Culture: The Airport Bars Where Drink Pros Spend Their Layovers
Does Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” still ring true in the era of modern travel? For those who take to the skies for work and play, the journey to the destination has become decidedly less of a lark. While air travel volume has resumed with a vengeance post-pandemic—the International Air Transport Association says that 4.35 billion people are expected to fly this year, just slightly off the 4.54 billion people who flew in 2019—airlines appear to be struggling to keep up with demand.
According to the Department of Transportation, between 2.69% and 2.71% of flights were canceled in 2022, the highest rate in a decade except 2020. Delays are also at a decade high, with 21.4% of flights in 2022 landing late, according to FlightAware.
Thankfully, while buzz-killing cancellations and delays are on the rise, so is the art of pouring an extraordinary cocktail, glass of wine and stein of beer at airports across the world. Grounded and feeling bummed? We spoke to drink experts about their favorite airport watering holes.
Airbräu Brauhaus at Munich International Airport
Leave it to Deutschland to introduce the world’s first brewery located in an airport. Founded in 1999, Airbräu looks like a classic Bavarian-style operation, with copper brewing accouterments, but on a tiny scale. Sit at the bar, grab a table or hang outside at the small beer garden, which all deliver a warm atmosphere and delicious beers made according to Germany’s strict Purity Decree of 1516, plus fresh, locally sourced food.
“You know an airport restaurant is great when people reserve ahead for it,” says Mandy Naglich, an advanced cicerone and author of How to Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life. “Make sure you reserve a party keg, made from beer brewed on-site from one of the world’s only airport breweries, for one last ‘prost.’”
Try the Fliegerquell, a semi-dry ale brightened with traditional German hops. Pair it with a selection of Bavarian cheeses (including Romadur, Bavaria Blu and the delightfully spicy Obazda), grilled pork knuckle served with potato dumplings and cabbage salad or a Swiss sausage salad with Emmental cheese, pickles, pretzels and house-made bread. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can book a tour.
One Flew South at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
After plodding through the line at security, you may not feel like getting into another queue. But if there is a line at One Flew South—and there often is—do yourself a favor and get in it. The James Beard Foundation Award-nominated venue manages to deliver imaginative fresh sushi, personal and warm hospitality and some of the best cocktails in the country. For Fawn Weaver, CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, it is, she says, “hands-down” her favorite airport bar in the world.
“The only airport I enjoy a layover at is in Atlanta because I go straight to Concourse E to get an incredible craft cocktail and delectable bits to accompany it,” Weaver says. She gravitates toward the Golden Ticket cocktail, which marries vanilla-scented bourbon with zingy ginger liqueur. Also on offer: the Red Eye Martini, jacked up with cold brew, espresso liqueur and vodka, and the Fly By Night, an herbal-forward elixir of whiskey, amaro, cynar and fig preserves.
Portermill in Des Moines International Airport
Des Moines, Iowa
With more than 9,700 breweries in business in the U.S., it is both easier and harder than ever to find a great, local beer that speaks to you. It’s great that there are so many choices, but how does one effectively sort through those choices?
Travelers to Iowa will be able to debate this conundrum at Portermill in Des Moines International Airport, which focuses on Iowa-made beer and classic Iowa snacks.
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“Between the nearly 20 taps and long list of local canned beers, plus great food, this place is an absolute gem that showcases the best of local craft culture,” says Naglich. “Iowa may not come to mind when considering the states with red-hot craft beer scenes, but it should! There are so many exciting beers here that go far beyond the standard light lagers and IPAs offered at most airport locations.”
She advises tapping the knowledgeable staff for specific recommendations. Or, get a flight to pair with Americana fare like Frisian Farms gouda cheese curds or the Iowan sandwich, which features layers of buttermilk-marinated pork tenderloin, maple glazed ham, white Cheddar and Dijonnaise.
Book & Bourbon Southern Kitchen at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport
If you identify as a spirits aficionado and you’re touching down in Louisville, chances are you know your way around a dram of bourbon. Meaning, of course, that you should roll your carry-on over to Book & Bourbon Southern Kitchen.
“This is not just a bar and not just a restaurant,” says Michael Moeller, founder of the Louisville Ale Trail. “It’s a toast to Kentucky’s deep and rich bourbon heritage. Book & Bourbon offers dozens of world-class, homegrown bourbons, including several rare labels. This has made it a destination for bourbon enthusiasts and tourists, and not just a transit point.”
