Johannesburg - When British Airways' antecedent, Imperial Airways, introduced an in-flight catering service in 1927, whisky was one of only two alcoholic drinks on offer.
Today it remains a firm favourite on the menus in all cabins on international flights, as well as on domestic services.
Chris Cole, BA food & beverage and product change manager, delves into some of the facts and fictions about the iconic Scottish tipple which has remained an international airline travellers’ favourite for nearly 90 years.
One of the reasons it may have featured on in-flight menus for so long is the cabin environment.
In 1927, aircraft flew relatively low and were not pressurised, so a swift slug of whisky may 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 about 35 000 feet and the cabin is pressurised to 8 000 feet.
Under these conditions most people lose about 30 percent 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, Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal account for about 80 percent of the market.
Typically, as is the case on the ground, blends tend to be more a 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.
Chris says that 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 Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey has overtaken Famous Grouse as the top seller. So, too, it is becoming a more popular choice in the air.
“Obviously we can’t carry every brand of whisky, but we do try to offer the most popular and this includes brands such as Jack Daniel's, alongside the well-known 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?
“The way you enjoy it,” says 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 why not relax 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 uisge beatha (water of life).
You could even treat yourself or someone who deserves it with a bottle or two from duty free.