Not long ago, someone sent us the link to a clever gift item called the Carry On Cocktail Kit. We checked the link, read the descriptions, viewed the pictures and decided to make our own. To be fair, we haven't actually had our hands on one of these commercial kits, as they are still listed as a pre-order item on the website, but we did consider placing an order. It's basically a tin box that you toss into your carry-on baggage when traveling that enables you to construct two Old Fashioned cocktails while in-flight. For only $24 it seems like a reasonable price to pay for such a fun item. The idea alone is fantastic, but we immediately started thinking about ways we could improve upon it. We decided it would be a fun project and that we could share our results and hopefully stir up a bit of creative discussion.
At its core, the Carry On kit attempts to solve a basic problem: The only way to enjoy a decent Old Fashioned cocktail on an airplane is to make it yourself. We tend to agree, but as you will see, we are not convinced they have made it easy. Their kit includes the necessities for "round trip" service. In other words, you should be able to use the setup to make a cocktail on your way to and from your destination. But to be clear, it's not a miniature stash—it is supposed to augment the liquor you buy from the flight attendant, allowing you to transform mini bottles of base spirits into proper Old Fashioned cocktails—that is, to add sugar and bitters. The kit also attempts to add a little class and elegance to the presentation while keeping everything somewhat compact so that it can be easily carried through the TSA checkpoints. Our challenge is to create a homemade version of this kit and hopefully deliver a better experience in the process. To do so, let's list the components in order of importance and then break them down one by one.
The Carry On Cocktail Kit includes:
Carry On Tin - 3.125 in. (W) x 4.25 in. (H) x 1 in. (D)
Spoon / Muddler
Carry On Tin
The first thing we noticed about the commercial kit is the tin. This is the package that you'll need to slip into your 1-quart ziplock bag for TSA checkpoint inspection. While some travelers fill their allotment with mini booze bottles (yes, TSA allows this) most of us have a baggie filled with legitimate travel supplies like toothpaste, cologne, shampoo and the like. Some of you may be thinking that toiletries should simply go into your checked baggage, but these days it can be an added hassle (and expense) to check anything, so many of us travel only with carry-on luggage. We need every cubic inch of space to hold our supplies—especially the liquids in our ziplock bag.
It seems to us that the Carry On tin is bigger than it needs to be. It may look like an Altoids tin, but it's bigger by at least a half-inch on both sides. It's also thicker. It occurred to us—why not just use an Altoids tin? They are basically free (if you like Altoids), and the smaller size might be better. At 2.45 x 3.9 inches and less than an inch deep, it's a little tight, but if we can make a smaller tin work, we will have the commercial kit beat where space is concerned! You can reuse a tin for free, and if the logo bothers you, simply sand off the paint using fine grit sandpaper. This is easier with an older Altoids tin because the surface is flat. Newer ones have the logo embossed. If aesthetics are important you can also order a brand new tin from Specialty Bottle. That's what we did.
You don't need that much bitters to make an Old Fashioned. A couple of dashes is all that it takes. The bottle used in the Carry On kit is small, but it's way bigger than it needs to be. We suppose it helps justify the purchase price, but let's be honest: if you are considering a kit to make Old Fashioneds in the sky, you probably already have a big bottle of Angostura at home. All you really need is a tiny bottle to hold you over for the trip, and since we don't really know what kind of bitters they are pushing with the Carry On, it will be better to use your own. The bottle diameter is a concern for our smaller tin, so using something with a little less volume is a great way to save space. We used an inexpensive 1-dram (1/8th ounce) amber dropper bottle we ordered from Specialty Bottle. This will hold 60 drops of Angostura (or your favorite) bitters. The dropper ensures accurate doses and is much easier to dispense in a crowded aircraft during turbulence. A couple squeezes will easily match traditional dashes by volume, and the tiny bottle will hold ten or more good squeezes. We think this refillable solution is a much better use of space compared to a bigger bottle of mystery bitters.
The Carry On kit contains packets of granulated cane sugar. This is the biggest problem in the kit. Here's why: sugar does not dissolve well in alcohol. The only way to make an Old Fashioned using granulated sugar is to add your bitters and a splash of water to the sugar. Then, you must rigorously muddle the sugar grains into a paste before adding your spirit. If you have ever tried to do this you know that it's not easy. You need a smooth, wooden muddler that you can pivot around the bottom of a thick rocks glass, grinding the sugar into oblivion. It takes time, effort, and a little muscle—and even then, you won't get it perfect because there isn't much liquid. Remember, sugar grains won't really dissolve once you add the liquor, so the cocktail flavor depends on your success here. To make matters worse, the sugar packets contain unrefined Demerara. This is "sugar in the raw" which is great from a flavor perspective, but the large grains are even harder to dissolve despite being bigger targets for a muddler. This is why most of us just forego granulated sugar completely and use 2:1 simple syrup instead. Using a rich syrup amounts to the same thing when all is said and done, and it doesn't require any muddling whatsoever. And because the sugar is already dissolved, you get the full flavor into the drink without running the risk of leftover grains in the bottom of the glass.
