A well-made Old Fashioned is a fine thing, with the warmth of American whiskey mellowed by sugar, balanced by bitters and brightened by a swath of orange peel. It’s the kind of drink you’d expect any skilled bartender to be adept at making, even if that bartender happened to be flying at 35,000 feet.
So I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that Rachel Freeman, a bartender at the Westside Local, enjoys mixing herself an Old Fashioned whenever she boards an airplane. What fascinated me was how easily a little preparation and effort can transform travel.
“It’s like settling in. Now the vacation starts,” Freeman said of her drink-making ritual. “I don’t care if we hit turbulence. We can be delayed another 30 minutes. I’m good.”
She’s not the only one. Bartenders have long engaged in an informal competition to see who could create the most elaborate cocktails mid-flight.
“Road Soda” (Dovetail Press, 2017) notes things like a Ramos Gin Fizz are possible for anyone willing to carry on an egg, and posts on #MileHighCocktailClub show everything from vintage coupes and stainless steel shakers to a Tiki mug and traditional absinthe drip, called a brouille.
Despite the showmanship, it’s not really about showing off, or even about consuming alcohol, said “Road Soda’s” author, Kara Newman. It’s about creating an experience.
“It’s a little moment of joy that you can make for yourself in the middle of a flight you’ve got to take anyway,” she said. “Why not have fun with it?”
While Newman packs her own supplies, buying a cocktail kit is easier.
Ryan Miller, lead bartender at Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room, had been given a kit of W&P Design’s Carry On Cocktail Kits, and a trip he took to an industry conference in Cleveland seemed a perfect time to try it out. He had the Old Fashioned version includes packets of sugar, a tiny bottle of bitters, coaster, stirrer and recipe card.
The company also sells Gin & Tonic, Moscow Mule, Champagne Cocktail, Bloody Mary, Hot Toddy and Margarita kits, while Cocktails 2 Go offers Old Fashioned, Dirty Martini, Absinthe Louche and Champagne Cocktail versions.
None of them include alcohol, though, and for good reason. While TSA does allow passengers to carry on mini bottles (as long as bottles are less than 3.4 ounces, fit in your quart-size baggie and contain alcohol under 140 proof), opening and consuming carried-on alcohol during your flight is against the rules on most airlines.
A better strategy: Check the airline you’re traveling on to see which spirits it stocks and plan additional ingredients and tools accordingly.
Beyond that, Freeman said, it’s about being polite. Don’t be distracting, and consider sharing with your seatmates. Don’t be greedy — while flight attendants will supply soft drinks, sugar packets, citrus wedges and other ingredients for free, repeated requests for a large or varied quantity of items makes you a nuisance.
Don’t make a mess. Don’t forget to tip your flight attendants; Freeman suggests a dollar or two. And remember it’s meant to be fun.
“Pick one cocktail that you enjoy and stick to the bare bones of what you need for that,” Freeman said. “It’s a small space. It’s not a bar. Just have fun with it.”
And some cocktail lovers find they can build their own kits.
Newman’s go-to is simple enough: pink gin. She carries on miniscule bottle of bitters, buys gin on board and asks for ice, cups and a lime wedge to go with it. Newman favors Angostura bitters, but any brand can be transferred into one of the small glass or plastic dropper bottles sold at specialty stores or online.
Hella Bitters, Scrappy’s, Bitter Truth and other companies also sell sample and travel packs with bottles containing from one-half to one-and-a-half ounces — more than enough for a trip’s worth of cocktails.
“It’s not too difficult, and it’s not something you’re going to get otherwise,” Newman said.
Filling a TSA-approved 3.4-ounce bottle with non-alcoholic ingredients and adding it to your quart baggie of other liquids, gels and so on can further improve your cocktail game.
Bring one with lime juice and another with simple syrup, buy rum from the beverage cart, request a couple lime wedges and you have an airplane daiquiri.
Or upgrade your usual gin and tonic by packing craft tonic syrup. Mixing a brand like Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic with nothing more than club soda also makes for more unique booze-free sipping.
Shops on the far side of security are also a good source for ingredients. Score a bottle of ginger beer, and then mix it with rum and juice from two lime wedges for an on-board Moscow Mule. If you’re truly dedicated, pack a copper mug in your carry-on for serving.
