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The Inflight Edition
The slow, then very sudden, death of the inflight cocktail
Ab Ovo is a twice-weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and Tim McKirdy (TM). If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
Last week, Delta began restoring regular beverage service to main cabin passengers on domestic flights, making it the first of the major U.S. carriers to do so after a long pandemic-prompted hiatus. That’s a big deal, not least because we’re all desperate for those little indicators that upended routines are slowly returning to some kind of “normal.” Soon, Seagram’s ginger ale and acrid galley-brewed coffee will flow as if Covid never happened. The familiar crinkle of single-serving Biscoff cookie wrappers will fill the skies. And people will once again drink Amstel Light because, apologies, but we just now ran out of Heineken. Nature is healing.
While Delta is the first mover on the inflight service front, other major U.S. airlines have announced their own varied plans to resurrect food and beverage service across the board, though with fewer specifics. United is slowly restoring buy-on-board food and drink (including beer and wine) to more and more routes, and American Airlines will resurrect complimentary beverage service to its main cabin passengers starting June 1, though without alcohol sales for now. At some point soon, no matter which airline you’re traveling with, you’ll be able to indulge in that most sacred of travel rituals: the less-than-stellar inflight cocktail.
But if Delta is any indicator, onboard beverage service isn’t coming back in exactly the same way. In an effort to continue observing pandemic-mandated protocols, the airline’s drinks service will work to limit the number of touch points in the process. That means if it isn’t pre-canned or pre-bottled, it’s not on the trolley. If you’re looking for a cocktail/mixed drink, you can choose between a canned Margarita or a canned Old Fashioned from Atlanta-based ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail maker Tip Top Proper Cocktails, a development that bodes well for the exploding RTD cocktail industry but poorly for fans of the inflight cocktail.
Why does this matter? For those that never bother with an inflight cocktail, this clearly won’t impact your travel experience. Your Heineken and Sutter Home Chardonnay will still be right there on the cart next to your regularly scheduled inflight programing of soft drinks, tea, coffee, and juice.
But for some of us at least, there’s something very special and more than a little satisfying about the very mediocre mid-morning Bloody Mary that kicks off a vacation, or the simple Scotch and soda married right there on your tray table to mark the end of a quick business trip. That inflight drink is both a break in a monotonous journey and a little moment of zen amid a chaotic day. While still sharing in the collective waking nightmare that is modern airline travel, you’re also kicking back, relaxing, living well. The 40,000-foot cocktail lets you participate in the last real vestige of the golden age of air travel still obtainable in the back of the aircraft.
Delta’s shift toward RTD cocktails exclusively is both perfectly sensible and a likely bellwether for the industry at large. That golden age of inflight beverage service — the one in which an actual bar trolley came trundling up the aisle, pushed by a helpful flight attendant only too happy to whip you up a Ramos Gin Fizz or whatever — long ago passed into history. Airline deregulation in the late 1970s kicked off a punishing race to the bottom among airlines, at least where service and frills were concerned. As carriers began competing fiercely to deliver the lowest-cost tickets and the most convenient routes, perks like the bar trolley were among the first to go.
In the decades since, inflight service has seen fewer wholesale changes, instead evolving via a series of incremental dilutions of previous levels of service, all in the name of efficiency and cost (you’ve probably heard the popular Business Econ 101 story about American Airlines saving $40,000 annually by removing a single olive from every inflight salad back in the 1980s). But the pandemic has offered airlines something they haven’t had in decades: an opportunity to cease inflight service almost completely and perform a hard reset of their cabin service protocols, all at the same time.
That’s not all bad. Things like fast, touchless onboard payments have been a long time coming yet slow to roll out until the pandemic pushed them along. And it makes sense to keep inflight beverage service moving quickly and smoothly. Stopping to build Bloody Marys and gin and tonics every other row never lent itself to efficiency, which is why — at some point, though I can’t remember exactly when — most airlines’ flight attendants just started handing passengers the ingredients for their mixed drinks along with a cup of ice rather than putting them together on the trolley as in the days of yore.
With the RTD canned cocktail industry growing meteorically and an abundance of decent options now available, the progression toward pre-made, no-fuss spirits-based cocktails removes one more pain point from the process. Inevitably, someone will spill a bunch of ink mourning the death of the made-to-order inflight cocktail at the hands of the pandemic. But the pandemic didn’t kill the inflight cocktail. It was simply present at the end.
This was always going to happen, in other words, and I’d be wildly surprised if more airlines don’t follow Delta’s lead in using this moment to rethink their inflight offerings. It will be bad for passenger choice but good for airline accounting and easier on flight attendants, who all deserve a break. And a good cocktail, for that matter. —CD
Collab of the Week: WhistlePig x Ben & Jerry’s
Given their close proximity and Vermont’s general neighborly vibe, it was really only a matter of time before revered Shoreham, Vt.-based rye whiskey maker WhistlePig got together with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, just up the road in Burlington. After putting heads together for more than a year, the two companies came up with ’Whiskey Biz,’ a “brown butter bourbon ice cream with blonde brownies & WhistlePig Whiskey-infused caramel swirls, topped with white chocolatey ganache & white fudge chunks” that tastes as good as it sounds. Take it from someone who has already crushed two pints. Available nationwide. —CD
The 150-Word Endorsement
Blue Spot Irish Whiskey ($85) Last produced some six decades ago, Blue Spot has finally rejoined the other Spots — Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and Red Spot Irish whiskies — on the shelf. The Spot range dates back to the beginning of the last century, when wine and spirits merchants Mitchell & Son began maturing whiskey from Jameson Distillery in leftover fortified wine casks in their Dublin cellars (the names stem from the daubs of paint used to mark each cask to signify how long it should be aged). This seven-year-old incorporates whiskey aged in Madeira casks (as well as ex-bourbon and sherry casks), a nod to its roots. Tropical fruits, vanilla, cinnamon, and baked nuts lead the way here, rendered even more pleasant by the soft roundness that makes single pot still whiskies so singular. Currently available in select markets nationwide, it’s worth seeking out. —CD