Places

A matter of duty

Eighty-five bottles of Scotch are sold every minute in duty-free shops around the world. Martin Moodie looks at where the best ranges can be found, and where it's worth missing your fight for a special bottling.
By Martin Moodie
Early on a Wednesday morning and malt whisky sales are already doing a roaring trade in one west London liquor store. But this isn’t any corner shop trying to defy local licensing laws. The venue is London Heathrow airport’s Terminal One where a specialist store called Whiskies of the World has become a beacon for whisky lovers, lured by a range of fine and often rare malts such as 1955 Strathisla, 50 year old Glenfiddich and Bowmore 50 year old, the last two a comparative snip at £3,500 each.The ambience is more akin to that of a gentleman’s wine merchant in St James’s (the shop manager, Brian O’Neill, describes himself as a ‘whisky consultant’) than the old stack ‘em high sell ‘em cheap image of a British duty-free shop. Multi-lingual staff help connoisseurs and newcomers alike in tutored tastings of approximately 25 different lines each day. The Heathrow store (called World of Whiskies in Terminals Two, Three and Four and at London Gatwick’s North Terminal) typifies the way many of the world’s leading airports have become treasure chests crammed with quality whisky. Locations such as London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol offer some fantastic, often rare bottlings – many of them exclusive to duty-free stores. During my last visit to Heathrow, for example, I was tempted by a Bruichladdich 25 year old for £50, courted by a similarly-aged Highland Park for £89.99 and finally seduced by a 1955 Longmorn for £189. And if I’d had any money left, I probably would have re-kindled my passion with a Bushmill’s 1608 12 year old for £18.50 a litre – just one of the many lines you can’t find on the high street.To find such a selection at an airport isn’t as surprising as it might seem. Duty-free has long been an integral part of the travel experience. For the European businessman, the opportunity to pick up a bottle of Bell’s or Glenmorangie out of expenses – and beat the taxman to boot – has always proved irresistible. And for the past 20 years, the sight of whisky-laden duty-free bags more overcrowded than a Tokyo underground train has been a symbol of Japanese travel.
Last year a staggering 45 million bottles of Scotch whisky were sold in duty-free stores around the world. ‘That equates to 85 bottles every minute of every hour, 365 days a year,’ says Mike Collings, marketing director of the biggest duty-free supplier of them all, United Distillers & Vintners.UDV’s famous Johnnie Walker duo, Red Label and Black Label, dominate the scene, selling around 22 million bottles between them. Chivas Regal from Seagram comes in next, followed by Ballantine’s (standard and 12-year-old), Grant’s, J&B and Famous Grouse. Glenfiddich is the best-selling malt and Tennessee’s favourite son Jack Daniel’s also comes in highly. And if you’re travelling through Dublin airport you’ll find the best selection of Irish whiskey outside the Landsdowne Road terraces on international day.The figures tell their own story. The popularity of standard blends is testament to how many of us grab a bottle while taking the ferry to France; and how a bottle of Bell’s is as fundamental to the British travel experience to the Costa del Sol as beans and chips in a Benidorm café.The saving is good –- about £11 on a litre of a good malt such as Dalwhinnie, £15 on a 12 year old blend such as Chivas or a whole lot more again on a super-premium like Johnnie Walker Blue Label that would mean taking out a second mortgage if you bought it downtown – if you could find it in the first place.But it’s not just for the chance of saving a few quid on a bottle of Teacher’s that this writer searches out the airports of the world. No, it’s the range on offer – especially in the specialist stores – that have made travelling a much more interesting process for the whisky aficionado.Perversely, this explosion of shopping opportunities has been directly related to the perceived decline of duty-free. Japanese duties, for example, were historically higher than Mount Fuji. No wonder a generation of two of Oriental travellers put Heathrow airport’s duty-free stop on their must-see list. But as taxes come down in the face of western political pressure and local Japanese discount stores flourish, duty-free savings just ain’t what they used to be. In Europe too, duty-free is threatened, this time by European Commission tax commissioner Mario Monti who is leading a campaign to have intra-European Union duty-free scrapped this June. That’ll mean if you travel, say, between London and Frankfurt, come July you won’t be able to buy your duty-free. Though if you’re headed for New York or Dubai, you will. (As a diplomat, of course, Monti retains his duty-free allowance wherever he travels, but that’s another story.) As a result, retailers are doing their best to make their liquor stores more attractive, just in case they won’t be able to call on the savings card in the future.By and