In economy class, where the vast majority of airline travelers spend their time, food service—if available at all—is usually dull, trending toward unpalatable. For the whisky-loving traveler, the improved selection of tiny bottles aboard many airlines is a welcome escape from an otherwise uncivilized dining experience. Yet many find even their whisky tastes lackluster in the confines of a pressurized cabin.
It’s not your imagination. Professor Charles Spence, gastrophysicist and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, says our taste buds operate less efficiently in the pressurized confines of an airplane cabin. Three main factors can have both physically and psychologically adverse effects on taste when flying: low air pressure, dry air, and airplane engine noise. So, unless you take steps to counteract those effects you may be wasting your money on a premium priced in-flight whisky.
A series of tests conducted in Germany at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, designed to simulate in-flight environments, determined that those conditions cause passengers to perceive salt as between 20 and 30 percent less intense and sweetness as 15 to 20 percent less intense. Where whisky is concerned, says Spence, “To the extent that [sweetness and saltiness are] desirable attributes, it is likely to be a less enjoyable experience.”
The twelve percent humidity typical of an airplane cabin is equivalent to that of a desert. This low humidity causes the mucus membranes of the nose to dry up, negatively impacting the sense of smell and muting the impact of aromas. Engine noise, which tends to hold steady at 85 decibels, also suppresses the effects of sweetness and salt, according to a 2010 study on background noise from the School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester.
None of this bodes very well for appreciation of whiskies at cruising altitude, since important aromas will be muted, sweetness suppressed, and even the gentle brininess of some Scottish malts rendered more or less impotent. The evidence is concerning enough that in February 2018, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific introduced Betsy Beer, a craft beer designed specifically to taste good in flight. Until the whisky makers get on board, Spence suggests some fixes to help restore the enjoyment of whisky during a flight.
A pair of noise-canceling headphones can help mitigate the effects of airplane engine noise. “And once the noise-canceling headphones are in place, I would also consider ‘sonic seasoning,’ playing some tinkling high-pitched sounds [which could] help to bring back some of [the] sweetness lost by adverse cabin conditions,” he says. Perhaps record some ice rattling in a glass for your next trip.
Studies show that heavier utensils contribute to increased enjoyment of food, so Spence suggests packing a weighty glass to replace the flimsy plastic cups offered on most airlines.
While it’s generally advised to be well hydrated as you prepare to fly, Spence suggests a slightly unconventional method of whisky dilution. “I might recommend taking one of those mini-perfume spritzing bottles [filled with water] on board, adding a few squirts to the whisky in the glass and also humidifying the headspace in the glass before inhaling and drinking,” he says.
Since a study Spence conducted with others showed that even touch may influence taste, the professor’s final and perhaps most avant-garde suggestion is to add a textural element to the experience. “Rubbing a swatch of material or feeling a piece of wood…can change the tasting experience in interesting ways,” he notes.
Top Flight Pours—Best economy-class whisky selections on major airlines (subject to change)
Delta: Woodford Reserve, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Macallan 12 year old
American Airlines: Woodford Reserve, Dewar’s White Label
United Airlines: Buffalo Trace, Glenfarclas
Southwest: Wild Turkey
Air Canada: Johnnie Walker Black Label
British Airways: Johnnie Walker Red Label
Preflight Check—Take these precautions to ensure your on-board whisky isn’t too rocky
Cancel Out the Noise
A good set of noise-canceling headphones will dramatically reduce the effect of engine noise on your enjoyment of food and drink.
Bring a Playlist
Various studies conducted by professor Spence and others have shown that high-pitched piano music may work best at restoring the perception of sweetness lost at altitude.
Do a Nose Job
Experiment with ways of humidifying your nose, from a simple hydration spray—easily found at most drug stores—to a spritzer from which you can mist your glass of whisky.
Pack a Glass
Studies suggest that the weight and texture of a glass can increase the perception of quality and enjoyment of the contents therein.
Make a Bold Decision
Given that sweet and salty notes may be muted, consider a whisky that is a step up in flavor from your typical choice.
Add a Bit of H20
A recent study, Dilution of Whisky—the Molecular Perspective, has shown that adding water can improve the flavor impact of whisky, so even if you’re not a whisky-and-water person, you might want to give it a try in the air.