It is reverently called the “The water of life” by the millions whose throats it has trickled down since 1493, when eight bolls of malt were given to Friar John Cor to distill 1,500 bottles of liquid fire.
It was therefore not a coincidence that Imperial Airways, British Airways’ antecedent first introduced its in-flight catering service in 1927 with whisky as one of only two alcoholic drinks on offer. Today, whiskey remains a firm favourite on the menus in all cabins on international flights, as well as domestic services.
Why is scotch still on its perch atop flight menu orders after nearly 90 years in the skies? Chris Cole, British Airways’ food & beverage and product change manager, believes one of the reasons could be the cabin environment.
In 1927, for example, aircraft flew relatively low and were not pressurised, so a swift slug of whisky would have been a good way to counter the cold. This isn’t a problem in modern jet aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, with their advanced climate control systems. But there is another issue.
These aircraft cruise at around 35 000 feet and the cabin is pressurised to 8 000 feet. Under these conditions most people lose about 30% of their ability to taste, so food can seem bland and insipid and a finely balanced wine which may taste wonderful on the ground loses all its subtlety.
Not so with whisky, especially malts, which pack plenty of flavour. Single malts are made from malted barley at one distillery as opposed to blended whiskies, which, as the name suggests, are a blend of malt and grain whiskies from various distilleries. They tend to be smoother than malts.
If you didn’t know this, you’re in good company. Many people don’t, particularly as blended whiskies such as Famous Grouse, Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal account for some 80% of the market.
Typically, as is the case on the ground, blends tend to be a more popular choice in the air, probably because these are familiar to most whisky drinkers. Malts are distinctive and, for most people, more of an acquired taste.
According to Cole, another trend on the ground that’s reflected in the air is the growing popularity of rivals to traditional Scotch whisky. In the UK, Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey has overtaken Famous Grouse as the top seller. It is also becoming a more popular choice in the air.
“Obviously we can’t carry every brand of whiskey, but we do try to offer the most popular and this includes brands such as Jack Daniels, alongside the popular Scottish and Irish brands, with some single malts in Club World and First.”
So how should you ask for your whisky to be served at 35 000 feet?
“Whichever way you enjoy it,” urges Chris. “There can be a lot of pretentiousness about whisky. For example purists will ask for a whisky or malt, never a Scotch and can be judgmental about having it on the rocks, but ultimately it’s really down to how you prefer it.”
The argument for not having whisky, especially a malt, on the rocks is that the ice numbs the mouth, deadening the taste buds, robbing the drinker of the full flavour. Neat or with a small dash of water to accentuate the flavours is what traditionalists recommend.
However you enjoy it, next time you’re on a flight relaxing with a glass of your favourite whisky, you’ll be in good company with the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Kingsley Amis, David Niven, Queen Victoria and even Mark Twain, all of whom had a fondness for the water of life.