Travel Old Fashioned Cocktail
1 mini bottle of base spirit (i.e. whiskey)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1/4 ounce rich 2:1 simple syrup
Procure a mini bottle of liquor from your flight attendant and pour it into a glass. Add two dashes of Angostura bitters. Empty the contents of the 1/4-ounce vial of rich simple syrup (or use half of the 1/2-ounce vial). Stir with ice to combine and chill.
It's a simple solution—quite literally. If we do this right, we need to consider the quantity since we are replacing the Carry On kit's convenient sugar packets with a liquid. A properly executed Old Fashioned calls for 1/4 ounce of rich 2:1 simple syrup. We need a tiny container to hold the syrup for every drink we want to make. Fortunately, Specialty Bottle sells vials for this too. They are .75 inches in diameter so they fit perfectly inside the Altoids tin. We picked up several to test various configurations but found that the best option is to use two different sizes together: a 1/4-ounce vial (2 drams) with an eye dropper, and a 1/2-ounce (4 drams) with a flat cap. This will hold enough rich simple syrup to construct three Old Fashioned cocktails. The dropper and flat cap are interchangeable which comes in handy during a recharge or for measuring out half of the larger vial.
Working out the ratio of sugar to water is easy enough in large quantities: Dissolve two parts sugar by volume in one part water. If you already have a 2:1 simple syrup in your cabinet, just fill the vials before your trip. But what about the return journey? How can you easily recharge the sugar vials? Say you are taking a trip to Asia and plan to make all three cocktails in flight (or you offer to make some for curious onlookers). What then? How do you survive the return flight? Well, this is where our solution really shines! Working out the perfect amount of granulated sugar to create exactly 1/4 ounce of rich syrup involves a little math and a bit of experimentation, but we've done that for you already. When you arrive empty, just add the contents of two standard sugar packets to the the 1/4-ounce vial and four packets to the larger one. Add water, cap them and give a little shake. By the time you are on your return trip, the sugar will be dissolved and ready for three more cocktails!
As it happens, not all brands of sugar packets contain the same volume of sugar. The good news is that they are essentially free. Your hotel room might have a coffee maker with sugar packets, or the breakfast place—or any other location you might visit during your trip. You may think we are advocating swiping sugar from restaurants and coffee stands, but chances are you will already be drinking coffee or tea from such places and a sugar packet or two is expected to come with the beverage as desired. If it bothers you to put the sugar into vials (or your pocket for use later) instead of your coffee cup, buy a bunch of them ahead of time and stuff them into your suitcase.
In our test, it took two packets to fill the 1/4-ounce vial with exactly the right amount of sugar (about two-thirds full) and by adding enough water to almost fill the rest of the little bottle, we are creating a 2:1 simple syrup. A good shake or two and about 48 hours is all it takes to dissolve. Double the recipe for the larger bottle. If you absolutely want precision, add 48 drops of water to a volume of sugar equivalent to 96 drops for the 1/4-ounce vial. In other words, mark your vial where 96 drops of water would be. Then, with the vial empty, fill to that line with sugar and add 48 drops of water. That's two parts sugar and one part water to get you 1/4-ounce of 2:1 simple syrup. We won't get into the whys and hows of sugar volume dissolved in water at room temperature here (but go ahead and comment about it with questions and we can geek out below).
The Carry On kit includes a spoon. It's probably the longest spoon that would fit in their tin, and that's what it has going for it. They claim it also doubles as a muddler, but it doesn't. The back-end of the spoon has a "T" shaped handle, although in some photos it looks like it could be a disc viewed on edge. It isn't, and we don't understand how anyone could successfully muddle raw sugar grains using that spoon. It simply won't work. If you think otherwise, consider the glass you probably will have on an airplane. These are far from ideal. They are usually thin, clear plastic. They are lightweight and flimsy. The bottoms are often molded with ring shapes to make them them rigid. Maybe that "T" handle gets into the grooves in the bottom of the plastic glasses, but we seriously doubt it. This is why the granulated sugar is such a bad idea. Unless you are sitting in first class holding a real double old fashioned glass, this spoon as a muddler is useless.
