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Drinking in First Class

Libations in First Class – celebrity chef collaborations for food aren’t the only premium perks of note, airlines are going above and beyond to deliver top-shelf wine and spirits to their customers too.

There is little denying that airlines have upped the ante to their on-board dining experiences for premium customers, putting their money where their highest paying passengers’ mouth are. Over the past several years we’ve seen Suzanne Goin join Singapore Air, Daniel Boulud sign on with Air France and Maneet Chauhan partner with American Airlines, to name just a few of the most recent high profile collaborations feeding First Class cabins. What’s with the trend? “An international first-class passenger can generate more than ten times the profit for an airline compared to economy,” says Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group. “And, though sleep is the most important amenity for long-haul first-class passengers, food and beverage also matter.”

Despite the fact that wine and spirits tend to get a back seat compared to the buzz around celebrity chef-driven menus, airlines have been pouring millions of dollars into their programs: Emirates has invested over $500 million in wine. British Airways has commissioned its own brand of gin. Lufthansa, All Nippon Air and Air France have partnered with world champion sommeliers to curate their lists.

While higher quality in-terminal restaurants are increasingly a dime a dozen in airports around the world, and lounges have become so plush delays are practically a blessing, there’s ever-more to look forward to while you’re in the sky. Here, the top-shelf wine and spirits airlines are serving their first class customers now:

British Airways
British Airways offers a diverse, route-specific wine list curated through a partnership with Masters of Wine at the U.K.-based wine, spirits, and craft beer distributor Bibendum, but it’s the airline’s first class champagne selection that stands out, with bottles from Grand Siècle by Laurent-Perrier, Jacquart Mosaique Rose NV, and a guest sparkling wine that rotates every six months (currently, it’s England’s Bolney Wine Estate’s Vintage Blanc de Blancs). They also serve up their bubbles in a signature Kir Royale cocktail, made with champagne and Cassis liqueur. First class passengers traveling through London’s Heathrow can also try the airline’s own brand of gin, served exclusively from the bar in its Concorde Room (located in Terminal 5). Blended by Cambridge Distillery, a husband-and-wife-owned company specializing in bespoke varieties, the gin’s main botanicals are juniper, basil, rosemary and thyme – all of which are grown in the distillery’s gardens.

Singapore Airlines
A three-person team made up of wine consultant Michael Hill-Smith, wine author Oz Clarke and Jeannie Cho Lee, Asia’s first female Master of Wine, curates the airline’s selection of red and white wines available in first. While selections differ based on route, bottles include top-shelf varietals like grand cru Red Burgundies. Notable for sparkling fans, Singapore Airlines is currently the only airline to offer both Dom Perignon and Krug Grand Cuvée champagnes on their first class menu. (Annually, the airline serves around $6 million-worth of the former and $4.2 million-worth of the latter.)

Etihad Airways
Like its competitors, Etihad offer its first class passengers an array of fine wines and spirits—including Billecart-Salmon champagne, Paul Corneau Pouilly Fumé sauvignon blanc, Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Charmes pinot noir and Glenlivet Single Malt Whiskey Master Distillers Reserve. But it’s the airline’s exclusive XO Cognac service, featuring Remy Martin’s Cellar Selection No 28, served in signature glasses designed by contemporary Scandinavian furniture brand Normann Copenhagen, that customers should take advantage of.

Emirates Airlines
Emirates has invested over $500 million in wine, and boasts the largest wine cellar of any airline – it stores more than 2.2 million bottles of vintage wines. Though first class offerings are tailored by region and route, across-the-board offerings include fine Italian wines from Solaia and Ornellaia. Top-shelf champagnes, like 2006 Dom Perignon, and hard-to-get dessert wines, including Château d’Yquem, are also available, though the latter is so popular with passengers that the airline has difficulty keeping it in stock.

