When Icelandair wanted to beef up its in-flight menu, it began by looking at one of its country’s most popular spirits. Íris Anna Groeneweg, the airline’s manager for onboard services and procurement, recalls the selflessness of the cabin operations team, who quickly volunteered to help figure out which bottles they should stock.
“We were presented with, I think, 30 gins. So we had a gin tasting,” she says, smiling. “It was a difficult day at the office that day.”
The result is Icelandair’s in-flight gin “library,” a rotating selection of seven or eight spirits from small producers. About half are international, like the current menu’s pink gin from The English Drinks Company and the lavender and echinacea gin from Scotland’s Secret Garden Distillery. The others are all deep cuts from Icelandic makers, which were recently hailed by writer Jillian Dara as being in “a league of their own,” thanks to the tiny island country’s extremely pure water and unusual herbs.
“The botanicals here are wild,” Groeneweg says. “We have the Icelandic water, obviously, for the drinks, which makes everything really nice — you can actually pick up the flavors of the botanicals much easier. Of course we don’t have lemons and limes growing here, so it’s only a few of the botanicals that are grown here in Iceland and used, but they are quite different. They’re using birch and dandelion and Icelandic angelica.”
If you’re really into G&Ts and need to cross the Atlantic, you might choose that airline just for the opportunity to sample Ólafsson Icelandic Gin, made with arctic thyme and mountain moss, followed by a mini bottle or two of Himbrimi Old Tom Gin, 64º Reykjavik Angelica Gin, or Glacier Gin, all served with one of two complementary tonics from the U.K.’s Franklin & Sons.
However, Icelandair is not alone in promoting an improved in-flight offering of spirits and cocktails. After the privations of the Covid era, when many airlines severely pared back in-flight services, including a few that eliminated alcohol entirely, some carriers are starting to push craft spirits, exclusive bottlings, and better mixed drinks, echoing an earlier, more luxurious time for in-flight drinking.
Many Challenges for the Makers
Simply adding better drinks to an on-board menu might sound like an easy switch, but there are challenges — especially for producers. When Canada’s Porter Airlines decided to start offering high-quality ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails earlier this year, it selected the new Tumbler & Rocks line from The Fort Distillery, a small producer in Alberta. For founder Nathan Flim, that meant figuring out new types of packaging and factoring in cabin pressure fluctuations on the bottling line.
“Airlines come with some unique challenges,” he says. “Most of our retail bottles are served in glass, but for weight and for safety, the airline wanted plastic. So we had to find a good supplier of bottles, and we had to adjust our bottling line for plastic bottles. We had to test and adjust our bottling equipment to make sure that we were putting the caps on tight enough.”
In 2020, Dallas-based On the Rocks described going through 18 months of trial and error just to find the right juice supplier for its line of high-grade RTD cocktails, which it launched after initial interest from Virgin America. The brand found another important early partner in Hawaiian Airlines.
“If you’re refilling a whole drawer of the same product, it’s easy. But when you’re refilling a drawer with eight different gins, it’s a bit more work for the people who are working in the warehouse.”
Getting picked up by Delta Air Lines was a big but also difficult undertaking for Atlanta’s Tip Top Cocktails, as co-founder Neal Cohen told the VinePair Podcast in 2021. After seeing early customer feedback for the brand’s canned cocktails, Delta’s initial order was immediately increased to eight times the original amount, then quickly doubled again. That growth meant the startup had to rework its plans for on-the-ground sales.
“We gave it lots of focused attention and pulled back on some distribution,” Cohen says. “We’re now in a good place to continue meeting those needs while also growing our availability in the general market.”
Other challenges are logistical, like making sure their bottles actually fit inside the drawers of standardized airline drink carts, or trolleys. At Icelandair, Groeneweg notes that the rotating menu of different gins adds to the responsibilities of the employees who stock the trolleys. “Logistically, it’s a bit more complicated,” she says. “If you’re refilling a whole drawer of the same product, it’s easy. But when you’re refilling a drawer with eight different gins, it’s a bit more work for the people who are working in the warehouse.”
