Bar Talk: Cocktails Take Flight

On-premise operators at airports serve mixology-driven drinks.

One Flew South in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport offers world-class cocktails to international travelers.
One Flew South in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport offers world-class cocktails to international travelers. (Photo by James Camp)

Thanks to security restrictions, crowds and other annoyances, airports aren’t particularly known for their hospitality these days. But some airport bars, restaurants and lounges are changing that image with sophisticated cocktail programs that bring style and flair back to travel.

It’s only fitting that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, is home to a world-class restaurant and cocktail bar. At One Flew South, the only common theme is that guests are travelers. “We have so many walks of life coming through,” says master mixologist Tiffanie Barriere. “I try to follow the energies that come in.”

Bourbon and gin cocktails rule the roost at One Flew South, in part because they pair well with chef Duane Nutter’s “Southernational” menu of world specialties prepared with regional and local ingredients. Signature cocktails include the Pretty Brown Eyes ($13), comprising Eagle Rare Bourbon, Bénédictine liqueur and lemon juice, with Ben Marco Malbec floated on top. One peculiarity of the airport location is its rapid turnover. “We do have rushes—they’re just not like other restaurants,” she notes. And sourcing ingredients can be difficult. “My preferred bitters, such as Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange, can be a challenge to get in bulk,” Barriere says.

Ice, a cocktail bar in Chicago O’Hare International Airport, knows how to handle logistics: It’s run by the hospitality company HMSHost, which operates dining venues in over 100 airports worldwide. The bar, which opened in June 2012, embraced mixology from the outset. “We wanted to be a part of the cocktail trend,” says director of restaurant development Doug Draper. Ice focuses on vodka in an effort to be approachable to everyone, including guests who are less familiar with mixology. Ice offers more than 20 vodkas by the glass ($8 to $15 a 1-ounce pour). “All the vodka is displayed in ice, so you can have a chilled shot without diluting the spirit,” Draper explains.

Signature drinks ($14) contribute 24 percent of sales at Ice and include the Winter Solstice, comprising Ketel One Oranje vodka, clementine juice, fresh lemon juice, sugar and rosemary, and the Blueberi Smash, made with Stoli Blueberi vodka, simple syrup, lemon juice, mint and blackberries. “We’re going to do a version of the Blueberi Smash for our national program because of its popularity at Ice,” Draper says. Wine and beer also have their place at the bar, as Ice seeks to create a “balanced offering” across all three categories, Draper adds. HMSHost is now expanding the Ice concept to St. Petersburg, Russia, and Barcelona, Spain, with possible U.S. expansion as well.

Other airport venues are also embracing mixology. Virgin Atlantic has always served cocktails in its airport Clubhouses, but the company has recently reinvented its beverage program. “We’ve tied up with Bacardi and developed a cocktail training program called Bar Basics, which lets us serve 10 or 12 cocktails really well,” explains Clubhouse food and beverage executive Mark Murphy. Through the program, which has launched in Clubhouse locations in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New York City-area airports, a mixologist flies to each venue and teaches staff everything from how to use a strainer to what cocktails need to be stirred or shaken. “In the past, staff were given a specification and told to go through the motions,” Murphy says. “Now, they can actually be creative.”

At the Clubhouse in Washington, D.C., the program has been well received. “The number of cocktails we’re serving has gone through the roof,” Murphy says. Favorites include The Redhead, comprising Bombay Sapphire gin, crème de cassis and crème de framboise (brands vary), lemon juice, raspberries and Lanson Black Label Champagne. There’s also a “secret cocktail” that’s only communicated through social media and the Virgin Flying Club: the Golden Girl, made with Grey Goose vodka, Cointreau orange liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice, sugar syrup and Prosecco (brand varies). All food and drink is complimentary at the Clubhouses, which are open to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passengers and Flying Club Gold members.

Beyond upgrading the travel experience for their guests, upscale, mixology-driven airport venues have an added benefit: They spread the word about cocktails. “The more that mixology is understood, the more cocktail sippers I see,” One Flew South’s Barriere says. HMSHost’s Draper agrees, adding: “We wanted to really get cocktail culture out to the general public.”