large, they’re succeeding. The concept of the so-called ‘duty-free exclusive’ has taken off like an Australian bush fire. Wander through any major international airport these days and you’ll find a cluster of lines that you just won’t find on the high street. Johnnie Walker Deco, Talisker 1986, Gentleman Jack, Jameson Gold, Ballantine’s Purity and Aberlour 100 proof. The list is growing all the time and don’t expect to find any of them downtown.So which travel locations are the best? Heathrow without doubt, both in its traditional duty-free stores and the Whiskies of the World shops. Singapore Changi always carries an exotic range – though the emphasis is on 12 year old and 17 year old blends, more favoured by the Asian consumer than malts. Typical prices here are US$37.90 (£22.96) for a litre of Johnnie Walker Black or Chivas Regal, and $22.70 (£13.75) for a litre of Johnnie Walker Red. Australian airports, besides offering a good range, have the added benefit of allowing you to purchase on arrival – that bottle of Macallan feels a lot lighter when you’ve only had to transport it from just outside Customs to the car park. Paris Charles de Gaulle has pulled up both its socks and its stocks in recent times and Eurotunnel’s store in Dover is surprisingly good. Brussels airport is arguably the best on the Continent – ironic given that the epicentre of the campaign to scrap duty-free is just a few miles away. Brussels airport carries no fewer than 64 single malts – the only major European airport where malts outsell all other whiskies. The shops do a brilliant job in educating the consumer, dividing the range into regions and displaying a map of Scotland to illustrate those geographic origins. Tastings are a regular draw and twice a year a silk tie is offered with each bottle. Apparently this sees whisky sales shoot up by 55 per cent – though goodness knows what it does for the airport’s Tie Rack store. ‘We have six or seven whiskies you won’t find anywhere else anymore,’ says commercial manager Marc Leemans. ‘We often buy the remaining stocks from a distillery – the latest was a cask of The Balvenie that was bottled specially for us.’On price, Eurotunnel is hard to beat, especially on standard blends. The Middle East offers real interest, especially at Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports. And Singapore’s retailers always provide good value – no doubt encouraged by the fact that their contracts stipulate that they have to undercut the rest of the Asian region.Airports in the USA have traditionally been pretty dismal places to shop. Americans are probably the least enthusiastic purchasers of duty-free whiskies, largely because of the country’s relatively low excise duties. But Miami airport offers a strong well-merchandized selection, especially of bourbon and Tennessee whisky. Orlando and nearby Sanford enjoy some of the highest liquor sales of any American airports, partly due to their high ratio of travelling Brits but also because of the excellent range of Scotch, Irish and US whiskies. You can pick up some great bourbons such as the divine Maker’s Mark or one of the many single barrel beauties such as Blanton’s. North of the border, things look up. If you’re travelling to British Columbia, don’t miss Vancouver airport’s duty-free shop. Thanks to the high level of Asian traffic, there’s a good range of older blends such as Old Parr Superior, considered an excellent corporate gift in Japan. You’ll also find a fine selection of Canadian whiskies, including older versions of perennial favourites such as Crown Royal and Canadian Club. Canadian Club 20 year old is a beauty, both in packaging and taste. Forget the maple syrup, this is the gift to bring back from Mountie country. South America has long been whisky territory and its airport shops reflect that popularity. The best shops by far are in Brazil, Argentina and, increasingly, Uruguay. But while shopping ambience may be lacking, bargains are not. Blends such as Ballantine’s and Johnnie Walker Black are well-priced in South America as are regional favourites such as Buchanan’s – try a bottle of the Buchanan’s 18 year old Special Reserve and you’ll discover why. Brazil’s leading airports, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, each offer a top selection of older blends and standard lines. And with generous allowances upon entry, you can buy a six-litre -pack of malt the way you’d usually pick up a carton of Budweiser. Brazilian bar owners have been doing it for years, helping bypass the prohibitive local duties.Back across the Atlantic at Heathrow terminal one, Brian O’Neill is hoping today might see a repeat of the day a Japanese bar-owner came in and bought a bottle of The Macallan 60 year old at £10,000 (with the intention of charging £500 a shot at his downtown Tokyo hostelry – make sure you check the small print next time you entertain your Japanese partner there).The travel experience might mean crowds, delays and over-priced airfares. But increasingly it also means a whisky selection to die for.
Now, if only we could convince Tax Commissioner Monti of the merits of a good Speyside.