A big trip often calls for a toast. Why wait until you arrive at your destination when you could have a drink en route? When flying coach, this line of thought is often followed by disappointment when the drink arrives, and it isn’t quite what you expected. To avoid this from ever happening, Matador spoke with flight attendants from Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Hawaiian Airlines to get the lowdown for you. Here’s what to order and, perhaps most importantly, what to avoid.
The best drinks to order
Best value: ‘Free pour’ wine
When value is your top priority, inquire about the wine. ”If the wine is ‘free pour,’ meaning it’s from a big bottle rather than a split, it’s probably decent wine, and the flight attendant will probably fill your cup all the way up, and maybe top it off if you’re nice,” said an attendant from Alaska Airlines. “That’s my go-to best value drink on a flight.”
Best cocktail: Two ingredient, spirit and mixer drinks
Airlines like to keep it simple when it comes to cocktails. “I’ve been asked for cocktails like Manhattans and daiquiris, and I had to disappoint by saying we don’t have that,” another Alaska Airlines flight attendant told us. “When it comes to cocktails, the classics are always best.” While you can order a well version of most basic liquor-and-mixer combinations, juices won’t be fresh, so it’s better to order something with soda or tonic (except for Diet Coke, which notoriously tastes terrible at 30,000 feet and takes forever to pour).
Budget carriers like Southwest and Spirit often still carry “premium well” options like Tanqueray gin, making a gin and tonic sound extra appealing. Though your booze is likely going to be served in a standard 1.5-oz single serve, so don’t bother asking for a “double.”
Best option for a stiff drink: Straight whiskey
Drinking on an airplane is, in most cases at least, nothing like hanging out at your local dive bar. No matter how many times you fly or how much you sweet talk the flight attendant, your drink is going to contain the same amount of alcohol. But if you’re looking to get tipsy as efficiently as possible, aim for drinks with the highest alcohol content: straight spirits. In particular, neat whiskey tastes delicious without ice, making it an ideal choice. Some airlines even offer premium options for long-haul flights at no cost, like Woodford Reserve bourbon. Plus, skipping ice is a good way to exercise precaution when it comes to your health; the tap water on airplanes has the highest risk of being contaminated.
Best outside-the-box cocktail win: Anything from Hawaiian Airlines
The purveyors at Hawaiian know that their passengers, typically en route to sunny and sandy destinations, are itching to fill an empty hand with a fruity cocktail. They make it easy by selling pre-made versions of island favorites like Mai Tais along with twists on classics using Hawaiian ingredients, like the Li Hing Vodka Gimlet. They cost $8 but are made with actual fruit and no preservatives, so they won’t leave you hungover before you ever get lei’d. Let’s hope more airlines catch on to this amazing perk.
Best DIY drink: Bloody Mary
You may think a Bloody Mary is the worst possible drink to order in the air, thanks to its laundry list of ingredients. And while you’re right — you shouldn’t ask your flight attendant for one — asking for vodka and tomato juice is one of the best things you can order. It’s scientifically proven that savory, umami flavors are heightened in a pressurized cabin whereas sweet flavors are dulled. That’s why tomato juice tastes so darn good at 30,000 feet. While the two-ingredient mix is foolproof, you can go the extra mile by bringing your own Bloody Mary Cocktail kit on board, complete with a mini bottle of Tabasco and some salt and pepper.
Drinks to avoid
Worst value: Sparkling wine
Prosecco, Champagne, and other varieties of sparkling wine typically costing $9 or more and served as a split — meaning you’re getting a small single-serving bottle instead of a freehand pour from the flight attendant — ranked as having the worst value according to the flight attendants surveyed. The alcohol content is lower than in many other options, and you’re likely to drink it faster, meaning you’re going to blow through more money over the course of your flight. Plus, your palate is dulled in the air, so there’s no use paying for something premium when you’re not going to fully appreciate it.
Worst taste: Sweet drinks
As we mentioned earlier, the sweet part of your palate is significantly dulled in a pressurized cabin, which may make things taste “off.” That means, avoid screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice), vodka cranberries, and just about anything else that calls for juice. Also, you don’t really want to roll the dice on how long that juice has been open.
Worst quality: Coffee
“I wouldn’t drink the coffee,” said a flight attendant at JetBlue. This was echoed by other flight attendants, as well — a reflection of quality in both the water and the coffee beans themselves. At best, you’ll be served Starbucks on Delta. At worst, you’ll be served a cup of lukewarm brown muck. Add dairy to the mixed, or a DIY Irish coffee or White Russian, and you’re asking for trouble. Better stop by the coffee shop nearest the gate and fill up before you board.