Issue Six Joe Bates Travel Retail

Are airlines hearing the craft gin boom?

Which gin to go for when miles high

By Joe Bates

Airlines, starved of onboard space and eager to pander to mainstream tastes, haven’t served gin-loving travellers particularly well over the years. If a passenger fancied a G&T during their flight, Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire or Beefeater were probably the only options offered to them. Schweppes was likely to be the only tonic going. The same safe choices were also offered to travellers wanting to buy a duty-free bottle of gin onboard, to take with them.

Now that the gin boom has matured, has the gin offer onboard popular airlines improved? Let’s start our above-the-clouds gin tour with British Airways, much maligned for ditching a complimentary economy onboard dining offer, but at least the UK flag carrier offers three gins to passengers in standard class – the ever-dependable Bombay Sapphire (£4.50 for 50ml), the dry, juniper-led Sipsmith (£6) and the Africa-inspired Whitley Neill Rhubarb & Ginger (£6).

If you wish to buy a bottle mid-flight, British Airways’ onboard shopping programme features the familiar Bombay Sapphire (£20 for 1-litre) and Gordon’s (£13 for 1-litre), as well as the popular Beefeater London Dry Pink Gin (£14), Whitley Neill Blood Orange Gin (£25) and the super-premium The Botanist Islay Dry Gin (£35). The latter is a floral, sweet small-batch gin made at the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay. It combines nine classic gin botanicals with 22 local ones sourced on Islay, such as downy birch, red clover flowers and water mint leaves.

Now, we move on to Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, which partnered with Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds last year to offer the Deadpool star’s Aviation Gin at its Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses and onboard its flights, where it is priced at £20 for a 70cl bottle. Other duty-free choices for gin lovers travelling onboard Virgin flights include the light, floral Bloom London Dry Gin (£25), the macho-looking Bulldog Gin (£28) with its black bottle and unusual botanicals (Chinese lotus leaves and Turkish white poppies), and Pinkster Small Batch Raspberry Gin (£30), a Cambridgeshire-based 37.5% ABV gin infused with real raspberries.

Our whistle-stop tour of the inflight gin scene wouldn’t be complete, of course, without mentioning Ryanair, the Irish low-cost airline, which is infamously tough with its carry-on baggage rules (to the annoyance of duty-free retailers). A limited selection of duty-free spirits is available on selected non-European Union Ryanair flights, but the gin offer is just one brand, the ubiquitous Gordon’s, priced at €14 for a 1-litre bottle.

If you want a G&T onboard, however, the Ryanair offer does improve a little. Whitley Neill Rhubarb & Ginger and Hendrick’s are the two premium pouring gins on offer, priced at a rather steep €8 each, while the dependable Bombay Sapphire is priced lower at €6. The airline offers its customers a ‘Skinny G&T’ comprising Britvic low calorie tonic and Bombay Sapphire priced at €8.

Another airline that perhaps could do better on the gin front is Emirates, which last year announced an overhaul of its onboard pouring spirits menu, bringing in over 30 new brands after a two-year review. There are some fantastic spirits in the new line up but only three gin brands make the cut – Sipsmith, Beefeater and the rather special Bombay Sapphire Star of Bombay. The latter is a super-premium, 47.5% ABV, version of Bombay, rich, intense and made with two exotic additional botanicals (Calabrian orange peel and Ecuadorian Ambrette seed).

In Asia, where inflight duty-free shopping is still more popular than other regions, gin appears to take more of a back seat to the traditional favourites of Scotch whisky and Cognac. Singapore Airlines does better than most, offering customers the unusual Italian gin Bacûr, from Veneto-based Bottega, priced at US$39 for a 50cl bottle. Presented in a stunning copper-coloured bottle, this fresh, clean-tasting gin features sage and lemon zest among its botanicals, would make an unusual addition to any gin collection.

Our airline gin guide has, of course, only skimmed the surface of the brands available to gin lovers at 33,000 feet, but my impression is that many airlines could be offering their customers a better range, especially when you consider how much time and energy the big carriers invest in choosing their wines. Am I being too harsh? What gins have you found in the inflight catalogue – why not let us know? 

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