In a promo for his Comedy Central Show “Why? with Hannibal Buress,” the comedian asks a simple question—something along the lines of “Why do people only drink Bloody Marys in the morning? I drink them at night. Why does it matter that it’s dark? It’s the same….alcohol,” trailing off in the awesomely mysterious way he tends to do. (Apologies to Mr. Buress, BuressCo. International, and the team of lawyers who are probably already preparing to sue us for this terrible paraphrasing.)
But the point is—good question. And we’d like to take it a step further. Why are Bloody Marys the pre-flight beverage of choice at so many of our nation’s fine airport bars? Why is it a weary traveler, settling into the three hour delay for his flight to Tampa, feels more comfortable rolling his luggage up to TGI Friday’s and ordering a Bloody Mary instead of, say, a Scotch on the rocks? Or a Martini? Why don’t we see the jetlagged, flight-delayed, and hopelessly layovered knockin’ back Rum and Cokes like the seatbelt sign’s been turned off?
First answer, and the answer Mr. Buress (which sounds weird, like we’re deposing him) refers to in his promo is that we associate Bloody Marys with the morning. Something about adding tomato juice and celery to a bunch of vodka seems to strip AM-drinking of all the Puritanical guilt. Just like someone tipping back unlimited Mimosas, it’s Champagne, yes, but with Vitamin C.
Cracking the code to breakfast booze—basically, just add some grapefruit juice and that absinthe should go just fine with your toast—might be part of the reason. But there’s more to it than that. For instance, people often travel, or just get stuck, in airports in the morning, or mid-morning (basically the 7 or 8 hours that make up acceptable “brunch time”). Even if you’ve just gotten off a plane, chances are you were sleeping, meaning you might crave something morning-appropriate, even if it’s midnight. And then of course there’s the fact that the bright lighting and blindingly whitewashed walls lend your average international airport the eerie glow of perpetual noontime.
High Altitude Taste Change?
But we were wondering if there’s anything beyond brunch psychology—or the strained propriety of airport politesse—that makes people order Bloody Marys and not Jaeger Bombs when in transit. Turns out other (much smarter) people were wondering, too, and the answer at least partially starts with the airplanes themselves. Ever wonder why beverage service on an airplane includes soda, tiny bottles of the hard stuff, a couple basic wine options, and random cans of V8? That’s not an accident. For as long as people have been complaining about airline food, people have been trying to fix it, and what they’ve found is that, beyond factors like cabin pressure and even humidity, noise plays a huge part in taste perception. According to a March 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, airplane cabins tend to blare at a solid, steady 85 decibels, which tends to deaden sweet flavors but up the perception of umami, found in tomatoes (and parmesan cheese, certain spices, and, maybe no coincidence, Worcestershire sauce, an ingredient in the Bloody Mary).
That might explain why people order tomato juice and Bloody Marys in-flight. (Lufthansa sold as much tomato juice as beer in 2013. To Germans, no less). But what about drinking Bloody Marys at airport bars? You’re not in the airplane yet. And while airports are hardly the quietest places on earth, they don’t run anywhere near 85 decibels. It’s also hard to believe there’s’ some kind of anticipatory umami craving when you’re waiting to get onto a loud airplane. That’d be like eating a tub of popcorn and then going to see the new Star Wars movie.
There’s always the chance it’s a physical instinct, that your body is looking to harness the health benefits of tomatoes (and, yes, the anxiety-dulling effects of vodka) prior to enduring the physical assault that is air travel. Think about it, the first thing you’ll hear once you’ve boarded a plane (besides “excuse me, that’s my seat”) is someone sneezing. A mighty, powerful, unharnessed whopper of a sneeze. No surprise, the risk of catching a cold on a flight is about 100 times higher than on land. Then there’s what’s kind of jerkily known as “Economy Class Syndrome,” more technically referred to as Deep Vein Thrombosis, or the condition in which general constriction and immobility cause clots that could, theoretically, travel their way up your blood stream and kill you. (Don’t worry, it’s pretty rare, and can be helped by simply drinking water and occasionally flexing.)
Then there’s the fact that your blood doesn’t carry as much oxygen to your brain during flights, which might be what makes Sky Mall so damn readable at high altitudes. And let’s not forget the radiation. First we had cosmic rays—the stuff we’re exposed to in the air, especially at higher altitudes—and now of course we have X-ray scanners adding to our radioactive travel diet. But that’s really more of a concern for very frequent flyers. Turns out, even with the crazy futuristic scanning, casual flyers get a negligible amount of radiation—2 to 5 millirems on a cross-country flight compared to 10 in a chest X-ray, and the scanner adds a negligible .001 millirem. (If you’re still concerned about your radiation intake don’t worry, there’s an app for that.)
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use Bloody Marys to fight the good fight! First, for the sneeze-phobic, tomatoes have Vitamin C, an immune-booster that’s a lot more fun in a Bloody Mary than Airborne (remember, though, the mitigating effects of vodka). Tomatoes are also packed with lycopene, a potent antioxidant that’s about 10 times more powerful than Vitamin E (and more biologically available when tomatoes are processed). Maybe most exciting—and commercially marketable, it turns out—tomatoes are a natural blood thinner, shown to improve blood flow and blood circulation (clearly a concern on flights, where your oxygen-deprived brain might really consider buying that Remote Control Spider). A study showed that a mere 8 ounces of tomato juice a day could help reduce platelet aggregation (a cause of DVT), but companies like Provexis are taking that a step further with “Fruitflow,” a powder that concentrates tomatoes’ blood-thinning, circulation-improving power to administer, theoretically, on planes (and, potentially, as an athletic supplement?). As fun as a Bloody? No. But for those at risk, likely more effective.
Ah, but what about those cosmic rays? OK, realistically, a Bloody Mary might not do the trick. But tomatoes have been shown to prevent cell damage and fight free radicals. And vodka, of course, has been shown to make the in-flight movie a lot funnier.