Beyond the endless shuffleboard and all-you-can eat buffets, there’s another reason people book cruise vacations: to drink. Booze is the number one cash cow on most major cruise lines, accounting for roughly one third of all onboard revenue. That’s more than food, shopping and entertainment.
And to what can be attributed our sudden thirst on the high seas? Over the past few years, cruise companies have doubled down on their beverage programs, including drink-making classes, locavore wine lists and celebrity bartenders. Say goodbye to the days of the watered-down deckside Piña Colada and hello to the glorious future of big-boat drinking. These are five trends pushing the cruise business into the booze business.
Big Name Bartenders Join the Fleet
Holland America’s Elite Beverage package lets passengers taste some of legendary barman Dale DeGroff’s top cocktails like a Sidecar riff called the Ritz Carlton, and the genever-based Midnight Sun, created to celebrate 70 years of the cruise line exploring Alaska. Crystal Cruises has long worked with Tony Abou-Ganim, and Seabourn cruise line has partnered with Brian Van Flandern, named America’s Top Mixologist by Food Network. Van Flandern’s role includes upgrading bar offerings, creating handcrafted drinks that utilize ingredients procured from local markets that ships visit, and training staff across the fleet on classic and modern drinks.
Boats Are the New Beverage Schools
“The new generation of travelers is seeking immersive experiences,” says Ellen Bettridge, the CEO of U by Uniworld, a river cruise line. Cocktails, beer and wines hailing from the current port city are served on-board, where guests are encouraged to grab a brush, canvas and glass during a wine and painting class or perfect their smoked Manhattan skills at immersive cocktail sessions led by the boat’s bartenders. After the paint dries, passengers are invited to lounge with their liquid masterpiece on a daybed on the deck while watching Old Europe pass by.
Boutique Shore Excursions Are Born
It used to be that shore excursions were for those who wanted to go snorkeling or climb a Mayan ruin. But nowadays you’re just as likely to disembark for an afternoon of Margaritas and salsa-making in Mazatlán or a history lesson on the significance of Russian vodka in St. Petersburg. All are offered on Princess Cruises in collaboration with Bon Appétit. On select Crystal Cruises excursions during port days, oenophiles can taste the island’s namesake wine on Madeira at a family-run producer in Funchal, slurp oysters and sip local bottles in Tasmania and discover South African chenin blanc and pinotage along the Western Cape.
“These boutique excursions are available to an extremely limited number of participants,” says Ross Martin, the corporate beverage manager of Crystal Cruises. “Intimate and enriching, they allow guests to explore a particular topic of interest or destination in depth with the guidance of a local expert in a private setting.”
Cocktail Menus Tell a Story
Princess Cruises and master bartender Rob Floyd recently unveiled a new drink menu mirroring the destinations of its 17 ships. It includes 20 drinks such as the Mayan Heat, a Margarita with muddled jalapeño; and the Italian Sunset, made with gin, Aperol, lemon and Angostura bitters. “While our guests will always love umbrella drinks, they’re also expecting a wider, more modern selection of beverages that reflect the global palate,” says Bob Midyette, the director of guest beverage operations.
Crystal Cruises pays homage to Iberian Gin & Tonic culture, which Martin describes as “the Spanish-style freedom to dream up innovative recipes using the freshest ingredients and garnishes.” Nineteen variants are served in large copa de balon glasses, like the April in Positano (made with Gordon’s gin, limoncello, Campari and Mediterranean tonic water) and the Tonic Delight (made with Sipsmith gin, rose water, grapefruit bitters, Indian tonic water, a grapefruit slice and rosebuds.)Continue to 5 of 5 below.
New Ships Stack the Deck
While veteran cruise lines have the difficult job of convincing guests that they’ve graduated from the dark ages of “Love Boat”-level blender drinks, new companies are hitting the water full steam ahead. The adults-only Virgin Voyages cruise line debuted its first ship, the Scarlet Lady, in 2020. It’s going all-in on its beverage offerings, including freshly made-to-order craft cocktails at its bars. Soju shots kick off every meal at its Korean barbecue restaurant Geonbae. And during drag brunches at veggie-forward casual restaurant Razzle Dazzle, sailors can quaff the Yaasss Queen!, made with hibiscus, ginger, ruby-red disco dust, Hella citrus bitters and bubbles, or the Rizzle Dizzle, a mix of gin, lime, elderflower, tonic, black pepper, egg white and CBD-oil-infused foam.