I am writing from the executive lounge of Norman Manley Airport, Jamaica. The service could not be lovelier, but the drinks selection leaves a little to be desired: there’s Red Stripe, some run-of-the-mill rum and sachets of powdered ginger tea.
This is probably no bad thing – I’ve spent the past week touring Jamaica’s rum distilleries, so my overproof liver could do with some downtime. But I’m struck by the slimness of the pickings, given how, lately, so many airports and airlines have been raising their beverage game in a bid to win over well-heeled customers and claw back some of the revenue lost over the past few years.
On a recent Virgin Upper Class flight to Washington, DC, I was delighted to be welcomed with a glass of fizz from Bollinger sister house Ayala – a marque I’d normally only expect to see in high-end restaurants. On some Virgin routes, they now even offer in-flight Delamain Cognac and chocolate tastings, within a specially commissioned nook in Upper Class that they’ve saucily dubbed The Booth.
Ultra-luxe carrier Emirates recently completed a $2bn overhaul of its inflight experience, which now includes bottomless Dom Pérignon and caviar for those in first class. And after an extended hiatus, Charles Heidsieck is now back as Singapore Airlines’ house Champagne.
Doing good food at altitude is complex; good drinks, by comparison, is an easy fix. And whether you fly coach, business or private jet, the signalling is the same: nothing says ‘highflier’ quite like the image of a Champagne flute next to the window of a plane.
I don’t know why we consider it glamorous to drink alcohol on the move. The setting is not optimum, to say the least, and it doesn’t do the jet lag any good. But back in the 1920s and ’30s, they knew how to do it in style – for this was the era when the travelling cocktail set became the must-have accoutrement for jet-set socialites. Asprey, Tiffany and Henkels all produced exquisite kits featuring everything a mobile hostess could need – from cups and shakers, to nut holders and bitters bottles – rendered in silver, leather and glass. Many of the most ingenious designs were inspired by the Age of Speed, packing away to form scale-model silver Zeppelins, planes and ships. Trendsetter Wallis Simpson was one high-profile owner.
You’d have a hard time getting a Zeppelin through security these days, especially one lined with booze. And sadly, I don’t think we’ll see the return of the in-flight cocktail party any time soon. (Having said that, a bartender friend I flew with recently smuggled on a selection of miniature cocktails disguised as shampoo. We had a hard time persuading the flight attendant to give us enough ice to serve them properly, but they were still very welcome.)
Meanwhile, options for cocktail lovers on the ground have certainly improved. In the BA Lounge at JFK, travellers can now sip cocktails created by Mr Lyan, aka Ryan Chetiyawardana, the multi-award-winning top gun of the British cocktail scene.
It’s the Bloody Mary, however, that remains many people’s in-flight go-to – and there’s a scientific basis for this. Studies have shown that the cabin’s dry microclimate, combined with the drone of engines, dulls our sense of taste – so a flavour-packed drink like a Bloody is what our taste buds crave.
Making a good Bloody is a faff at the best of times, but it’s even harder at 35,000ft – so it’s good news that Longbottom & Co’s decent canned pours are now available on Easyjet and BA.
Back in Virgin Upper Class, the alcohol-free experience has also had an upgrade. Three Spirit, a functional botanical drink that promises a buzz without the booze is now available two ways. For takeoff, there’s the Livener, an invigorating elixir spiked with euphoria-inducing plants including guayusa, guava leaf and schisandra; and for the wind-down, there’s Nightcap, a soporific draught made with soothing herbs including valerian and white willow bark.
I’ve tried them both, and the effects are about as strong as a cup of tea. If you want to get really high, I’d recommend sticking with the bottomless DP.