. As was a visit to Pilton Cider, which makes something more akin to an apple- and fruit-based wine than commercial cider – and utterly brilliant stuff it is, too.
  • I also popped by the Salcombe Distilling Company in Devon to see how it makes Start Point, its citrus-led gin. It’s truly one of the best of the new gins to come to market in the past few years. Perfect as a G&T, or in a Negroni or Martini
  • Scotch has played a pivotal role in my world over the past couple of weeks, with trips to the new and impressive Lighthouse, an experimental area attached to the historic Glenmorangie distillery, as well as to Edinburgh, where Johnnie Walker has opened an all-singing, all-dancing visitor experience. But let’s not forget Japanese whisky (which is heavily inspired by Scotch): this week, Yamazaki, Japan’s oldest single malt distillery, launched an incredibly rare 55 Year Old. It tastes of marmalade smothered on hot, buttered wholemeal bread. Just brilliant – and so it should be at $60,000 (£43,000). Just 100 bottles will be released this year.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.