Martin Moodle conducts his annual survey on what's hot - and good value - in the duty free shops of the world
Duty free retailers have had a tough time lately. First, those laugh-a-minute bureaucrats of Brussels said “RIP duty free” (or at least between European Union countries) back in 1999. And over the past 12 months sales have slumped in the face of foot-and-mouth disease (the livestock rather than Brussels bureaucrat kind) and a crippling of international air traffic post September 11th. Now the WHO (the World Health Organisation, not Townsend and Daltrey) is talking about banning duty free cigarette sales. Ever get the impression someone is out to spoil our fun? But it’s not all bad news for the industry, especially for the consumer. Business is bouncing back and the whisky-shopper is spoiled for choice and overrun with promotional offers, especially in the UK. The six World of Whiskies stores run by BAA (all four Heathrow terminals, plus Gatwick North and Stansted) are stunningly good examples of airport shopping, offering an eclectic range of whiskies from the rare to the rarefied, with service to match.The shops are also a glorious antidote to the chaos, stress and endless checks of the post September 11th airport experience. There’s something simultaneously boffinish and accessible about these stores with their elegant wood panelling, regular tastings, knowledgeable staff and a thrilling mixture of special bottlings and collector’s editions. BAA’s retail arm World Duty Free says that a third of the World of Whiskies range is not available in any of the traditional duty free shops. The specialist stores boast a rolling stock of older age statements or vintages from both mainstream and obscure distilleries. The six stores currently hold two vintages of The Macallan (1951 and 1961), and later this summer will be offering the 27th bottle (one of only 13 remaining) of The Macallan 60-year-old.Today, range is as vital as price in attracting the travelling consumer. So retailers such as World of Whiskies try to offer a wide selection that cannot be found in the high street. Noticing a trend towards cask strength and single barrel whiskies at World of Whiskies, nine major brands, including Auchentoshan, Glenmorangie and Glen Garioch, are bottling casks to be co-branded exclusively for the airport stores this year.As a result of all this activity, whisky collectors are increasingly seeking out Heathrow and other airports. On his most recent trip, for example, one ardent malt aficionado picked up The Macallan 1961, a Laphroaig 30-year-old and a Ladyburn Vintage 1973 with a combined price tag of £1,200. A long way from the carton of 200 fags and bottle of Bell’s usually associated with duty free retailing.So who are the best malt buyers? Not the Brits, not the Americans, not the Japanese (who opt for super-premium blends such as Johnnie Walker Blue and Ballantine’s 17-year-old), but, wait for it, the Norwegians.Maybe it’s a case of Norwegian wood, as wood finishes are this year’s rage in airport stores. Whether it’s blends like The Famous Grouse in port wood or Glenmorangie in Madeira casks, you’ll find a way to mix your drinks. This summer, Glenfiddich is launching Havana Reserve, a 21-year-old finished in a Cuban barrel (probably procured from a Miami beachcomber).But it’s not just the specialist stores that are striving to look after the customer. Duty free has come a long way from the not-so-distant past when its reputation for value for money was roughly on a par with Enron’s. All that has changed, particularly in UK airports and those of Sydney, Auckland, Amsterdam, Brussels, Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Hawaii and Vancouver. London Heathrow Terminal 4 is spearheading this new generation with a glittering beast of a store that hits you with price promises as soon as you have put your X-rayed loafers back on.“Up to 30% cheaper than the UK High Street” blare the signs, though admittedly that depends where on the high street you look. But overall the prices are pretty good and the range and merchandising quality excellent. Regular travellers should look especially for any airport’s regular special offers, a great way of topping up the cellar with lines that can’t be found elsewhere. During my visit, Heathrow was offering a £10 saving on any two bottles of Aberlour 12-year-old Sherry Cask (£24.99), Aberlour Vintage 1990 (£21.99), The Glenlivet 15-year-old (£26.99) or The Glenlivet in American or French oak (£24.99). And for non-European Union flights, remember everything is in litres instead of the usual 70cl from your local Oddbins.It’s interesting to see how the duty free malt offer has mushroomed from a decade ago, when only a cluster of brands, mainly Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, The Glenlivet, Cardhu and The Macallan dominated the shelves. Glenfiddich still does (it sold an amazing 2.7 million bottles in duty free last year) but now it can be found in a myriad of finishes (Solera Reserve is a big hit in duty free), presentation tins and age statements. There’s a big current fad for multi-packs, such as the Laphroaig selection comprising 10-year-old, 15-year-old and 30-year-old, a great gift idea. If blends are your thing, look no further than the excellent Johnnie Walker Collection, a nifty little gift pack featuring four 20cl bottles of Pure Malt, Black Label, Gold Label and super-premium Blue Label for £49.99. Superb as a corporate gift, especially in Asia. Glenfiddich offers a three-pack (Solera Reserve, Special Reserve and Ancient Reserve all in 20cl), another nice buy at £29.99. They all come with the sort of packaging that you’d expect to find in the perfume shop next door, but give me a top note of peat rather than musk or hyacinth any day. So, maybe it’s time to revisit your old prejudices about duty free and go and chase a few bargains. But be quick, the Norwegians may just get there first.
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