The best cocktails to enjoy when you're flying

By David Flynn, January 3 2018
The best cocktails to enjoy when you're flying

The next time anyone starts bleating that air travel long ago ceased to be something special, I’ve got three words for them: Airbus A380 bar.

Admittedly the big double-decker jet is a bit of a whale from the outside – and can worryingly look like a sardine can with wings – but several airlines have fitted a drinks lounge on the upper deck, where bartenders serve a top selection of tipples to business class and first class travellers.

The cocktail bar at the tail-end of Emirates’ A380 upper deck has become a favourite haunt for many business travellers and frequent flyers, even if it’s just a way to stretch your legs or a change of scenery on long flights.

On Qatar Airways’ superjumbo a curvaceous combo bar/lounge nestles at the rear of the business class cabin, with sweeping sofa-style seating.

And while Qatar’s A380 boasts one of the world’s best business class seats, I happily spent half a recent flight from London to the airline’s Doha hub relaxing on the bar’s long padded benches, reading a book and chatting with fellow travellers.

Etihad Airways’ A380 – now flying between Sydney and Abu Dhabi, then on to London – offers a lounge and bar christened The Lobby.

Inspired by the Arabian concept of the Majlis, which is a space where guests are met and entertained, The Lobby includes a semi-circular leather sofa, a marquetry table and a 32 inch screen with live TV.

(Most other airlines flying the Airbus A380 – including Qantas, Korean Air and Asiana – have settled for a smaller lounge nook, sometimes with a selection of snacks and drinks nearby.)

Read: Airbus A380 ‘bar wars’: Qatar, Emirates and Etihad

An inflight guide to cocktails

As with all inflight food and drink, the effects of altitude change the way you perceive flavours.

Your tastebuds become as much as one-third less sensitive, while fragrance – a key part of the taste experience – is also pushed into the background. So what cocktails are best suited to the high flying life?

Australian Business Traveller asked award-winning bartender Luke Ashton – currently mixing his magic at This Must Be The Place in Sydney’s hip Darlinghurst neighbourhood – for expert tips to enjoying cocktails at 40,000 feet.

Margaritas stay on the ground

First up, avoid subtle cocktails and steer towards drinks with a pronounced body, even ones which might sometimes be a bit much for you on the ground.

“Nuanced cocktails such as martini style drinks are going to feel flat and one- dimensional” at altitude, Ashton reveals.

“The delicate floral and citrus will be lost on the nose and subsequently the drink will taste mainly of alcohol.”

If you’ve got to have that martini, ask for it to be served in a wine glass to help concentrate the aromas and rebuild the drink’s true character.

At the same time, some flavours in a drink can become more prominent and throw the carefully-crafted mix out of balance.

Ashton says margaritas and daiquiris are subject to such overloads, especially where citrus is concerned, so save those for the airport lounge.

Instead, lean towards vermouth-based drinks. “These deliver a range of flavours from bright clean citrus through to rich, dark complex spices” Ashton says.

“Drink over ice with a slice of lemon for a Dry or Bianco vermouth, or a slice of orange for Sweet or Rouge variations, and add a splash of soda for even more refreshment.” 

The unbeatable Bloody Mary

Ashton’s ‘go-to’ cocktails for an in-flight bar are very straightforward.

“The savoury, brothy flavour of ‘umami’ remains unchanged by altitude, which makes the ubiquitous Bloody Mary an ideal choice. Tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce are packed with umami notes, so it will always taste as good in the air as on the ground.”

(If you'd rather avoid alcohol, just ask for a Virgin Mary or 'spicy tomato juice' – you'll get the same delicious flavour without the vodka.)

Ashton also recommends one of this writer’s favourites, the espresso martini.

“Coffee tastes good everywhere and at all times. Bittersweet with rich dark flavours, it won't disappoint.”

He also calls out the ‘breakfast martini’ on Emirates’ inflight cocktail list.

This is made from gin infused with bittersweet orange marmalade, a dash of fresh lemon, Cointreau and a splash of fresh orange juice.

“It’s a simple sweet and sour cocktail that would be a nice little starter” he suggests.

What's your choice of inflight cocktails?


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Nov 2014

Total posts 367

Bit off topic here, but I like the first picture of the old first class! It would be nice if you can write an article of how first and business class evolved in the last 20 years. 

Fantastic idea Michael. I would stretch to 30 years, the wide body trijets F and J class were quite nice. DL, BA, CX etc had some impresive products.

29 Jan 2012

Total posts 108

David, I would also be interested to read a column featuring First class air travel over the past 40 years. What have we gained and what have we lost as passengers over the decades. I feel many of ABT's readers may enjoy the discussion point.

Sipping a Slow Comfortable Screw in Business Class on an over priced transpacific flight would be somewhat poetic.

30 Aug 2013

Total posts 445

The Cloud Nine cocktail I had on CX J recently was the best cocktail I have ever had on a plane - sharp, zingy and lively. I had several!

07 Aug 2012

Total posts 197


British Airways - Executive Club

28 Mar 2014

Total posts 75

One of my favourites also; along with AA Bloody Mary, even though it is made from packaged ingredients

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

14 Jan 2014

Total posts 330

Love me self a Bloody Mary as my first drink on a plane... It's become a tradition and American Airlines does the best on I've had so far.

