In-flight bars: flights with cocktail hour at 40,000 feet

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.

Mix and mingle

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 serviced 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.

Korean Air's A380 also has a dedicated bar (sponsored by Absolut Vodka), but doesn't fly that particular aircraft to Australia. Most other airlines flying the Airbus A380 – including Qantas and Asiana – have settled for a smaller lounge nook, sometimes with a selection of snacks and drinks nearby.

Cocktail sipper's guide

Having previously looked at how to choose the right wines on your flight, this time around we're turning our attention to cocktails.

As with all in-flight 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.


High Flyer 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.

Martinis and 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," 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."

He 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."

Ashton also calls out the 'breakfast martini' on Emirates' inflight cocktail list. This is made from gin infused with 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.

Do you have a favourite in-flight tipple? Let us know in the comments section below. 

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.