Andrew Jefford shares his pain and an anaesthetic to the tortures of flying long-haul economy.
Pressurized cabins, air-conditioning, the close proximity of strangers and a body clock whose two hands are moving in different directions: long-haul air travel is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it’s different in First Class and Business, where the wines have been chosen for their lustre and you get to spend the night horizontally, but long years as an economy passenger have taught me one lesson above all. The best drink at 35,000 feet is whisky and water.
I could suggest this is because its aroma and flavour repertoire is less pressure-sensitive than that of wine, or because it is able to pierce the nasal congestion which comes from the desiccating plane-cabin air more effectively.
A more compelling reason, though, is that no drink is better suited to consumption in adversity than whisky. That, in fact, is why it exists. It is the antidote to all the harrowing experiences which Scottish meteorology guarantees. Small wonder it’s unbeatable when you are cooped up for 13 hours between an unwashed, head-lolling backpacker and a proud grandmother with 827 family photos to show you (plus commentary) on her iPhone.
Whisky is so easy to buy and to handle that I don’t understand why airlines select and serve it so poorly. I took four long or very long flights with Qantas recently, in both economy and premium economy. Pre-meal drinks seem to be history, and if you ask for whisky with your meal you are regarded as a pest. If you don’t want ice in your whisky (see below), moreover, you’ll need to say so; ice is obviously the Qantas default service option.
The exclusive supplier to Qantas is evidently Pernod-Ricard, and the only Scotch in economy is the flimsy Ballantine’s. What can I say, other than alas? In Premium Economy, the choice is better: Glenlivet or Chivas Regal (age statement unstated, but they are all skilfully blended). Ok, the style difference isn’t huge, and much of the Chivas malt skeleton will come from Glenlivet in any case: Speyside at its most graceful. Do you, though, get asked which you’d like? You don’t. Do you, later, get told which you’ve been given? You don’t. They are all poured for you in the galley, away from your curious eyes. Perhaps it’s fun to guess which is which, but mostly it just commoditizes a drink whose identity did not deserve commoditization.
I’m glad that airlines like Qantas champion their wine selections (though even the wines are briskly and anonymously served in both economy and premium economy), but the other drinks matter, too. On long flights, speed of service need not be a desideratum. The room for improvement is generous.
A word on ice
Whisky on the rocks? I don’t want to be pompous: it looks nice, it rattles when you shake it, and mostly it’s very cold when it reaches the lips. But in every other respect, ice and whisky are enemies. Yin and yang, locked in mortal combat.
If you want to do the spirit justice, ask for a whisky and water — with the water served separately. For the record, this is Scottish standard practice among those wise drinkers who care. You’d like to sniff the ‘creature’ (as the Scots love to call it) on its own, undiluted, or rather distillery-diluted; the creature, too, wants to meet you in that way, and express itself aromatically. Then add water; if Scottish spring or mineral water, so much the better. How much? Your choice. I’d recommend at least one-third water; fifty-fifty is my own choice. The aromatics change; and the drink is now drinkable, from first sip to last, at an identical temperature. Its profundities become palpable; life mellows.
And with ice? The first sip is over-cold and over-strong; every subsequent mouthful emerges at some new and invariably chaotic, unfathomable and unpredictable declension of strength and temperature. Ice sometimes seems to make a scum form on the surface of the whisky. When the final mouthfuls come — the summum, friends, the climax — they are tepid and feebly dilute. No, no, no.