Whether you’re celebrating the start of a much-needed vacation, killing time during a layover or calming your nerves during a bumpy flight, sometimes nothing but an adult beverage will do. And while airport and airplane bar programs have made some improvements over the years, most aren’t exactly known for their exceptional drinks.
From sampling local craft beer to mixing your own drinks in flight, we surveyed top beverage professionals for their tips for hacking your drinks on the fly.
1. Try a Local Beer
Devin Kennedy, the head bartender at New York City’s Pouring Ribbons, admits that he rarely gets to the airport in time to indulge in a preflight drink. But when he has a layover or flight delay, a local beer is a “tried and true” choice. “I really like to try beer native to wherever I am, and you can get some really cool craft beers at the airport these days,” he says.
Scott Stroemer, the head bartender at The Laurel Room and Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, agrees. “Even in the smallest airports, where there may not be a good restaurant, there’s always a bar with at least one tap of something good and local,” he says. “I like to try a pint of something I haven’t had before and keep a checklist of everything new I drink.”
2. Keep It Simple
When it comes to cocktails, Stroemer recommends “treating airport bars like wedding bars: Keep it simple.” His go-to is a Gin & Tonic, because “even if all they have is Schweppes, it’s still a decent bottle of tonic.” Or as Patrick Schultz, a bartender at Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club, says, “Gin & Tonics pretty much taste great anywhere.”
Kennedy also suggests sticking to basic drinks with a one-to-one ratio, like a Jack & Coke or Gin & Soda. “You want something that no one can mess up,” he says. “The airport bar is not the place to order a Negroni.”
Gemma Cole, a national brand ambassador for Aberlour, takes a similar approach. “If I do drink before a flight, it’s often a Whiskey Soda,” she says. “The soda part is crucial, because while I love whiskey and still want a really nice high-quality drink, it keeps me from getting so dehydrated.”
3. Sip Sommelier-Selected Wine
For those of us stuck in basic economy, in-flight wine options have gotten an upgrade over the past few years. According to Kennedy, “I’m a big wine guy, and it’s usually a pretty solid option, especially with so many sommeliers consulting on programs and picking out good wines. I had a great Beaujolais on a recent flight to Japan on All Nippon Airways.”
Adam Berlin, the owner of Atlanta’s Big Sky and Buena Vida, points to wines like the Italian Pertinace Barbera D’Alba hand-selected by master sommelier Andrea Robinson on select Delta Air Lines flights as one of the better in-air options.
When he’s not drinking wine, Berlin often carries on mini bottles of Woodford Reserve to make a DIY highball. “Just order ginger ale, pour it in and top with water,” he says.
Erick Castro, the co-founder of San Diego’s Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves, admits he has packed everything from a shaker to mint for mixing his own in-flight drinks, he recommends a simpler hack for a high-quality cocktail. “Order a bourbon on the rocks with bitters and a twist, then open up a sugar packet and sweeten as needed to make a killer Old Fashioned,” he says.
Evan Wolf, the beverage manager of The Company Burger in New Orleans, employs a similar strategy. “My go-to midair cocktail order is a build-my-own highball. I order a mini bottle of Dewar’s, get a can of soda water, ask for a packet of the lemon substitute, construct the drink and chug the rest of the soda,” he says. “It’s refreshing, virtually sugar-free and super tasty without having to resort to any ingredient smuggling or covert cocktail shaking.”
5. Mind Your Consumption
Cole, who will often skip the booze when traveling for work, recommends drinking in moderation, even if traveling for pleasure. “Airports are becoming more eco-friendly with water-refilling stations, so I challenge myself to drink one 16-ounce bottle before I get to security and one before I get on the plane, and then I refill it again,” she says.
“Alcohol affects your body differently when flying at altitude in recycled air than it does in a normal setting like a bar, restaurant or your home,” she says. “So go ahead and get that whiskey on the rocks; just ask for water on the side for some extra hydration.”