On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Shiada Drysdale, beverage manager for Virgin Atlantic, to discuss the in-flight drinks experience. Drysdale details her career path and how she came to combine her passion for wine and with her experience in the world of aviation. Drysdale also explains the recent changes that have occurred with in-flight beverages in particular — with packaging being key.

Then, Geballe and Drysdale discuss the introduction of RTDs to Virgin Atlantic’s core product range, and why canned beverages may be the future of airplane drinking. Further, Geballe and Drysdale talk about the science behind drinking at altitude, and how being in the air can impact travelers’ cravings.

Tune in to learn more about the in-flight drinks experience.

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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so we can explore a broader range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Shiada Drysdale, who is the beverage manager at Virgin Atlantic. Shiada, thanks so much for your time.

Shiada Drysdale: Thank you. Nice to speak to you, Zach.

Z: Of course, you and I are both juggling work and kids, so it took a while to put this together, but I’m glad we did.

S: We’re here now.

Z: Yeah, exactly. Why don’t we start with just a little about you? How did you get into the beverage alcohol industry? Were you in the airline industry and came into this, or were you in drinks and then came to the airline industry?

S: I have been in the aviation industry for over 20 years. I started off in the cabin crew as a flight attendant many years ago. My interest in wine has always been in the periphery, but it was never my core job. I was a cabin crew, but then I moved into different areas of the airline. I used to work for a company called Airtours, which got changed to MyTravel, which then got changed to Thomas Cook. Then, about 14 or 15 years ago, I came across Virgin Atlantic as a crew manager, and then I worked in a couple of different departments. I’ve been working on in-flight services, which is an operational team, and we look after anything that goes on board, whether it’s food or equipment or drinks. And having that interest in wine is my passion. I’ve done a few qualifications, and I read a lot about the wine industry and the wine world. It just so happened a couple of years ago that a position and opportunity came around in working for the beverage team. I was lucky enough to get that position. It was a marriage of two of my passions in one. I’m very lucky to be in the role that I am in, working for an airline and having the ability to learn and deal with beverages and drinks.

Z: I want to ask this because you started out as a cabin crew, as you mentioned. Between when you got started in the airline industry and now, what are some of the biggest changes to the type of offerings there are in flight?

S: At Virgin Atlantic, we have a complimentary range, so all of the drinks that we offer onboard are complimentary. We also have our clubhouses globally, and there is a lot of regionality within the offerings that you see in the clubhouses overseas. Onboard, we try to appeal to the majority where possible, so we do load as many familiar brands as possible so customers are aware of the brands that we’re loading. It creates good partnerships with some of the brands that we work with as well. I think we’ve always tried to appeal to the masses rather than looking at small minutia opportunities because something that we have to really consider when choosing brands is we have extremely limited space onboard, and we have to be mindful of weight. There are two key things that we really need to consider when choosing partners, brands, and products because of the environment that we work in. We have to be very, very mindful that what we’re offering is appealing and it will be consumed and enjoyed. Yes, there is a lot of consideration and lots of “Tetris playing” sometimes with loading our beverage products on board.

Z: Yeah, so I want to ask a little more about that, especially very practical considerations of onboard service. You mentioned that desirability and the fact that ideally everything that goes on the plane is consumed so you’re not flying it around needlessly. What are some of the other considerations that people like me who just have been on airplanes and don’t think much about the operations might not know? You mentioned weight, but does that mean that you’re looking for things in different packaging than people might expect? What about opening bottles? Are you prioritizing non-cork closures? What about all that stuff?

S: Packaging is key. Ideally, the lighter the weight, the better. The size of the product and how it could be packaged into the small drawers, small carts, and trolleys has to be considered. We have a beautiful space in our upper-class cabins. We’ve had the bars, and we have some social spaces now in which packaging isn’t so essential because we would like to showcase the brands that we’re working with. That creates a space and a bit of theater with what we provide. Certainly, where premium economy and economy are concerned, we have to consider the size because we want to load as much on because we don’t want to ever be in the situation where we’re running out of certain products. However, we are constantly looking at consumption rates, and we look at regionality and seasonality because what might appeal on a West Coast flight might not necessarily appeal to an East Coast flight or an east-bound flight. It really is just looking at consumption rates, making sure that we are adapting and being flexible as we can. Also, bearing in mind that we are considering carbon offsetting in our footprints and just making sure that we are loading enough of that particular product for our customers.

