Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

4 Handy Things Bartenders Can Learn from Airline Cocktail Programs

Cathay Pacific’s Cathay Delight, made with kiwi juice, coconut milk and mint powder and garnished with a sprig of mint

Mile-high mixology has its challenges. From lack of space to fast-melting ice, flight attendants playing bartender at 35,000 feet have their work cut out for them. Borrow their out-of-the-beverage cart solutions in the sky for your bar planted on terra firma.

1. Create a Bar Manual

Virgin Atlantic’s 23-page bar basics handbook for bartenders working the airport club lounges covers service protocol tips like “welcome each customer within 15 seconds; if you’re busy, nod or smile” and “know your taste map and your products; listen to their answers.” It also breaks down to-do’s for daily and weekly opening and closing and provides primers on spirits, equipment and techniques like shaking, stirring and rimming. Recipes are accompanied by easily identifiable icons for correct glassware, type of ice and how the drink should be mixed. (Virgin Atlantic is also one of a handful of airlines with a sleek bar on every plane, open to first-class cabin passengers.)

Don’t be daunted at the prospect of creating an elaborate tome, though, especially if you head up a small bar. Find tips and templates online, start with the basics, and tweak and develop over time. A thorough operations guide means guests won’t have to wonder what iteration of a Margarita they’ll end up with depending on who’s behind the stick that night.

Virgin Atlantic’s Red Sky.

2. Be Smart with Your Mixers

With lack of space limiting bar ingredients and not enough time between inter-island hops to mix drinks during beverage service, Hawaiian Airlines sought a creative solution for thirsty travelers. Since 2017, the airline has partnered with On the Rocks, a line of all-natural bottled cocktails. Guests seated in first class are welcomed aboard with the signature Mai Tai. Others can purchase one as well as a Li Hing Vodka Gimlet or the Tropical Landing, made with gin, violet, guava, coconut and citrus.

“Premixed craft cocktails allow airlines to efficiently add new and enticing options to typically traditional beverage fare,” says Renee Awana, the managing director of product development at Hawaiian Airlines. “Creative blends can evoke a sense of place or reflect important brand elements and associations where standard selections don’t.” At high-volume bars or small ones where bartenders are constantly bumping into one another, quality mixes can elevate drinks programs with minimal effort.

On the Rocks Mai Tai for Hawaiian Airlines.

3. Remember Less Is Always More

Even if you’re blessed with enough space to stock shelves overflowing with liqueurs, that doesn’t mean you have to use all of them in every drink. Airplane beverage carts are conservatively stocked for a reason: space is at a premium, with pretty much every inch accounted for and utilized. “Amazing drinks don’t need to be elaborate,” says Mark Murphy, the clubhouse food and beverage manager for Virgin Atlantic. “The cocktails on offer have to match the capabilities of your team as well as the space in which they have to work. [There’s] nothing worse than overpromising and underdelivering.”

Drinks with three and four ingredients (which are pretty much the max ever used on flights) are making a comeback on the ground too. After all, if a cocktail has 15 things in it, you’d probably be hard-pressed to identify or taste even five. Overcomplicating is when it can all go wrong, says Murphy. Virgin Atlantic recently released low-alcohol cocktail choices available in economy, premium and first-class cabins with Regal Rogue Quaffing vermouth from Australia. The Bold Spritz uses Regal Rouge Bold Red vermouth, soda and lemon. The Bold Mule mixes Regal Rogue Bold Red vermouth with Fever-Tree ginger ale and lemon. Both are just as easy to serve as a Gin & Tonic but pack more potent flavor, says Murphy.

Cathay Pacific’s Oriental Breeze, made with sour plum tea, cranberry juice, honey, lemon juice and rosewater.

4. Batch, Batch, Batch

While we may throw back bourbon, bubbly and Bordeaux to take the bite off of a long flight, it’s best to go easy on the hooch midair. Cathay Pacific has a wide variety of spirits, mixers and garnishes on its flights and offers free cocktails in first and business classes and in its lounges (including The Pier, The Deck and The Wing) in Hong Kong. Yet its two nonalcoholic options best speak to the airline’s Asian origins. The Oriental Breeze is a blend of sour plum tea, cranberry juice, honey, lemon juice and rosewater, garnished with a dried rosebud, while the Cathay Delight mixes kiwi juice, coconut milk and mint powder, garnished with a sprig of mint.

Since there’s no bartender on board, the drinks are mixed for the cabin crew to serve. For time-saving tipples, think about the produce, spices or herbs that tie into the concept’s theme or that the region is known for, mix a batch, and build it in the glass.