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BLOG: Innovation, Infusion & Cutting-Edge Tools Propelling Onboard Beverage Evolution

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David Yeskel, shares the exciting new beverage trends he's experienced on board several recent sailings.

What kicked off the rise in cruise industry cocktail programs that now feature over-the-top beverages, dramatic smoke presentations and healthy, low- cal, no-cal and no-alc options? The commensurate elevation of head bartenders to master mixologists was a start.  But the trend wasn’t merely a case of job-category semantics; demand also factored into the evolution - or is it a revolution? - of onboard bar menus.

Like some other F&B trends, the rise of creative cocktails partially owes its mojo to another high-functioning,  travel industry innovation engine:Las Vegas. On the hyper-competitive Las Vegas Strip, where casino-resort management famously holds no emotional attachment to hospitality products via their unofficial mantra of “succeed - or be replaced quickly,” I’ve witnessed the massively-profitable nightclub/dayclub scene driving beverage program metamorphosis for years.

Meanwhile, ready-to-drink products were rarely stocked in cruise ship storerooms as little as 5 years ago. Now, thanks to their ubiquity ashore, they’re becoming a larger piece of the onboard beverage revenue pie for mass-market operators, especially since that sector’s guest demographics skew younger. Industry-wide, however, guests are bringing aboard a set of expectations that far exceeds their parents’ gin-and-tonic tastes, but catering to those more sophisticated - and sometimes exotic - preferences involves imagination and some special effects, as I’ve detailed below.

IP @ Sea Lifts Princess’ Good Spirits
Princess Cruises’ “Good Spirits at Sea” cocktail bar features beverages that pay homage to the diverse nations that the line’s ships visit by sourcing local ingredients, but it’s the onboard bartenders who complete the experience by providing entertaining patter set to destination-appropriate music. I’m particularly partial to the Key Lime Martini, an ode to Key West combining bourbon, agave, pineapple juice, condensed milk and Cointreau in a traditional martini glass rimmed with graham cracker crumbs and cinnamon, then topped with Elderflower foam. Each of the other 18 cocktails on the Good Spirits menu is similarly complex, along with its own soundtrack and backstory. But Good Spirits at Sea owes its creation to a unique differentiator: what may be the first instance of an onboard beverage program taking its inspiration from an intellectual property. In this case, that would be Carnival Corp’s Good Spirits TV show, which airs on A&E network, Princess’ MedallionClass App and stateroom TV.

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High Expectations For Drinks to Go With “The Finest Cuisine at Sea” on Oceania
Aiming to complement Oceania Cruises’ superior cuisine, the debut of the line’s new, 1,200-guest Vista this coming May will feature what the company calls “immersive, experiential beverage offerings'' that incorporate cutting-edge cocktail trends and techniques.  Guests will be treated to beverages injected with citrus, rosemary, or mixed berry flavored smoke bubbles and mists courtesy of the “Flavour Blaster”; low and no-sugar wines; zero-proof cocktails mixed using Lyers Impossibly Crafted Non-Alcoholic Spirits (offering reasonable facsimiles of their boozy brethren); non-alcoholic wines from Pierre Zero; and Negronis aged in wooden barrels.

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Let the (Infused) Spirit Move You at the Haven Bar
Contemporary-segment operators like Norwegian Cruise Line typically feature up to 20 bars and lounges aboard their megaships, enabling them to focus some of those outlets on specialties like malt whiskeys (Maltings), beers (The District Brew House) and mojitos (Sugarcane Mojito Bar).  But for guests staying in the line’s luxe, ship-within-a-ship enclave, The Haven, Norwegian’s mixologists have reached higher to concoct a bespoke collection of infused spirits, served from beautifully-designed “Porthole Infuser” glass flasks.  The four varieties I tasted recently aboard Norwegian Bliss featured flavor profiles complex enough to stand on their own - without mixers.  My favorite was the gin with rosemary and citrus peels, but the tequila with jalapeno; rum with pineapple rind, cinnamon stick and star anise; and the vodka with mixed berries were all creative and interesting.  The infused spirit options rotate every couple of days based purely on the whims of the ship’s mixologist and/or guests’ requests.   

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Virgin’s Novel Twist Brings the Bubbly
While the cuisine served at Virgin Voyages’ popular Pink Agave outlet may not satisfy jaded Mexican food aficionados, the tequila and mezcal selection here is first-rate - and exhaustive.  At a recent tasting seminar aboard Valiant Lady, I barely made a dent in the over 120 brands of the agave-based drink carried aboard, while marveling at scores of obscure, artisanal spirits highlighted and passionately presented by Virgin’s onboard “Mezcalier.”

And introducing a little decadence during a vacation is never a bad thing, especially when it comes to Champagne. In a novel maneuver that fits perfectly with Virgin Voyages’ counterculture sensibility, the “Shake for Champagne” gesture in the company’s app not only orders the bubbly, but locates you for delivery - anywhere on board - via bluetooth integration with The Band, a wearable that enables payments, boarding security and cabin door entry.  But before fully executing the “shake,” guests (or “Sailors” in Virgin’s parlance) should understand that they’ll be ordering a bottle of Moet & Chandon Imperial - at a price of $95.  And what if Sailors inadvertently shake their phone while the app is open? Well, that shaking motion launches a clever, bubbly graphic - essentially a virtual safety latch - that prompts for a button push to actually confirm the order.

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David Yeskel has been covering the cruise industry for over 25 years, often writing with a focus on F&B topics.