Beyond the endless shuffleboard and all-you-can eat buffets, there’s another reason people book cruise vacations: to drink. Booze is the No. 1 cash cow on most major cruise lines, accounting for roughly a third of all onboard revenue. That’s more than food, shopping and entertainment.
And what can we attribute to 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.
Princess Cruises and master bartender Rob Floyd recently unveiled a new drink menu mirroring the destinations of its 17 ships. It includes 20 high-end and exotic spirits and drinks like 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 Ross Martin, the corporate beverage manager for Crystal Cruises, 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.)
“The new generation of travelers is seeking immersive experiences,” says Ellen Bettridge, the CEO of U by Uniworld, a new 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 pain dries, passengers are invited to lounge with their liquid masterpiece on a daybed on the deck while watching Old Europe pass by.
Holland America’s Elite Beverage package lets passengers taste some of legendary barman Dale DeGroff’s top cocktails like the Sidecar riff 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, to upgrade bar offerings, create handcrafted drinks utilizing ingredients procured from local markets that ships visit and train staff across the fleet on classic and modern drinks.
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. Virgin Voyages recently announced that its first ship, the Scarlet Lady, will set off on its maiden voyage in 2020, sailing to the Caribbean from Miami, with some sailings including Havana. The adults-only cruise line plans to go all-in on its beverage offerings, including freshly made-to-order craft cocktails at its bars. Soju shots will 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.
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 Margarita 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 during estate along the Western Cape.
“These boutique excursions are available to an extremely limited number of participants,” says Martin. “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.”