Mile-High Speakeasy: Straightaway Canned Cocktails Take Flight on Alaska Airlines
Maybe it’s a kid kicking the back of your seat. Or the stranger slumping to sleep on your shoulder. Better yet, the rapidly swelling bruise on your elbow that just caught the remorseless beverage cart. There are countless excuses to order something high-proof to help take the edge off of flying. For ages, we took what we could get. X juice plus X mini-bar bottle of liquor equaled whatever cocktail combining the two most closely approximated. What’s more, this felt like a privilege.
Starting in February, V8 and vodkas, whiskey Cokes, and tequila-spiked glasses of OJ will have stiff competition. Straightaway cocktails, the Portland-based early adopters of the packaged cocktail revolution, will be available on all Alaska Airlines flights nationwide. That’s 30 million passengers annually. Adorable 3.5-ounce cans—a larger pour than a standard cocktail—will run $12.
The partnership will start with two cocktails: Straightaway’s rye whiskey Oregon old-fashioned, rounded out with house-made hazelnut and Douglas fir bitters, and a mezcal-laced mango habanero margarita, made with Jacobsen sea salt and orange liqueur.
The old-fashioned is an appropriately punchy twist on the classic, with the warm and toasty notes of Freddy Guys filberts from Monmouth. It’s strong, and feels like a business-trip cocktail, maybe a nightcap to kick off the red-eye to JFK charged to your employer's expense account.
The margarita is a touch sweet but has a nice salinity. It veers toward the “premium ingredient” Cadillac variety; the mango and habanero are present yet subtle in the flavoring made by Portland Syrups. An attempt to can a drink hinged on the acidity of fresh citrus is ambitious, and while it’s not quite as vibrant as one made to order, we’ll gladly sip it as we plot our moves before landing in CDMX.
News officially broke this morning, but Straightaway cofounder Cy Cain has been dreaming about getting his drinks on Alaska flights pretty much since he started making them. In fact, he wrote “be on Alaska Airlines” into the company’s business plan four years ago.
Talks with the airline began six months after Cain and his cofounder, Casey Richwine, set up shop in late 2018. The longtime friends were inspired to get into business after nailing batched cocktails at home, a trick to keep them from being stuck playing bartender all night at dinner parties. At the time, Cain says there were 30 registered companies in the US focusing on ready-to-drink cocktails. Today, he says there are more than 1,500.
How did they manage to get Alaska’s ear, and cut through the exponentially increasing competition? “We had to kind of prove ourselves,” says Cain. “Prove that we’re legit and real and get recognition for being such a brand.”
Cain is no stranger to growing businesses. When he started as a store manager at Starbucks, Cain says there were 30 stores in Oregon. (In case you’re wondering, there’re now 359.) He went on to work on the product side of Starbucks, eventually working as a regional director. You can imagine he learned a bit about designing and distributing packaged beverages.
Once upon a time, Starbucks was a little coffee roaster in Seattle. And Straightaway, Cain says, takes inspiration from other Oregon-founded brands like Stumptown and Salt & Straw that have carved a niche for themselves in the national market—some of those companies are now Straightaway collaborators.
The COVID bump in enthusiasm for bottled, canned, and to-go cocktails created a new market, exploding Straightaway’s business. Two years ago, they were asked to open a temporary, pop-up tasting room at Bridgeport Village; it’s still there. Straightaway's initial production facility on SE Hawthorne has been turned into a low-key tasting room serving miniature flights of everything from a Stumptown espresso martinis to barrel-aged negronis, both paired with snacks, as the increased demand afforded a larger factory in North Portland.
Not only is Straightaway quickly becoming a landmark of Portland’s food businesses, akin to those that Cain has long admired, it’s also created its own supply chain. There’s the partner farm producing mezcal in Oaxaca, the Malaysian factory supplying the cans, Freddy Guys hazelnuts in Monmouth, and Portland Syrups quite literally across the street from its tasting room. The list goes on.
But can these mostly small family businesses keep up with the brand’s skyrocketing growth? At this point, Cain says he isn’t worried about outpacing the company’s relatively small, mostly local collaborators: “It’s a problem we hope to have to solve, for sure. But right now, we’re in good shape. We haven’t really painted ourselves into that corner.”
The cocktail that launched Cain and Richwine’s obsession was the presumably simple gin and lemon Filipino drink lintik (Tagalog for lightning). Cain describes it, romantically, as a “classic cocktail that was forgotten in time.” The drink is hard not to like, but for their first offerings at 30,000 feet, Cain’s team wants to keep things as approachable as possible.
For now, Straightaway’s interpretations of these two reliable standbys fit the bill, something familiar enough to drink without removing your sleep mask. In the future, he says he wants to build the same trust customers might have with reputable cocktail bars. He mentions Rum Club and Expatriate as exemplars—where you’re much more likely to spring for a drink you’ve never tried, trusting that the bartenders know what they’re doing.
When asked how to keep the Oregonian aesthetic, to continue feeling like a PNW brand as the company continues expanding, Cain points to the brands he’s sought to emulate while developing the company. “Even though you see Tillamook cheese and Jacobsen salt in New York and California and Florida, they still feel like Oregon brands, because they are here, and the makers are here,” he says. “I think we’re going to kind of follow the path.”