Z: Excellent, so here at the “VinePair Podcast,” we have been talking a lot about RTDs and canned cocktails. I think for a lot of people, the stereotypical airline experience is an airline bottle of your spirit and whatever mixer you choose. Are you loading in canned cocktails to cut out one of those pieces and/or offer more variety?

S: It’s interesting you say that, because we’ve been doing a bit of studying here. We’ve done a few trials of introducing RTDs into our product range. It’s certainly something, purely from a sustainability perspective, that has potential. Cans, as you know, are fully recyclable. They are lighter weight than bottles. Our key strategy is to remove single-use plastic where possible onboard our aircrafts, so we’re very keen to do that and certainly can create that opportunity for us to do so. Particularly now, when cans are so readily available and you’re getting really good quality products within those cans in the U.K. market and I’m sure in the U.S. market, the choice of ranges that you can get now is just fantastic. It has certainly given us a scope, especially over the last two years, to look at that market more closely and start thinking about how we can introduce RTDs within our core range. Again, creating the opportunity to enable choice, because we can showcase a gin and tonic, a vodka and Coke, but having an RTD enables that consistency. It also enables us to create a bit more theater, I guess, so it’s certainly something that we’re looking at.

Z: Yeah, very cool. I think there’s definitely something to be said about airlines and that general setting, where you want to be able to offer people different flavors than they have been used to in the past.

S: Absolutely.

Z: You can also hit multiple goals at once, and it seems like a natural fit. Again, I’m just a guy who’s on a podcast, so…

S: We definitely think like that too!

Z: OK, so one thing that I’ve always been fascinated by since I first heard about it is this notion that food and drink taste different at altitude in an airplane when you’re 35,000 feet above the Earth, and that for beverage programs, it’s important to consider that. Is there truth to that? And how do you account for how a product mixes differently at altitude versus on the ground?

S: Yeah, there is definitely a science behind that. I’m not too familiar with the actual science, but we do consider that as part of our choices. Not so much for wines because wines are so unique in themselves, and they obviously have their own personalities. Wine is such a subjective topic anyway. But certainly, when we’re looking at tomato juice — and Bloody Marys are a prime example of customers searching for that extra flavor — the premise is that your taste buds are certainly heightened because the aircraft environment is drying to your senses. Your taste buds are slightly dampened and dull down, so I think you naturally crave a bit more acidity, a bit more freshness, and sharpness. Naturally, drinks like that lend themselves better in an aircraft environment because I think that’s what people generally crave and they just want that extra burst of flavor, if that makes sense.

Z: It certainly does. As you said, a big part of the job are the clubhouses as the other way that people interact with beverages under the auspices of an airline. You mentioned a little bit that from location to location, there’s going to be some variations based on maybe what’s local or what’s available or both. How are those stocked? Is it a similar thought to the airline, or do you get to have a little less familiar product because you’re not dealing with some of the limitations of weight or something to that effect?

S: Yes, they do lend themselves to giving us the opportunity to explore and expand our ranges, whereas we just can’t do that on board. Certainly, we do look at the locality, regionality, and what consumers would like to see within that space. Again, the teams that we work with locally are brilliant at what they do. We have mixologists, baristas, and fantastic bartenders. They are just full of knowledge. We certainly would lean on them as experts in their fields to help us identify what would work well in those environments. We really do try and, as I said, lean on the experts that we have within our teams.

Z: Makes sense. So coming back to the airline and in-flight experience, tell me a little more about the first-class cocktail lounges. I have this vision in my head of the era of aviation from before I was alive, where there was a piano, and people would just mill about. If it wasn’t for the fact that you’re on an airplane, you could be mistaken for being in a cocktail bar. Is that the vibe? In your opinion or even expertise, what is the appeal of that for a certain traveler?