A Perfect Place for RTDs
Much of the growth in better in-flight drinks is being driven by the burgeoning trend of improved RTD cocktails, the best of which are newly being made with real fruit juices, spirits, and bitters. Since onboard space is limited, those drinks seem like a natural fit on planes.
“For the airline, I mean, the ready-to-serve model is really the only way to do it,” Flim says. “You’re not going to mix a Margarita next to somebody’s seat, right? I mean, that would take five minutes, and you’d have to have four different bottles and a shaker. It’s not really realistic.”
Instead, serving up an in-flight cocktail can be as quick as opening a plastic bottle of Tumber & Rocks Old Fashioned or a can of Tip Top Margarita and pouring it over ice.
“People are demanding craft cocktails and quality spirits, and I think the airlines are starting to catch on and say, ‘Hey, this is what people want.’ People want spirits. People want cocktails.”
Other airlines go the old-fashioned route — literally. Passengers in first class or business class on an Emirates Airbus A380 can visit the plane’s onboard lounge, where bar-trained stewards mix made-to-order Old Fashioneds, Cosmopolitans, Negronis, and other drinks mid-flight. (To save space, the cabin crew stores most of the bottles for seat-side service at the bar.) And in another move away from RTD cocktails, Emirates even offered its own airline-pick bourbon, Woodford Reserve Emirates Personal Selection, in July. Unique to Emirates, that bottling was made from just two casks chosen by Darren Bott, the airline’s global vice-president of catering, with help from Woodford master distiller Chris Morris. It complemented the airline’s longstanding partnership with the distillery, which sees Emirates go through about 90,000 miniature bottles and 6,500 regular bottles of Woodford Reserve’s standard bourbon every year, as well as about 1,700 bottles of the Dalmore King Alexander III, a high-end Scotch which Emirates offers only in first class. While Delta does carry RTD canned cocktails from Tip Top, the airline also started carrying craft vodka from Du Nord Social Spirits, the first U.S. Black-owned distillery, in 2021.
Pre-made or fresh, straight or mixed, better in-flight drinks require a few special considerations, Cohen notes.
“Bold flavors are what really work best,” he says. “My understanding is that taste buds are inhibited by about 30 percent at 30,000 feet due to cabin pressure, and thus people enjoy more pronounced taste profiles in this setting.”
While airline orders might be challenging for producers, they can certainly pay off. In an earlier interview, Flim noted that this year’s order from Porter would increase production volumes at Tumbler & Rocks by a factor of five. For Tip Top, an initial order for the brand’s Old Fashioned and Margarita led to an expanded offering of more cocktails in 2023, starting with the Tip Top Espresso Martini that appeared on Delta flights in March. The reception for that drink, Cohen says, was enormous, fitting with the cocktail’s continuing popularity this year.
Not Quite the Golden Age of Air Travel
Airlines offering better spirits and cocktails will come as a relief to customers who previously had to hack together semi-decent in-flight drinks using ersatz mixers from the drinks trolley. To a degree, it echoes the “Mad Men” days, when air travel was still luxurious, though it also feels very much of the moment. Cohen believes that today’s consumer education is leading a wider swath of drinkers to lean toward cocktails, rather than wine or beer. For Flim, better in-flight cocktails simply fit into the bigger picture.
“We want to create an Icelandic experience, and we do that in many different ways — the food or the gins or other products. It’s been a huge success.”
“The alcohol trend right now is moving towards premiumization,” he says. “People are demanding craft cocktails and quality spirits, and I think the airlines are starting to catch on and say, ‘Hey, this is what people want.’ People want spirits. People want cocktails.”
While better drinks allow airlines to differentiate themselves and attract new customers, they also offer a way to promote regionality and local flavors. As a Canadian brand carried by a Canadian airline, Tumbler & Rocks is working on a new line of cocktails using maple syrup and other Canadian ingredients, Flim says. At Icelandair, offering Icelandic gins is part of a wider effort to introduce passengers to the culture of the airline’s homeland.
“We want to create an Icelandic experience, and we do that in many different ways — the food or the gins or other products,” she says. “It’s been a huge success. The passengers are happy. It’s a great opportunity also for the Icelandic gin brands, which are most of the time smaller, boutique producers. It’s a platform for them to introduce their gins to the world.”