As a spoon, however, you can at least least use it to stir your drink with ice. For our homemade kit we tossed in an espresso demitasse. This little spoon fits perfectly but it's not ideal. Preferably, the spoon would have a round rod handle to make stirring easier, although the flatter handle fits better. Ours is a compromise and we wish it was longer, or collapsible, or that it didn't have the intentional bend in the handle. It's the Illy Gyroespresso, a spoon made to be used with the iconic Illy espresso cups designed by Matteo Thun. However, the Illy Ombra spoon might fit even better, but this too is flat. Several companies make stainless steel demitasse spoons for espresso, like the WMF Vella and others. Many would fit inside our tin, and those that don't are cheap enough that they could be made to fit with a grinder. We would like to explore using lab spoons designed for measuring powdered chemicals. One of these could be cut exactly to size with a hack saw, then threaded to create a collapsable spoon using a stainless steel coupling nut to reconnect the leftover handle. Actually, this idea could apply to larger bartending kits made for travel. It's fun to consider the possibilities here, but we wonder whether the spoon is actually necessary. We certainly don't need a muddler, and a sip straw or a pinky finger may do the stirring just as easily. Or, perhaps a chopstick could be cut exactly to size, or a section of a glass rod or a stainless straw. Actually, a plastic swizzle stick from a bar might be perfect if cut to size.
The Carry On recipe card will likely illustrate the use of Demerara sugar packets and how to mess with that spoon while trying to dissolve the sugar grains. You are making an Old Fashioned, and the recipe itself is no secret, so this aid merely needs to help you through the use of the kit in case you forget what you are doing. We're not thrilled with a recipe card in the first place but we do love final touches that transform a collection of bits and bobs into a finished product. So, we decided to throw together a PDF file for our readers with a recipe card and a sleeve that you can slip over the tin. Download the file and print it out on card stock for best results, then cut along the dark lines. The card fits nicely into the lid or base of the tin (a dab of glue or double-stick cellophane tape will keep it neatly tucked away). For the sleeve, fold it on the dotted lines and join the end slits together. Adding a piece of tape here will make it last longer, but when the paper starts to tear, just print another one!
Our recipe card includes the steps to mix an Old Fashioned using our kit. It also explains how to recharge the vials with rich simple syrup. We added a "notes" card in case you have ideas of your own. Or, if someone sees you using the kit, you can give them the note card and they can track down this post. It's an added touch that makes this into a great homemade gift should you chose to go that route. However, what we really want is a few more ideas about other classic cocktails we could make. For example, instead of simple syrup, could we fill our vials with vermouth and sub orange bitters for the Angostura? A Martini might have to be on the rocks, but that's a small sacrifice at 30,000 feet. We hope there are other possibilities that you will come up with and share in the comments below.
This seems just a bit silly. We included an antique cocktail napkin in our photos, but honestly, we would leave this behind. The attendants will inevitably provide a napkin, so having a fancy coaster like the one in the Carry On kit (it's not really that fancy after all) is not necessary. Actually, none of this is necessary, but the linen coaster is perhaps the least useful item in the kit. Don't bother.
So, how did we do? Let's pack up our homemade cockail kit and see (prices link to Specialty Bottle items):
Summit Sips Travel Cocktail Kit
metal tin (up-cycled Altoids tin) 2.45 in (W) x 3.9 in. (H) x .875 in. (D) - $0.89
1/8-ounce dropper bottle of Angostura Bitters - $0.82
1/4-ounce dropper bottle for rich 2:1 simple syrup - $0.82
1/2-ounce bottle for rich 2:1 simple syrup - $0.57
stainless demitasse spoon (optional, swizzle stick?)
antique cocktail napkin (optional, unnecessary)
So, for about three dollars, you can build a homemade travel cocktail kit if you want one. Ours uses simple syrup which means you have to mix sugar with water, but as we have described, it's really easy and it makes a much better drink. We also have the capability to make three drinks with the syrup, plus three more after a recharge before refilling the bitters. We even explain everything on a handy recipe card that fits perfectly inside the tin with optional notes. About the only challenge with our kit is deciding on a spoon, but we have suggested several options and frankly, the spoon is not necessary.
We love the idea that Carry On created with their kit, and we still think it would make a great gift for the cocktail enthusiast who travels, but we wish they had considered some of the practical challenges with granulated sugar. We also question the size of their tin, although it does give room for a bigger spoon. One could certainly upgrade the Carry On kit with some of the ideas we have shared here.
We haven't actually used our kit on an airplane yet but we are anxious to try it. We would also like to expand the recipes for other ways to use the vials. We welcome your feedback. Do you have the Carry On kit yet? Would you consider making ours?