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Bloody Marys Really do Taste Better on an Airplane. This Expert Explains Why

Some studies show the roar of the engine may be to blame. But one airline drinks expert we talked to shares a different theory behind the classic brunch cocktail's popularity at altitude.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's logged more than a decade writing about all things edible, including meal kits and meal delivery subscriptions, cooking, kitchen gear and commerce. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the eats business from slicing and dicing as a sous-chef in Rhode Island to leading complex marketing campaigns for major food brands in Manhattan. These days, he's likely somewhere trying the latest this or tasting the latest that - and reporting back, of course. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
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David Watsky
3 min read

It's not just a coincidence that some drinks taste better in the air. 


Some drinks just taste better when sipped in a large metal tube hurtling through the upper crust of the earth's atmosphere. Ginger ale seems to enjoy outsized popularity among passengers, but nothing outshines the in-flight bloody mary -- an almost ritualistic cocktail or mocktail order for many a frequent flyer

On the ground, the salty, spicy and umami-rich mixed drink is mostly relegated to brunch. At a cruising altitude, the bloody mary often feels like the right move, no matter what time of day it is. So is it just one of those things or is there an explanation for why the bloody mary (and other drinks) taste so darn good on an airplane

As CNET's resident food and drink guy, I'm always investigating the what, why and how regarding the best stuff to snack and sip on. That's everything from hacking your meal kit subscription to cooking perfect bacon without the mess and nailing a drink order, even at 35,000 feet. 

I asked Darren Bott, vice president of global food and beverage for Emirates Airlines about the outsized popularity of certain on-board beverages. Emirates is consistently ranked among the best airlines for in-flight food and drink, so it's no surprise that the brand's top culinary mind accounts for how taste buds operate differently on an airplane.

It turns out there's some science behind those bloody mary cravings. While you might guess that it's the change in pressure that causes altered ordering impulses, and a 2015 Cornell study even posits that the noise of the engine suppresses your tastes for sweet stuff and thus raises the desire for salty, umami flavors, Bott politely disagrees with both theories. What's more, bloody marys prove to be a better pick than other mixed drinks if your're trying to avoid dehydration during a flight.

Here's more on how our tastes change in an airplane, and why a bloody mary really is the perfect in-flight order.

Bloody Mary Emirates

When flying, there's just something about Mary.


In what ways does flying change how we perceive taste?
: Being at altitude changes how we experience certain tastes and flavors. While it's often thought that the reduction of pressure in the cabin is the main reason for the changes, it is being in a confined, temperature- and humidity-controlled space that most affects the perception of taste. 

Nasal and oral cavities tend to dry out when we fly as humidity levels decrease, causing some flavors and aromas for certain foods and drinks to dull, while sharpening others. Because of this, the bold bloody mary has become increasingly popular on board.


It turns out certain drinks really do hit a different on an airplane. 


What is it exactly about the bloody mary?
One of the primary drivers behind the in-flight love for the tomato-based cocktail lies in the tomato's high acidity, which has the benefit of stimulating salivation, ensuring a well-moisturized mouth. As a bonus, the low sugar content helps passengers stay (relatively) hydrated throughout a flight.

Do these factors impact drinks with more refined profiles like wine and whiskey?
Certain aromas and flavors will be harder to detect due to the impact decreased humidity has on our senses. For a booze like whiskey, the cabin environment can impact a person's ability to detect fruit, increasing the perception of oak and drawing out flavors that at other times might not be as prominent. The aircraft's low humidity levels can compound the volatile aroma of some wines, causing certain flavors to be more pronounced than normal when aboard a flight. 

glass of wine on plane

Our perception of the taste profiles of wine and whiskey are also altered thanks mostly to temperature and humidity contol.

Alexander Spatari/Getty

What's the most surprising drink passengers order?
We've noticed a surge in the popularity of DIY cocktails or trend-based requests. DIY cocktails give our in-flight crew a chance to show off their training and make a perfectly balanced drink, like our breakfast martini (gin, orange marmalade, Cointreau and fresh orange juice), especially in the onboard lounge on one of our A380s.

So what's your go-to air travel drink order? 
I like to stay well hydrated while flying so I drink a lot of water, but if I'm flying Emirates, I may try one of our many wines or a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine to settle into the flight.

More for those on the move