Bar: Bitters + Bottles and the Art of In-Flight Cocktails

  • By Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Wed May 4th, 2016 5:30pm
  • DiningEat

Airline travel — amirite?

The ultimate fodder for subpar stand-up comics and habitual makers of small-talk, flying is simply godawful — and it's only grown more unpleasant since a certain catastrophe almost 15 years ago. Beyond fares that don't go down even when oil prices collapse, frequent flyers have become inured to petty humiliations, physical discomfort, and the occasional JetBlue TV stuck on Fox News. It's enough to make jokes about airline peanuts funny, even when you can't eat any because someone on board has an allergy.

Approximately five minutes from the exit off US-101 leading to SFO is Bitters + Bottles, a three-year-old “home bar stockist” on Grand Avenue in South San Francisco peddling one potential solution to airplane woes: travel cocktail kits for two, TSA-friendly bottles included. There are 10 of them to choose from, and they each retail for $19 — which is certainly less per drink than any number of mixological lounges we know of (to say nothing of the stratospheric markups you encounter when traveling in the stratosphere). And they're not exactly basic G&Ts, either. With only a modicum of effort while wedged in coach, you can make your own Brown Derby, NOLA Julep, or Celtic Kick.

Each rope-tied bag contains everything you need. The Sling, for instance, contains a 100-mL micro-handle of Kraken black-spiced rum, plus two 50-mL bottles of Larceny Kentucky straight bourbon, two packets of liquid sugar and two of mint-infused liquid sugar, plus a small wooden spoon for stirring. For drinks that need a bit of citrus to tie them together, Bitters + Bottles found cold-pressed and crystallized lemon and orange. (The three-step instructions are printed on the coasters that come with the kit.)

The good news is that with a transparent Ziploc bag, you can get all of this past the ever-vigilant panopticon that is TSA. The better news is that if you forgot to purchase a shotglass from the final knickknack kiosk before the gate, B+B came up with an “origami jigger” to ensure exact proportions. Like the folded-paper fortune-telling game kids play in elementary school, you pinch two corners to splay it out and fill it up to the line of demarcation with booze.

The stickier part is that, technically, airlines don't allow you to B.Y.O.(B+B). An artful request for ice water during beverage service will get you far, but a lot depends on how quickly you can mix up a clandestine cocktail on a folding seat-tray and how adroit you are in the flirtational arts if the buzzkill sitting in 26D gives you side-eye. But just because they're called airplane bottles doesn't mean they aren't Dolores Park–sized, too.

Calling personalized in-flight entertainment a “gray area” that depends on how cool the flight attendants are, Joe Barwin, the aptly named co-proprietor of Bitters + Bottles, points out that the kits can be “something to stock your hotel mini-bar with at the other end of your trip as well.”

“We've had people call it a 'cocktail portion-control kit,' ” he says. “Enough for two drinks at the end of the day, but you can't accidentally finish a whole bottle.”

B+B's retail location is like an airier, light-filled version of Cask, Bourbon & Branch creator Future Bars' flagship artisanal liquor store on Third Street just south of Market. And it's on the same block as South City Hall, and not far from the well-regarded, century-old cake maker Galli's Sanitary Bakery. If you're ride-sharing your way to SFO, it's about a minute off the highway — something which isn't lost on a sizeable percentage of the shop's patrons.

“No one really likes to check a bag anymore,” Barwin says, noting that sales of mini bottles were already high. “We wanted to do something unique to us and our love of all things cocktail, so we worked to see how we could package the minis into a cocktail kit — something small enough” to take through security.

How many times have you taken a red-eye and ordered a glass of red wine in the hopes of passing out and sleeping for four hours, only to get a mediocre $9 residual-sugar-filled fruit-bomb that gives you a headache instead? (If that's never happened to you, the possibility of a sleepless overnight flight should still be as frightening as the prospect of a screaming baby in the seat in front of you.)

Ultimately, the cocktail kits solve one of the two conundrums of contemporary in-flight drinking habits. Now can someone explain why so many people order tomato juice on planes?

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