Transport Airlines

Sky-high cocktails: Virgin Atlantic leads the way on in-flight mixology

Mar 29, 2013 1:21 pm

Skift Take

Travelers in coach wouldn’t mind a martini, even if there was a fee attached.

— Jason Clampet

The Future of Meetings in the Hospitality Industry

 / Virgin Atlantic

A passenger sidles up to the bar in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class. / Virgin Atlantic


Airlines are enticing new customers by serving exceptional cocktails in business- and first-class flights, but mixing drinks at 35,000ft isn’t always easy.

Is there anything more glamorous than sipping cocktails at 35,000ft in the air? Maybe but as far as ‘because-I’m-worth-it’ moments go, this comes high on the list. Picture it: there you are drifting through the clouds, cocooned in your leather seat and with attentive cabin crew on hand to serve your Martini just the way you like it.

It sounds like something from a James Bond film. Not modern-day Daniel Craig Bond but classic Sean Connery Bond – when flying was the epitome of glamour and elegance and people dressed to match the mood. Champagne and fine wines are all well and good but they can’t beat the personal ritual of making a cocktail to order. It’s a trend that more and more airlines are taking on board – and yes, the pun is intended.

The magic begins at ground level, in the airport lounges. At the very least, most will offer a Bloody Mary station where customers can blend their own versions of the drink. At the other end of the scale you’ll find full-on bars. Take the experience offered in Virgin Clubhouses for instance, where passengers can choose from an extensive selection of quality cocktails. Step up to its Grey Goose Loft Bar at Heathrow Terminal 3 and passengers can choose from the Taste By Appointment menu, selecting a drink from five flavour profiles (sweet, sour, umami, bitter and salt). With two drinks in each category, options include a Black Truffle Martini or Bloody Mary with a French Twist for umami, or Grey Goose Le Fizz or Blossom Bellini for sweet.

And the adventure in cocktail offerings for travellers doesn’t stop there. In the air, Virgin Upper Class passengers can have their favourite libation served seat-side, where it perches between sips on a specially designed cocktail rest. If they want to get up, stretch out and have a chat with other guests, there’s the sleek onboard bar which is accented with Swarovski crystals. “You used to have to wait until you landed before you were able to enjoy a well-made cocktail,” says Alex Kratena, head bartender at Artesian at The Langham hotel in London. “Now you can have your Manhattan or White Lady while you’re on your flight. How cool is that?”

How cool indeed. And it’s something Kratena knows all about, having made cocktails onboard Virgin flights. As the current holder of the coveted International Bartender of the Year award, and with Artesian voted World’s Best Bar in the Spirited Awards, rest assured these are five-star drinks. “We’ve served barrel-aged cocktails in individual miniature barrels, we’ll mix up classics and we’ve also offered passengers drinks from the Artesian list,” says Kratena of the cocktails offered onboard. The list also includes the Spontaneity, a concoction deftly balancing Tanqueray gin, velvet falernum, freshly squeezed lime, Perilla and bitters with a drizzle of roasted sesame oil. Who would choose wine or beer when they could have that?

Giles Looker of drinks consultancy Soulshakers and Marc Plumridge, Global Brand Ambassador at Bacardi, are the people to thank for the ‘cocktail guy in the sky’ concept on Richard Branson’s airline. It started with a six-week contract when Soulshakers were asked to develop the clubhouses and grew from there. “When our company first got on board seven years ago, it was to make a few Bombay Sapphire cocktails for people in the lounges,” explains Looker. “The feedback from staff and customers was so positive, we were asked if we could make it work on the flights.”

Airlines serving cocktails in the air
Airline Class of service
All Nippon Airlines In first- and business-class
British Airways In first- and business-class, and on the all-business-class London City to New York JFK service
Cathay Pacific In first- and business-class
Emirates In all classes
Singapore Airlines In all classes
Virgin Atlantic In Upper Class

Customers can also have a go at mixing if the mood so takes them. This is where Plumridge comes in. Working for the Global Travel Division of Bacardi he has travelled more than a million miles mixing cocktails and teaching passengers how to make them onboard flights. “This experience is loved by the consumer and it’s clear when they have their first sip, they will never opt for wine or champagne in its usual form for the remainder of the flight,” he explains. “By teaching them how to construct the drink they can understand the process and thought behind great classic and contemporary cocktails.”

Virgin may be leading the way but it is by no means the only airline embracing the cocktail theme. Singapore Airlines is also in on the act with a cocktail list available across all cabin classes. Its six drinks are freshly prepared onboard and, rather than working with special bartenders or brands, the list is created in-house, “allowing for thoughtful customisations and tailoring to a global audience.” While the cocktails are rotated and refreshed on a bi-monthly basis to ensure variety, it’s the Singapore Sling that is the most requested item on the menu – around half a million are served each year.

Cocktail lovers onboard Cathay Pacific flights have the choice of four libations – two alcoholic, two non-alcoholic. The Cathay Delight, Pacific Sunrise, Oriental Breeze and Cloud Nine are rotated on a monthly basis and are the products of competitions held by the airline and the Hong Kong Bartenders’ Association. All Nippon Airways keeps its cocktails on the classic side with choices of Kir, Kir Royale, Martini, Bloody Mary and Screwdriver for first- and business-class passengers and Spumonis and Mimosas in first class only.

Passengers on British Airways’ all-business-class service from London City to JFK, New York can try the London City Signature cocktail, a blend of creme de cassis, gin, Champagne and a slice of lemon. “In our premium cabins on board we offer a choice of Kir Royale or Bucks Fizz, as well as that perennial favourite, the Bloody Mary,” says a spokesperson for the airline. “The onboard bars are extremely well stocked and cabin crew will do their best to double up as mixologists.”

But mixing airborne cocktails is not an easy task. “I’ve had to decant my entire back bar including liqueurs and sugar syrups into 100ml bottles before a flight,” says Looker. Alex Kratena agrees. “When we make drinks in the sky we plan roughly one month ahead, including all preparation. We have to calculate all stock exactly as the airline pays for each item, including glassware and shakers. There’s up to three hours’ preparation in the lounge on the day of the flight, before loading it all onto a trolley and then boarding with the passengers.” No wonder he says it’s much more exhausting to make drinks in the sky.

Bear in mind also that things behave differently in high altitude. “You can’t close zip-lock bags entirely, you always leave them opened a bit otherwise they’ll blow up like a balloon and explode,” continues Kratena. “You don’t prep fresh herbs and flowers as they’ll go black within half an hour; you need to use a bit more sugar than you would normally use in a Daiquiri and you have to add more spice to a Bloody Mary. Quantities of ice can be a problem but if you run out, dry ice works perfectly.” The aim is to make a drink that tastes just as good as it would on the ground, despite those impediments.

“I always say up there you’ve got to be organised like the Germans, have the timing of the Swiss, entertain like an Italian and problem-solve with the relaxed mood of a Spaniard,” says the Czech-born bartender. No wonder cocktails in the sky have such a universal appeal.

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