Why Do Airport Alcohol Chugs Keep Going Viral?

In 2006 the British Metropolitan police uncovered a terrorist plot to detonate acetone peroxide-based liquid explosives aboard flights from the U.K. to the U.S. and Canada. To get them through security, the would-be terrorists colored the deadly cocktails with Tang drink mix and disguised them as Oasis and Lucozade soft drinks.

Almost immediately, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — enacted new rules for travelers, including the so-called “3-1-1 for Carry-ons,” which limited passengers to no more than 3.4 ounces of any liquid or gel, presented in a single, one-quart zip bag. Similar regulations would soon be enacted in many other countries.

It took some getting used to for many fliers, who had to downsize their bottles of shampoo and shaving cream, and who could no longer return from trips with a souvenir jar of barbecue sauce or container of hot sauce. It also meant one could no longer bring a full bottle of alcohol onto an airplane.

We don’t know for sure who was the first person to slip up and forget this, but we do know the first person to make a stink about it — big enough to go viral.

In December 2007, a 64-year-old German man switching planes on his way home to Dresden did not realize he had an entire bottle of vodka in his carry-on. When Albrecht Dürer Flughafen Nürnberg airport security told him to either discard the bottle or switch his carry-on contraband to checked cargo (with a small fee, of course), he instead chose option three: chugging the entire bottle right in front of them.

The man nearly died, sure, but the bigger, more disastrous fallout was that this story went viral worldwide.

Passenger chugs vodka to avoid airport carry-on rules — and nearly dies,” wrote The Seattle Times.

Man chugs liter of vodka in airport security line,” claimed NBC News.

It was covered in Der Spiegel, Pravda, and on a Prince message board.

The story had all the necessary ingredients to go viral: profligate drunkenness, flaunting dumb laws, airport anger, Darwinism, and near-death. More importantly, it would set a template for other would-be viral drunken fliers over the next decade and a half.

Party in Security

By 2012, you would think people would fully be aware of the now six-year-old regulations. Alas, one woman arrived at Dulles’s security with a 1.75-liter plastic handle of Smirnoff vodka. It hit the news wires and quickly became reliable blog fodder.

The TSA Wouldn’t Let This Woman Bring Vodka Through Security So She Chugged It In Their Faces,” read transportation blog Jalopnik, eliciting 86 comments from the peanut gallery, who mostly commented not on the stupidity of the passenger, but on TSA’s misguided regulations. It also made many commenters, as well as blogger Benjamin Preston, realize that TSA may have had a lot of restrictions in their security theater, but boozing up was not one of them.

“Washington Dulles International Airport’s public affairs office has confirmed that the vodka chugging traveler was not arrested,” wrote Preston, before joking, “I’ve rerouted all of my future travel plans through IAD, where I not (sic) know it’s possible to party in the security line before a flight.”

By now, we were well into the social media age and, thus, the chug was also shared widely on Facebook and made it to the front page of Reddit after being posted, not in any flying sub-Reddits, but in r/funny rather.

It was funny!

Many Redditors shared their own stories of drinking in security lines instead of checking their hooch. In turn, I suspect many of the world’s journalists, bloggers, and pseudo-journalists were thankful they would never have to stop covering this dumbly popular trend.

“Journalists definitely look to viral moments to see ‘Hey, maybe this is something people care about because look at these numbers. Maybe it’ll get us a lot of clicks!’ even though it’s not necessarily super newsworthy,” says Natalie B. Compton, who reports on travel for The Washington Post’s By the Way section.

There were only bigger security chugs to come.

Heroes for Our Times

First reported in the Hong Kong-based publication “The Nanfang” in 2015 was the story of a Miss Zhao who, while transferring to a Wenzhou flight at Beijing Airport, was stopped by airport security and told she would have to relinquish the bottle of Rémy Martin XO Excellence on her person. Despite it being only noon, Zhao sat in the corner and chugged the entire $200 USD bottle instead.