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Visitors can choose from 85 locally crafted bourbons, including multiple rarities and key selections from Pappy Van Winkle, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, George T. Stagg and more. Neophytes and experts alike will appreciate the knowledgeable staff, and the Southern classics coming out of the kitchen. Think fried green tomato Benedict, buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches and smoked chicken.
When it comes to dishes, Moeller recommends the Kentucky Hot Brown, a thick slice of toast topped with turkey, tomatoes, bacon and an addictive cheese sauce. “It truly captures the essence of Southern comfort,” he says.
Bar Rage at Tokyo International Airport
Haneda Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world, with a correspondingly impressive—if somewhat overwhelming—roster of things to do, see and try.
The Edo Koji shopping area is modeled after an ordinary street in 17th-century Japan. Visitors can browse traditional Japanese wares and try classic dishes. As for drinking options? Head over to Terminal 3 and pop into Bar Rage, which is led by one of the country’s leading mixologists, Tomoyuki Kitazoe.
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Kitazoe rose to fame on a crest of creative, seasonal cocktails made from fresh organic fruit and handmade herb and fruit-infused syrups, and the offerings at Bar Rage are no exception. Expect artful drinks like a melon-spiked margarita and watermelon-infused Manhattan, garnished simply and served in delicate glasses.
“This place is excellent for a snack, great craft beer and Japanese whiskey,” says Timo Torner, bartender and the founder of the viral social media account Cocktail Society. “The whiskey selection is incredible, especially considering it’s an airport bar. And it covers all price ranges. My favorite order is a glass of Hibiki whiskey with a sesame shrimp cutlet sandwich.”
The World Is Flat at Singapore Changi Airport
The World is Flat is “an astounding cocktail bar that surpasses all expectations, particularly in the realm of impeccably crafted cocktails,” says Torner. “I drink cocktails at airports on every continent, and the World Is Flat is the best. But there’s a catch: You have to venture beyond security and step into an adjacent groundside complex.”
It is, Torner says, “well worth it.”
Snag an impeccable Singapore Sling on draft, or explore the flavorful array of martinis, each of which “transport you to a different region of the world.” Torner’s favorite tipple is Martini, I Suppose, which uses as its foundation “a grain spirit flavored with plum kernels and marigold flowers.”
Center Bar and Kitchen in Zurich Airport
One might not expect to find excellent pan-Asian food in an airport in Switzerland, but Center Bar and Kitchen offers just that. The luxe, capacious setting, right in the humming retail center of the airport’s Airside Center, is perfect for a long multi-course meal centered on pan-Asian cuisine. Those with less time can also grab a quick cocktail and bite at the bar.
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“I really like the selection of gins at the bar,” says Torner, noting bottles hailing Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Spain and France. “My favorite order is a salmon poke bowl and a gin and tonic with Clouds Gin No. 9, flavored with lavender, juniper, tonka bean, coffee, orange leaves and chestnut.”
The wine-by-the-glass program is also exemplary and notably well-priced (a DOC Lugana can be had for $9, and a flute of Bollinger Special Cuvée is just $19). Creative cocktails are also worth perusing (try the Horse’s Neck, with bourbon, ginger ale and Angostura bitters). Don’t sleep on the non-alcoholic, freshly-squeezed juices (try the Exotic Juice, a blend of pineapple, melons, mangoes and passion fruit).
The Dutch Kitchen at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport
The Dutch Kitchen is located just after security, so you won’t even have to walk far. This Instagram-friendly venue features streamlined booths and tables made to evoke blue Delft teapots and teacups, with oversized sculptural tulip arrangements and giant forks sets in the middle of dining tables.
“They excel at the sweeter side of things here,” says Naglich. “The menu is pancake-focused, with great crepes, bacon and coffee. The bar is sort of separate, but if you want your crepes with a martini, they are happy oblige.”
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The food and drinks—equally comforting and showy—are the perfect foil for the eye-popping fun. Feast on croquettes, fluffy pancakes, perfectly griddled waffles, herring and more. Early mornings call for espresso martinis, but the jenever and fruited liqueurs can’t be missed. The accommodating staff are quick with recommendations if you’re looking for help navigating the menu.
Naglich recommends a Genever martini, which has a viscous mouthfeel and smooth, long-lasting flavor, paired with Dutch croquettes.
You can’t control the pace of your journey, but you can control what you sip along the way. Here’s to hoping that the next time your flight gets grounded, you’re able to meander over to one of these places.
Last Updated: September 8, 2023