Markus Del Monego, the only German to win the title of the World’s Best Sommelier, has worked with Lufthansa since 2000 to vet their monthly changing wine list, which has included a 2007 Champagne Taittinger, a 2014 Kiedrich Gräfenberg Riesling and a 2008 Chateau Belgrave Haut-Medoc. The menu also features one or more less familiar bottles each month, like a 2014 Südtiroler Chardonnay, grown on the limestone soils of the vineyards in the commune of Eppan Italy or a 2009 Vigneto Santa Pia, made from Prugnolo grapes.

Swiss Airlines
Swiss Airlines’ First Class wine selection is curated by a panel of internal and external experts that include Chandra Kurt, a Swiss-German wine author who has published over two dozen books on the subject. This fall, standout offerings will include a “Super-Tuscan” Tignanello 2014 from Marchesi Antinori in Italy, or a Château Cos d’Estournel from Saint-Estèphe in France’s Bordeaux region. Past highlights include Chardonnay Unfiltered 2007 from Newton Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley or Château Péby Faugères from Saint-Emillion in Bordeaux. Occasionally, the airline also offers rare specialties like the Flor de Pingus 2010 from Domino de Pingus in Spain (served exclusively around the winter holidays).

All Nippon ANA Airways
ANA has offered top-shelf liquor in first class for decades: since the airline introduced international service in 1986, first class has sipped Krug Grand Cuvée (France). Today, wine selection in first class comes from all over the world, including the U.S., France, South Africa, Chile, Portugal, New Zealand and Japan. The first class wine list varies by route, and the selection changes annually after a two-day blind taste test with a 50-person panel of experts, including Master of Wine Ned Goodwin, the former wine director of Global Dining Japan, one of Asia’s largest restaurant groups. In April 2016, ANA tapped Olivier Poussier, who won the title of World’s Best Sommelier in 2000, to select rosé for first class (in June, France’s Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée N740 will be on offer). First class passengers can also sip Suntory Whisky Hibiki 21 Years Old.

Air France
Since 2014, Air France has partnered with Swiss-Italian sommelier and wine consultant Paolo Basso, who was voted World’s Best Sommelier in 2013, to design its wine program. Wine lists in both first (La Premiere) and business class change every two months; recent highlights in the former include a 2006 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne, a 2008 Château Canon “Saint-Emilion” 1er Grand Cru Classé, a 2014 La Galopine “Delas Frères Vallée du Rhône.”

Japan Airlines
Motohiro Okoshi, sommelier and wine director of coveted 20-seat Tokyo restaurant SUGALABO, has partnered with Japan Airlines on its wine list since February 2016. Some of the best offerings in first class include a Champagne Salon 2006, a Yealands Estate Single Vineyard, Awatere Valley, Marlborough 2016, and a Château d’Armailhac, Pauillac 2012. In 2017, the airline was recognized for its first class wine selection, winning the gold medal for Best First Class Red at the Cellars in the Sky Awards, for its choice of Kusuda Syrah 2013, Martinborough.

QANTAS Airlines
The third-largest purchaser of wine in Australia, QANTAS curates their wine and spirits menu with a team of 16 sommeliers and mixologists, including Sebastian Crowther, one of two Master Sommeliers in Australia, and bartenders from chef Neil Perry’s Rockpool Dining Group (Perry and QANTAS have partnered on the airline’s food and beverages for nearly 20 years). First class offerings rotate constantly, but are sourced from a range of Australia’s wine regions (like Margaret River and Clare Valley) and include selections from both established and boutique wineries. For pre-flight sipping, custom cocktails created by the mixologists (like a Gin Spritz with Aperol, Rockpool 4 Pillars gin, and sparkling wine) are served in the airline’s first class lounges.

Cathay Pacific
In 2016, Master of Wine, author, and television personality Debra Meiburg joined Cathay Pacific’s wine consulting team, which also includes Lau Chi-sun, former editor of Chinese-language magazine Wine Now, and Australian wine merchant Roy Moorfield. First class passengers can opt for highlights like La Velona Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2008, a Chateau Lynch Bages 2004, Tohu Sauvignon Blanc Single Vineyard Awatere Valley Marlborough 20l5, Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru 2013 and Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne. Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Tesseron XO Tradition cognac are also available.

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