An insider’s guide to curating high-end, high-seas beverage programs aboard cruise ships.

At-sea culinary adventures offer once-in-a-lifetime sips and one-on-one connections only found in cruising, since they set sail with specific selections of wine, spirits, beer, and champagne on board. Curated collections for multi-day experiences showcase bottles from the world’s best vineyards and spirit producers as well as meet-and-greets with makers and celebrity chefs. This immersion into high-end yet approachable beverage programs increases revenue, ROI, brand awareness, and sustainability. 

“We now have more educated guests who are very knowledgeable about new and upcoming spirits, beers, and wines, and when they’re on vacation, they like to taste things that aren’t available in their supermarket, wine and liquor store, or local restaurants,” says Sami Kohen, vice president of food and beverage at Princess Cruises. “Beverage is an exciting program we have for engagement with guests on board so they feel they’re on a unique vacation.”

Selecting top-shelf wines, spirits, beer, and champagne happens “at a grassroots level,” says Wes Cort, vice president of food and beverage operations at Norwegian Cruise Line. This means “having a finger on the pulse” of what’s happening daily in the industry to elevate and innovate onboard experiences, like Norwegian Cruise’s sustainably produced and biodynamic wines, rare vintages, and zero-waste cocktails.

“What we do is have those authentic relationships and collaborations with people on the ground,” Cort says, and that includes wine and craft beverage makers plus restaurant and bar owners of all sizes in different communities. These relationships present phenomenal opportunities to understand beverage insights that make sense for each ship, guests, and up-and-coming trends in the industry, he says.

Daniela Oancea, corporate beverage manager at Oceania Cruises, says the company looked through its sales data to determine what its customer base was looking for. “What’s appealing to well-traveled clientele, their demographic, nationalities, and preferences, and everything had to be realistic and catered to their needs,” she explains. 

“Guests always remember what they ate and drank,” Oancea adds. “Our clientele has to feel comfortable, and wine lists and bar menus have to be approachable, and that’s what we accomplished launching the new bar menus in addition to the 75 new labels in the wine list.”

Oceania’s data across seven luxury ships showed the United States, Italy, France, and South America were top for “upper premium range” wines, so to satisfy a variety of palates, the brand’s 75 new premium wines include Super Tuscans and Bordeauxs alongside Kosher and French non-alcoholic. Oancea’s team also dipped into excellence in producers of gin, whisky, bourbon, vodkas, and premium cocktails from housemade recipes.

“Already in the first half year since we launched the new wine list, sales are sky high, guests are interested in the new wines, and we’ve seen sommelier enthusiasm to present and showcase the new wine selection,” says Oancea. “Our sales have gone up close to 30 percent, the selection is more versatile, and satisfies a wider range of guests.”

Refreshing its beverage mix every quarter is how Princess Cruises identifies exclusive wine, beer, spirits, and champagnes. It’s building from already sophisticated products, plus the company’s sommelier trainings and WSET certifications, and bringing wine and spirit makers aboard that lends to tying premium beverage to gastronomic experiences at sea. 

“And then we move into our itineraries. We have 15 ships … we look at destinations as well as local availabilities,” Kohen explains. “When we’re in Alaska, we create a great Alaskan vodka spirit and beer tasting by teaming up with local suppliers not only giving an exciting opportunity for guests, but also helping local communities we visit.”

Close itinerary research shows the specific ports and countries “to help pick the best available white, red, and rosé wines that fit our menu as well as climates we sail,” says Kohen. “We bring these experiences while ships are sailing [around the world] for guests to encounter something they’ll never be able to at home.” This includes their 100 days around the world with 50 cocktails paired to 45 cities’ cuisines to increase engagement onboard.

Princess Cruises’ 360 Experience took 18 months of development for a Mediterranean-focused, local ingredient-forward five senses tour through Santorini, the Amalfi Coast, Barcelona, and Provence. The team spoke to growers and reviewed characteristics of wine, spirit, beer, and champagne to solidify beverage selections first, then menu pairings. 

It’s depth of knowledge into guest profiles, needs, and locations that shows the path to scalability as well. “It’s not only a success to create a great cocktail or add a great wine. We have to make sure it’s price compatible, affordable, and people enjoy it,” Kohen explains, “because if you create something successful, you need to look for scalability.”

That scalability and innovation involves 365 days of product availability for consistency in addition to securing beverages several months ahead. It also means looking into volume purchase pricing, guest consumption stats, and space and cellar temperature considerations, say experts. 

The curated beverage and gastronomy—in addition to collaborations with top-level chefs that guests can’t find anywhere else—allow cruises to leverage the mini-city environment for unforgettable experiences, says Jeff Cuellar, vice president of events, marketing, community, and branding at Sixthman who partners with EBG and A21 for at-sea food and beverage experiences. 

“What drives us to innovate is making sure our guests come onboard and take home an experience they can share and say, ‘It was amazing. I was in Bermuda and couldn’t believe the Gosling family was onboard to share their story and tell us about their rums as we experience them,’” Cort says.

Norwegian selections curate connections and one-on-one meetings with makers like Mondavi, Gosling, Torres, Hidalgo, Ferragamo, Bottega, Johnnie Walker, and Dom Pérignon. They also partner with Sixthman for several-day festivals and feasts offering intimate beverage and food pairings with celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelson, Michael Simon, Robert Irvine, and Anne Burrell.

“It’s not just eating. It’s seeing, smelling, touching; it’s all of it together,” Cuellar says, “We’ve learned over the years people want these experiences and want to be more than a speck in the crowd. They want to be part of it, and they’re willing to invest their hard-earned dollars because they know they’re not going to be 40 rows up looking at a jumbotron to experience it … this is going to be much, much deeper.”

It’s understanding the focused three-to-five-night nature of the cruise venue while creating zeroed-in superior beverages and pairing perfectly with cuisine that matches the immersive, purposeful vacation experiences guests only find aboard ships, explains Cuellar. 

“You’re living the experience over multiple days,” says Cuellar. “As soon as you step foot on the ship, all the baggage and cares are gone, and now you can immerse yourself in what puts the biggest smile on your face.” 

“Be open. Be adventurous,” he adds. “And think about it as leaving space for the unexpected, because sometimes you can’t plan special moments.”

Bar Management, Beverage, Feature