British Airways Executive Club Gold

25 Jun 2015

Total posts 22

I agree that AA's Bloody Mary is the best in the sky. The Mr and Mrs T Bloody Mary mix is fantastic!

16 Oct 2015

Total posts 6

Yes, I agree with you, however it is best not to read the list of ingredients - with its' industrial grade chemicals.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Feb 2016

Total posts 24

They do a great Bloody Mary in the AA lounge at LAX too!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Apr 2013

Total posts 57

Recently had the espresso martini on the EK A380 bar - bittersweet and memorable.

Air New Zealand - Airpoints

08 Aug 2014

Total posts 41

The BEST in-flight cocktail(s) I ever had was a Boody Mary(ies) - hehe - in a lovely spacious seat in a near-empty cabin on an Air New Zealand flight on a cloudless morning between Hawaii and LA. That was in the day (1990) when jets didn't have the range to go fully trans-Pacific so you did US Customs clearance in Honolulu early in the morning and then carried on. God, what a fantastic drinking experience! I can still taste it and I haven't had a Bloody Mary that good since.  

Singapore Airlines - The PPS Club

14 Nov 2013

Total posts 42

Nothing beats a glass or 3 of Krug in the pointy end of an SQ flight!


Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

23 May 2014

Total posts 128

Best ever inflight cocktail for me was the signature Australian Sunrise on Virgin Australia when they introduced the A330 business class. Sadly it didn't survive the cuts - it was fabulous. Sweet and sour with a hint of ginger.

I wish they would bring it back...

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Feb 2017

Total posts 12

I absolutely concur with the breakfast martini on EK being a must have! Flying into LHR a couple of years ago sipping on a couple of those with breakfast was a great way to start our UK/EU holiday. To add to the experience it was a sunny morning in London and the view flying over the Thames was quite the picture! BUT that Newman's words...."JAMBALAYA!!"

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

05 Jun 2017

Total posts 29

Cosmopolitan in Emirates F and B cabins. Love it!

British Airways - Executive Club

28 Mar 2014

Total posts 75

Singapore Sling on SQ is wonderfully refreshing: we were delayed 3 hours at LHR 15 or so years ago and the crew got out the satay and drinks :-) 

06 Dec 2014

Total posts 28

The bar in the Emirates A380 not only provides you with a chance to stretch your legs but also to talk to other travelers. On my recent BNE/LHR trip it also took me comfortably towards my sleeping time. Even the BNE/AKL journey can give you a good 90 minutes chewing the fat. Better, IMO, than watching inflight movies.


Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 745

Oh for the days of distinguished double breasted jackets and contrasting silk squares, now - that was First Class. Today's punters all look so casual.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jul 2017

Total posts 23

I would like some advice from the community. I fly International either once or twice per year. My issues relates to being able to sleep. Too many glasses of wine or cocktails give me a headache. Taking a sleeping pill with a few wines or cocktails doesn't work either. I travel usually F or J. Members experience or recommendations would be appreciated. To USA in Sept and Europe in January, all F sectors.


Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

23 May 2014

Total posts 128

F you say? I would just stay awake and enjoy the service! ;)

Kidding - my top tip, don't try to sleep in your clothes, change into something comfortable and appropriate - if you tend to feel too hot on planes wear shorts or if too cold then a tracksuit. If not bothered then the airline issued PJs are fine, but most important is something super comfortable you'd be happy to sleep in at home.

If there is anything you need to make your bed more comfortable just ask the crew, particularity in F they will be happy to help. Extra pillow, extra blanket to sleep on, etc.

I find 777s get too stuffy, unfortunately most airlines have taken out the air vents (next great seat innovation waiting to happen: built in air vents with personal temperature control like a car... you heard it here first ;)) - I once saw someone bring a personal USB powered misting fan to help them sleep... looked like a great idea, haven't been brace enough to try it yet.

Finally if a few cocktails help you sleep on the ground then go for it, or eating carbs or not eating... whatever works best on the ground.

If sleep is just not happening, give up and watch a movie, order another cocktail and a snack, don't think about it. You can always try later.

These would be my top tips - enjoy the flight :)

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

11 May 2017

Total posts 15

To add to some of the valuable tips Zac has listed, I'd suggest listening to 60 bpm music.

Combine this with a cocktail/non-alcoholic beverage that you associate with feeling relaxed and it will set your body into rhythm.

I used to find the Singapore Slings were enjoyable on SQ but the last few flights have provided poor quality variants.

Also recommend avoiding bubbles or cocktails containing caffeine (e.g. espresso martini) for obvious reasons.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Apr 2013

Total posts 57

Melatonin 3-5mg works a charm. Also good for jetlag. You can get 100 tablets at a pharmacy in the US. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jul 2017

Total posts 23

Dragonfly, thanks for the advice, can one buy in Aus?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Apr 2013

Total posts 57

Yes, available as a homeopathic tablet at pharmacies and nature stores. I think there is also a prescription only one called Circadin. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jul 2017

Total posts 23

Zac, thanks for the advise.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

26 Apr 2016

Total posts 24

I have to state the obvious here: ANY cocktail mid air is a great one.

Because it means you are flying either Business or First.....

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