Why drinking alcohol on a plane is a totally different experience

After scrambling around packing and doing all the last minute things you need to do before getting on a plane, the sight of a smiling flight attendant offering you a wine can be very welcome.

Planes are one of the few places you can actually sit down and relax with a drink without finding a million other things that need to be done and airlines like Air New Zealand offer passengers a lovely variety of wines.

Why drinking alcohol on a plane is a totally different experience
Photo credit: Cathay Pacific

So what kind of tipple should you order?
 

The answer is more complex than you might imagine, as I found out on a recent tasting session with Ronald Khoo, assistant manager for beverages at Cathay Pacific.

He told me that drinking wine in the sky is much more complex than drinking wine on the ground, for reasons I hadn’t truly considered before.

"Due to the cabin pressure, your senses are 30 to 40 percent dulled, so anything that’s very subtle at home could end up almost tasteless on a plane," said Khoo.

That makes sense, as I - like most people - have experienced that dry nose you get onboard and this makes it much harder to smell, a crucial part of perceiving flavour in anything.

Khoo said there’s a complex process to go through in order to select wines that work in this challenging environment.

"Due to the cabin pressure, your senses are 30 to 40 percent dulled"
"Due to the cabin pressure, your senses are 30 to 40 percent dulled" Photo credit: Cathay Pacific

"We do a blind tasting of up to 500 wines to get it down to a final 80," he said.

"We need to go with bigger flavours, but we also have to be careful of tannin levels - tannins increase in the sky, so we need to balance them out so nothing’s too acidic. The other factor is vibration, which also has an effect."

Crikey, it seems like a far bigger decision to choose a glass of something fabulous when I’m on a flight!

Khoo recommends sticking with a varietal with big flavour, so it doesn’t matter if it loses some ooomph in the air.

"If you’re going for champagne, maybe try one which has more intense character – some toasty/yeasty notes but with sufficient fruit and fresh acidity to balance it all," he said.

"For reds, something fruity like a Shiraz, or Beaujolais would work well and if you’re after a white - a fruity intense Sauvignon Blanc, a burgundy white or a non-oaky Chardonnay would be a good choice."

Some of New Zealand's best wines are being served onboard their flights
Some of New Zealand's best wines are being served onboard their flights Photo credit: Getty Images

So what if you feel like a spirit? Khoo reckons tomato juice tastes amazing in the sky, so a Bloody Mary is an excellent option.

"Tomatoes are rich in umami, which is not affected by altitude, so its savoury flavour really comes to the fore. Some people report enjoying tomato juice onboard when they are not really fans in everyday life."

As for anything else with your vodka, just make sure it has a strong flavour so you can enjoy it properly.

So next time you’re about to order your usual favourite, give some thought to whether it’s bold enough to taste just as great at an altitude of 35,000 feet. And remember to be careful and have water in between those alcoholic drinks, as dehydration happens far more rapidly in the cabin and you don’t want to get off the other end feeling awful, before your holiday has even begun.

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