S: I think it’s certainly an aspirational environment, and we’ve done a few trials with various categories. We still believe that within any cabin, there is a sense of a treat, an indulgent experience within the upper-class cabin and premium economy. People still love to have a glass of Champagne when they’re boarding. We’ve trialed those categories which we assumed would work well because the time is quite right. Those categories are very popular here on the ground. However, we found that they haven’t really necessarily translated that well in the air, and that’s not to say that we wouldn’t include them by any stretch because it is definitely key. Yet, we still find that customers tend to still enjoy the more indulgent cocktails, Champagne, and sparkling wine, so I think that element of treating yourself is still very much there. Having that sense of “me time” is absolutely key to that space where you can really treat yourself.

Z: What about further thoughts of flights where there’s some type of meal service? I understand that depending on the destination and the duration of the flight, that may not be part of every flight. However, I’ve been on some international flights where it is not only on the menu, but there are wine pairings. Is that something that you look at? And how do you make those work?

S: We do. We work very closely with our food team here, and we try to choose wines that would pair with most of our dishes. We’ve worked with some great wine partners in the past. Berry Bros. & Rudd was the most recent one, and we had a fantastic relationship with them. We do look at when the menu cycle changes, and we will look at what wines are up and coming. We also look at some New World wines and Old World wines and also what the season is. We’ll introduce sweet wine when the time is right. We obviously have our cheese as a dessert and pudding service. We’ve introduced ports in the past, so we definitely look very closely. We look at where we are with the menu cycles, the time of the year, introducing newness where we can, trends on the ground, and seeing what’s popular within the on- and off-trade. We do a lot of thinking about what we’re going to load at the right time.

Z: And how about you, Shiada? How do you discover new wines and keep on top of what’s happening? Obviously, reading is very important, but I assume there’s a decent amount of tasting in your life as well?

S: Yes, I do. I’ve done a lot of tasting, and it is great. I thoroughly enjoy what I do. As I said, we worked with Berry Bros. & Rudd who were brilliant at taking us along the journey of learning. They used to showcase hundreds of different wines. We would spend days tasting so many upcoming varietals, up-and-coming brands, and new winemakers. It has been a great experience. We’re constantly looking at the marketplace, looking at what’s going to be appealing to our customers in the future. We are also looking at sustainable brands. We’re looking at where we fly to. We really want to showcase some of the destinations we fly to and some of the vineyards and the wines that come in from those particular destinations. We are constantly looking at what’s occurring on- and off-trade. We get a lot of feedback from our customers that pass through our clubhouses, as well as our crew. We get a lot of feedback from them, and we love to listen to what their thoughts are. So there’s a lot of analysis.

Z: My last question is, we are getting to this point where the last year and a half or so have been challenging for everyone. Airline travel in particular, similar to other parts of the travel and hospitality industry, has had a lot of issues. Looking forward, and maybe something for me to dream about, since I’m still mostly stuck at home: Given all the destinations that Virgin Atlantic flies to, if you could get on a plane tomorrow with no considerations about anything else, where would you be flying to, and what would you be drinking?

S: Oh, I would probably fly to South Africa. I’ve tried and tasted quite a lot of South African Chenin Blanc recently. It is a varietal that I’ve always enjoyed but haven’t really got to know very well. But I certainly have recently, and it’s probably my favorite varietal right now. I would fly to South Africa, head down to the Cape, and enjoy a beautifully crisp, chilled glass of Chenin Blanc on my way.

Z: Well, that sounds delightful. Save me a seat, please.

S: Will do.

Z: Thank you so much for your time. This was really fascinating. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because, for so many people, air travel and drinking while flying are interconnected. And as you pointed out, there is sometimes a small or big indulgence that we allow ourselves. Even for me, as a professional, this is something I think a lot about. Again, it was really fascinating to hear a little bit about the inside workings of how an airline approaches its beverage program. I look forward to checking it out in person.

S: Lovely, we look forward to welcoming you on board, Zach. Any time.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

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