The history of social drinking is full of dare drinks, glasses you drain to prove your mettle, knowing full well that you may end up wincing or even ill. Most of the layered shots that came out of the 1980s and ‘90s were basically dare drinks. Mezcal, now widely revered, was a dare drink back in the days when the entire category was represented in the United States by a single dusty bottle with a worm in it. Malort, the exceedingly bitter wormwood liqueur that is popular in Chicago, continues today its decades-long reign as a dare drink.
And then there are those drinks that are dares only by virtue of their context. Among these we can number the airport cocktail. Airports live in a sort of moral limbo. You are in a temporal middle ground, off the leash of polite society, and all bets are off in terms of drinking. You can drink whatever you want, whenever you want.
But, of course, one uses common sense. Most frequent flyers order beer and wine or straight spirits, finished products that need only be poured into a glass. If one desires a mixed drink, there are a few relatively safe bets, including the Bloody Mary and Gin & Tonic, which are relatively easy builds. Beyond that, it’s best not to venture.
I know this, because venture I have. For years now, I have taken my life into my own hands by regularly ordering what I call an Airport Martini before nearly every flight. I forget how the habit began. Perhaps I had had a particularly harrowing experience going through security or was facing a very long flight. But soon I was ordering Airport Martinis just for the fun of it, as a gambit, just to see how good or bad the classic cocktail might be rendered.
One can walk into almost any city bar and be confident in getting a fairly decent Martini. It is a universal cocktail of relatively simple construction and most bartenders can bang out a decent version. This is not the case in airports, where the person making your Martini may not be a bartender at all, but a server or other employee doing double duty.
“I think that airports are different from streetside. They are much harder to operate in terms of standards. It just moves slower there.”
I have received Airport Martinis made wholly of gin; made with rancid vermouth; on the rocks when I didn’t ask for rocks; garnished with lemon wedges instead of twists, or with a lime wedge; served in plastic cups; and served in Solo cups. Once, my Martini was delivered on the rocks in a Martini glass, garnished with both a lemon wedge and three olives, the latter speared not by a cocktail pick but a straw.
And, of course, I occasionally get a decent Martini. Not a great one, but a good one.
But could this situation be changing? We are, after all, living through a Martini revival. Surely, the effects of the nation’s current undying thirst for the King of Cocktails have seeped into the terminal, with increased demands for Martinis being met with heightened standards behind the bar.
Well, yes and no.
“That is not my opinion,” says Neal Bodenheimer, when asked if he thinks the quality of cocktails has gone up in airports. “I think that airports are different from streetside. They are much harder to operate in terms of standards. It just moves slower there. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a good Martini at an airport — I think you will be able to in the future — I just think it’s lagged.”
“It’s very difficult to hire anyone for the airport. It’s not a simple process. Turnover rate is less, but to find those downtown bartenders that everyone goes after, that’s not the everyday experience.”
Bodenheimer would know. For four years now, his trailblazing New Orleans cocktail bar Cure has had an outpost at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. But controlling the quality of product and service is difficult. That’s because the airport Cure, like most terminal restaurants and bars, is essentially a franchise operation under the supervision of a mammoth international concession company like Delaware North, OTG, or HMSHost.
“It’s very unusual for an independent operator to be in an airport,” says Bodenheimer. “Almost always you have a licensing deal with one of these airport concessioners. They use your recipes and your brand and execute them to the best of their ability.”
Cure’s entry into Armstrong airport was as part of a package deal assembled by HMSHost that also included such New Orleans eateries as Lucky Dogs and Emeril’s.
As HMSHost’s director of adult beverage on-premise for North America, Adam Bagwell’s duties are vast. He is responsible for choosing all beer, wine, and spirits at more than 400 locations serving alcohol across a whopping 73 airports. He also helps manage the staff training and compliance for all new and existing locations.
“I do think the average quality of cocktail has improved. You can see it in the simple mixers. Ginger beer is a given, even craft bitters. Every menu has a Spritz.”
Hiring airport bartending staff — which is handled by HMSHost, not the bars or restaurants themselves — presents the steepest barrier to stationing good mixologists at airports.
“It’s very difficult to hire anyone for the airport,” says Bagwell, noting the arduous commute and the rigmarole of security one must go through to get to work. “It’s not a simple process. Turnover rate is less, but to find those downtown bartenders that everyone goes after, that’s not the everyday experience.”
Cure, for instance, began its airport tenure with Cure bartenders. But once they discovered they would not be making the kind of money they’d make in town, they left, and were replaced by HMS with less experienced people who required training.
Bagwell likened across-the-board improvement in airport drinking to turning an ocean liner around. It can be done, and, in his opinion, things are headed in the right direction, but it takes a long time. The transition is one of many small steps. For instance, HMS recently upgraded its house sweet vermouth at all its locations from the routine Martini & Rossi to the more epicurean Carpano Antica. And it added the Espresso Martini to the menu at 300 of its locations.
“I do think the average quality of cocktail has improved,” says Jane Danger, who, as a national mixologist for Pernod Ricard, works with the national accounts team to design cocktail recipes and training for their airport bars and restaurants. “You can see it in the simple mixers. Ginger beer is a given, even craft bitters. Every menu has a Spritz.”
As for finding the best Martini in any given airport, Danger recommends the same strategy one might deploy in any town or city: Read the room.
“The same rules go for ordering at an airport bar as go for ordering a Martini elsewhere out in the world,” she says. “Be clear about your order. Sometimes, if they are backed up, I will get a Beefeater on the rocks with olives.”
Bagwell suggests using the menu as a good starting point.
“If there are classic cocktails on the menu, they’ve gone through our training program,” he says.
There are signs of hope that Martini quality in airports will someday approach that of regular bars. Jim Meehan, the noted barman who cofounded PDT and ran it for many years, is the mixologist for the entire network of American Express Centurion lounges, and is responsible for creating the recipes featured at each lounge. He is making an effort to bring the innovations of the modern cocktail den to the airline bar.
“I have a number of Martini variations on our menus,” Meehan says. Among them are the Jumpseat in Charlotte (Grey Goose vodka, Cocchi Americano, and Italicus); the Lillet Over at LAX (Plymouth gin, Lillet, and Absolut vodka); the Navel Gazer in Miami (Absolut Mandarin vodka, Lillet, and Cointreau); and a new one for the forthcoming D.C. lounge called the Haku Hanami (cherry blossom-infused Haku vodka with Dolin Blanc and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur).
In September, HMS opened a pre-security venue in Atlanta called A Bar & Grill, where they make their own vermouth, olive brine, and stuffed olives. There are four different Martinis on the menu. “That was partly in response to the Martini boom,” Bagwell says.
And in 2024, the Raleigh-Durham International Airport will see the opening of the Conniption Gin Cocktail Bar & Restaurant, named after the gin made by the Durham Distillery.
“Conniption has full control over the menu and marketing, so we will ensure that there is strategic alignment to the brand,” says Melissa Green Katrincic, co-founder of Durham Distillery. “Additionally, while we do not hire the team, we will be training them both at the distillery and on site. Best example will be the continuation of our subzero Martinis served at our on-site distillery bar, as these will be the same batch recipes executed at the airport bar.”
Bodenheimer, too, sees batched Martinis in the future of Cure’s airport location as a way to control quality and consistency in cocktails.
“We live in a world where you take for granted you can always get a good cocktail,” he says. “But there are still a lot of places where there is still work to do.”
The article A Decent Martini Is Finally Arriving at Your Airport, But Expect Delays appeared first on VinePair.