Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mixed signals from America's airport bars?

Aside from shopping malls, there are few places as annoyingly cookie-cutter generic as American airports. Seen one, seen them all.

And, as beverage columnist Wayne Curtis notes in the December issue of Atlantic magazine, that extends to mixed drinks.

The title of his column says it all: "Your Airport's Bartender Problem: Why it's so hard to get a decent drink before your flight...."

But the rest of the headline  -- "...and why that may soon change" -- adds a slight twist.

Among the factors Curtis cites about why quality cocktails are so rare at airport bars:

* TSA and FFA background checks  make it hard for some top-notch bartenders to get employment clearance at these places.

* Airports tend to be located in un-hip parts of town, and where just getting to work means dealing daily with  traffic, parking and security logjams.

* Given the ever-changing assortment of people boarding or exiting aircraft, it's hard to build a regular customer base or acquire a niche.

Never said but obvious through other passages in the article: The bars are chain operations. One person quoted extensively in the story is the "senior director of adult beverages and restaurant development at HMS Host, which oversees nearly 400 full-service bars at airports across North America."

Four hundred airport bars!

The article also mentions OTG, a smaller outfit that manages restaurants and bars in 11 airports.

The time-honored American concept of interchangeable parts -- making identical product components to guarantee easy assembly and reduce the time of assembly, the skills of the assembler and per unit cost -- and its descendant, the assembly line, revolutionized how items are created.

This eventually applied to the mass production of processed food and short-order dining: Everything is designed to be the same.

Throw in corporate America -- which treasures such ploys -- and there's small wonder there's mixed-drink boredom at the chain bars in airports.

The "why that may soon change" at the end of the headline for Curtis' story -- and at the end of his column -- mentions how the overseer of cocktail operations at the "nearly 400" HMS Host lounges is trying to get its bartenders to learn drinks that require three or four ingredients. Also, he's trying to localize some of the operations.

The one mentioned in this article is Barcuterie, in Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, "which now serves a Texas Smoked Manhattan featuring house-brandied cherries and Balcones, a well-regarded local whiskey."

OTG, Curtis adds, operates One Flew South, in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson's Terminal E. The story notes that the lead bartender often adjusts frequently ordered drinks. In the Cosmo served there, Curtis explains, Clement Creole Shrubb is often used instead of Cointreau.

Of the One Flew South cocktail menu, Curtis writes that it "wouldn't be out of place in a Lower East Side speakeasy."