Looking forward to a Bloody Mary? Bring your own spice mix for rimming a glass and packets of hot sauce. Before boarding, look for snack trays or salads with celery, cherry tomatoes, olives, cubed meats or other garnishes to thread onto a straw. Once beverage service starts, order vodka or tequila, tomato juice and lemon or lime wedges and make yours exactly as you like it.
If, despite your efforts, a drink still tastes off, Road Soda offers a list of bartender hacks. A pinch of salt from the bottom of a package of pretzels can brighten citrus notes, while the powder left in a bag of Sour Patch Kids adds both sweet and sour.
Serving-size packets of sugar, salt, pepper, honey and soy sauce (either brought from home or picked up at an airport restaurant) are also handy.
When it comes to tools, use what you have, even if it’s not ideal, recommends Miller. Forgot your single-serving shaker? Use an empty water bottle. Don’t want to pack jigger or strainer? Eyeball and improvise. No collapsible stirrer or even a plastic spoon? No worries.
“Using that little stir stick with the heart on the end that Southwest Airlines gives you to mix the ice with whiskey and sugar, trying to get it to dissolve, takes a while,” Miller said of the Old Fashioneds he made while flying to an industry conference in Cleveland. “They look at you like you’re insane, but it’s worth it.”
Rachel Freeman, a bartender at the Westside Local, made her first in-flight Old Fashioned using a kit from W&P Design, but you don’t need anything more than a miniature bottle of bitters to make your own. Feeling adventurous? Pack along an orange slice or two. Lazy? Substitute a lemon wedge from the beverage cart. Thirsty for variety? Freeman suggests making an Old Fashioned with rum, or even gin. Here’s her whiskey version.
Makes 1 drink
Pack: travel-size bottle of bitters
Ask for: 1 sugar packet, 1 cup of ice, 1 extra empty cup, 1 lemon wedge, plastic stirrer
Buy on board: 1 mini bottle (50ml) of whiskey
Combine whiskey, 2 dashes of bitters and sugar in the empty cup and stir to dissolve sugar. Add ice and stir again. Separate the lemon (or orange, if you brought it) peel from the pulp, and then squeeze or twist the rind over the drink to express the oils. Garnish with lemon peel.
Kara Newman’s “Road Soda” (Dovetail Press, 2017) offers plenty of advice for airplane mixing, but when she flies, she keeps it simple with this go-to.
Makes 1 drink
Pack: travel-size bottle of bitters (Newman uses Angostura), a large plastic cup and a plastic spoon
Buy on board: 1 mini bottle (50ml) of gin
Ask for: a full cup of ice, 2 additional cups and 1 lime wedge
Add 2 dashes bitters to a small cup. Gently tip and rotate the cup to coat the interior with the bitters. If desired, pour the excess bitters into a second cup to use another cocktail, or to dispose of later. Fill a large plastic cup halfway with ice, then add the gin. Stir until chilled, then strain the gin into the prepared cup (use an extra cup or cutlery to hold back the ice). Pull the peel off the lime wedge and use it to garnish the drink.
Ultimate Airplane Daiquiri
Road Soda’s daiquiri is easy to make on a plane, as long as you’re willing to pack along simple syrup and lime juice in TSA-approved packaging and quantities.
Makes 2 drinks
Pack or buy after clearing security: 1 1/2 ounces lime juice, 1 1/2 ounces simple syrup, large plastic cup, jigger, collapsible stirring spoon or plastic spoon
Buy on board: 3 mini bottles (50 ml each) of white rum
Ask for: a full cup of ice, 3 extra cups, 2 lime wedges
Fill a large plastic cup halfway with ice, then add the rum, lime juice and simple syrup. Stir until chilled, then strain into two cups over fresh ice (use an extra cup or cutlery to hold back the ice). Garnish with a lime wedge on the rim of each glass.
Tip: If you’d rather skip the lime juice and simple syrup, Rachel Freeman recommends requesting a sugar packet and 2-3 lime wedges. Squeeze the lime wedges in an empty glass, add sugar and rum, stir to dissolve sugar. Add ice.
According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airline passengers may carry on a single quart-size baggie with liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes. These are limited to 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less per item. While mini bottles of alcohol are permitted, most airlines do not allow passengers to consume alcohol brought on board. Check with the airline you plan to travel on, or play it safe and purchase all alcohol from the flight attendants.