“Zhao started acting wildly and yelling incoherently,” reported Charles Lui. “Due to her massive inebriation, when Zhao fell to the floor, that’s where she stayed. When police arrived at the scene, they decided not to let her board her flight out of concern that she had become a security risk to others and herself as Zhao was traveling alone.”

The story went more viral than any of these security chugs had gone before, especially when amplified by supposedly edgy American outlets like Maxim (“Give it up for the woman who downed an entire bottle of Cognac at airport security”) and VICE, which essentially cheered on “hero for our time” Zhao’s anti-authority antics:

“Not exactly how she expected to enjoy her expensive Cognac, we’re sure, but she certainly wasn’t letting the good stuff go in the trash,” wrote Alex Swerdloff. “Or in an industrious security officer’s backpack.”

The Zhao story also led to some retroactive virality for a story from just two months earlier. Another pair of Chinese travelers, named Wang and Yang, were halted at the Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou, China when security noticed a liquid-filled tiger decanter in one of their carry-ons. It ended up being a 8,000 yuan ($1,288) bottle of wine they insisted had aphrodisiac properties. Why, yes, of course, they chugged it.

“A security manager told them that they wouldn’t be allowed to board their flight if they were intoxicated, but Wang shrugged that off too,” reported USA Today. “He said: ‘We both can drink like a fish, but we’re afraid of wasting the aphrodisiac! We won’t bring this kind of stuff any more. If we do, we will register it as checked baggage.’”

By now, the mainstream press had not just begun to report on these viral incidents, but to turn them into a sort of ethical question:

Swilling a bottle of cognac in front of airport security: idiotic, or genius?” asked The Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, airport industry blogs offered explainers on the matter, like Inside Flyer, which in a 2018 post called Airport Security Beverage: Chug or Throw? wisely advised: “If you can’t drink it, you can’t drink it.”

TikTok TSA

In the 2010 Chinese-language comedy film “Lost on Journey,” a migrant yokel character, flying for the first time, is prevented by airport security from bringing his favorite beverage onto the airplane. Angered, he opts to chug it.

And, a part of me wonders if these security booze chugs are so grossly negligent, so over the top, and so outlandish that they too must be scripted.

In this era where social media users walk on wobbly milk cartons, make NyQuil-marinated chicken, and swallow magnets all for imaginary internet points, why not do a boozy chug in the security line just to get some views and likes?

In late 2021, TikTok user latinnbellaa spawned her own virality when she shared a video of her and her girlfriends throwing back shots of Malibu Pineapple Rum and CÎROC vodka they had “forgotten” to stow on a trip to Miami. The unique wrinkle in this TSA chug variant was that she also passed around the bottles to other queuers.

Yet again, of course, the press picked up the story. Today, latinnbellaa’s initial TikTok has 20 million views.

A cursory search on TikTok today finds tons of TSA chugs from the year or so since latinnbellaa’s viral chug. A woman chugging a split of Champagne, a bro tilting back a Four Loko right in front of the conveyor belt bins, a sad middle-aged man chugging a can of beer aside the metal detectors, a couple of women chugging canned wine at 3:30 a.m. on a layover. Many of these rack up some serious views.

Despite the insane frequency and virality of these security line chugs, Compton doesn’t think they are scripted. She thinks people do truly forget.

“Social platforms reward shocking content — plus I think people see the chugger as sticking it to the man,” says Compton. “We’ve all been asked to throw away something we value, the chug response is giving into your id.”

(Compton actually notes that she believes loaded guns at TSA stories happen way more often, with a reported 6,542 incidents in 2022.)

And that brings us to the present where, over the last few months, the TSA (and other countries’ airport securities) have begun installing higher-tech computed tomography scanners in security checkpoints across the nation. These devices not only allow travelers to leave anything and everything in their carry-on luggage, but also to — perhaps one day — bring larger liquid items onto planes once again.

This was exciting news to many spirits writers, but all I thought was, “Oh no, this will end a lot of reliable internet fodder!”

At the least, there will still be stadium chugs to cover.

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