The giant posters adorning Sydney airport are as loud and brash as the meatiest Aussie shiraz. “Guilt Free Duty Free” blares out the copy line underneath images of Rayban-wearing nuns carrying ghetto blasters, Sony Walkmans and Chanel No 5. All that’s missing is a bottle or two of Lagavulin poking out from under their habits – even for the Aussies that might have been a step too far.The controversial campaign, run by the world’s number two duty free retailer, The Nuance Group (part of the troubled
Swissair Group), is typical of the in your face manner in which the world’s top duty free retailers are trying to turn captive travellers into captivated shoppers. Nuance didn’t stop at rocking nuns. For its famous lesbian and gay Mardi Gras festival the company featured Stolichnaya vodka wrapped in leather as duty free finally came out of the closet and began to realise the value of the pink pound (I once wrote a spoof for a duty free magazine a few years earlier in which I announced the launch of Johnnie Walker Pink Label, a blended whisky for gay men, in which the famous striding man minced across the label in a vest and tight leather pants – a bemused United Distillers was flooded with orders).Now before our readers choke on their drams in the glens of Scotland, let me assure you this is not an article about the outing of Scotch whisky. I cite Nuance’s offbeat approach only to underline the way many duty free stores are becoming some of the most innovative in the world as store operators seek to overcome the loss of the price saving offered by duty free. In Europe (at least within EU member countries) the Brussels bureaucracy called time on duty free in 1999, sending retailers into a dizzy spin as they realised their “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” approach would no longer work. Elsewhere in the world, notably Japan, the liberalisation of domestic markets long protected by the equivalent of a fiscal chastity belt has eroded the traditional allure of duty free. So, instead of price, the buzzword among airport shop retailers all around the globe is now value and whisky finds itself right at the forefront of the debate. And with good reason – take away the price saving and why should any traveller bother to lug a bottle or two of Scotch around the globe? A good question and one that is vexing the best minds in the industry. Part of the answer lies in that word much loved by marketing men – differentiation. If you can’t offer much of a saving over the High Street, then find a way of denying that price comparison in the first place. Solution? Create products that are only available in duty free. As a result, the so-called duty free exclusive has thrived. Liquor giant Allied Domecq, for example, has launched no fewer than three duty free exclusives whiskies in the past years – Ballantine’s Limited (a top end blend); Laphroaig 10-year-old Cask Strength in a handy 35cl size and a similarly sized Laphroaig 15-year-old. Countless other whisky brands such as Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich and Johnnie Walker have followed suit, making duty free a beacon for the serious whisky collector. The serious collector would certainly enjoy a visit to Sydney where Nuance was recently named Asia/Pacific’s best
travel-retailer in a poll run by trade magazine Duty Free News International. The Sydney store is segmented into several areas: blends, deluxe (12-year-olds and over), malts, Irish/Canadian and American. Oh, and there’s even an Aussie tipple thrown in for good measure, known, you guessed it, as Outback Whiskey. While big names such as Johnnie Walker Red Label, Grant’s, Black Douglas (big down under), The Famous Grouse and Ballantine’s dominate the blended section, Sydney also offers a much more esoteric line-up of malts, all displayed neatly near a pot still replica. As with all airports, the whisky mix reflects the customer base. Sydney’s high proportion of travellers from New Zealand – a country whose dollar is as strong as the chance of Bill Clinton becoming Pope – means sales are made up of cheaper blends and the Antipodean staple Bourbon/Kentucky whiskey.Away from Nuance in Australia, DFS, the world’s duty free giant, offers a highly impressive line-up at its Singapore Changi airport store. The same company’s luxurious Singapore Millenia downtown store is characterised by staff with an expert knowledge of whiskey and a friendly and inviting manner not always found in duty free stores. Allied Domecq also singles out DFS’ Honolulu downtown store. “It has a large array of whiskies, presented on a high-profile pedestal more often associated with fine fragrances,” says the company. Other prime examples include Brussels airport’s star-studded malt collection and Seoul’s spectacular new Incheon airport in South Korea. Tokyo Narita’s stores run by Japan Duty Free also offer a number of fine and rare whiskies, including, of course, a top line-up of excellent Japanese whiskies from producers such as Suntory. One of my favourites is Dubai Duty Free, recently judged best duty free retailer in the Middle East by Duty Free News International, and surely the world’s most spectacular travel retail complex. Not only can you buy an excellent range of (mainly blended) Scotch at basement prices but you might also be lucky enough to win a million dollars, a Porsche or even a Mercedes in one of the prize draws that the airport is synonymous with. But you can’t beat London Heathrow and Gatwick airports, which I believe to be the travel world’s best retailers of whiskies – and among the best anywhere in the world. In the heaving mass of humanity that is London Gatwick in early June, the World of Whiskies store is an oasis of calm. Around a huge whisky still lies an array of malts to die for. Ardbeg 17-year-old (£35), Blackadder 1990 limited edition (345 bottles) from Laphroaig for just £26.99, Bruichladdich 30-year-old (£99), a lovely Signatory Caol Ila 2000, Vintage 1989 for £49 and many more. Also look out for some lovely old boxes of The Glenlivet 1967 and 1977 for £90, the splendid Aberlour 30-year-old (£165) and an eclectic range of rare offerings from Gordon & Macphail. Helpful staff and regular tastings complete the effect. Well done BAA, that’s what duty free shopping is about. It’s a relief after the horror of the fragrance store where several overly made-up sales staff set upon me like Anthony Perkins mother in the top of the stairs scene from Psycho. As I reel back from blitzes of Rocobar, Issey Miyake and Christian Dior Fahrenheit, I come away smelling like a cross between a Glendronach 21-year-old and a French poodle. Even those ghetto-blasting nuns might take offence at that.