Duty Free & Travel Retail Shopping

The holidays are once again right around the corner. For most people in the U.S. this means two things…gift giving and travel. So with that in mind I thought I would pontificate on the intersection where those two things meet whiskey. Duty Free/Travel Retail shopping immediately come to mind.

I’m sure that most of you who have done any type of international travel have seen whiskey for sale somewhere. It might be a small duty free liquor section in the gift shop of your cruise ship or a massive store in Heathrow. If you’ve flown out of Cancun then you can’t actually get to your gate without going through the duty free store. The selections may be big or small but how do you know what to buy?

Before we start I want to dispel the myth that if you get it in a travel shop then it must be a good deal. What once was referred to as “Duty Free” shopping has now morphed into “Travel Retail” shopping. That means that depending on where you are, where you’re going, and what you’re buying the items may not be duty or tax free at all. If you see something that you buy all the time at home then you probably have a good point of reference for the relative value of the purchase. However, if you’re picking up a gift either as planned or on impulse you might be surprised to know that the price of the bottle you are looking at may not be that great. In some instances it might even be more expensive. In this age or smartphones and instance wireless internet connectivity I recommend doing a little homework before pulling the trigger.

So what should you buy? If it’s whiskey you are after then I would say old favorites, exclusive items, or high-end blends. First, if you’re a Macallan 18 drinker or you’re buying for someone who is a regular drinker then you probably know a bottle will run you $150 at home. If you see a bottle in a travel retail shop for $115 then it’s probably a no brainer. Just make sure you have a solid point of reference. The shops selling Macallan near the cruise ship docking in Grand Cayman will actually charge you more for that bottle than you could pay at home.

Next, I would recommend looking at travel retail exclusive bottlings for something interesting. More often than not you will find Scotch in your search for travel retail exclusives. Here’s a brief list of some to keep an eye out for:

Auchentoshan Select
Balvenie GoldenCask
Glenfiddich Age of Discovery
Glenrothes 25 Year Old & Three Decades
Highland Park 1998 Vintage, 1994 Vintage, 1990 Vintage, 1978 Vintage, 1973 Vintage, and Leif Eriksson
Macallan 1824 Collection: Select Oak, Whisky Maker’s Edition, Estate Reserve, 1824 Limited Edition, and Oscuro

Some American whiskeys do make it to travel retail but very few exclusively. Jim Beam Signature 6 Grain and Jack Daniels Silver Select are the only ones that come to mind. You can’t get any of these whiskeys in your local store and some are very good. As with any purchase I always recommend trying it first if at all possible.

A final thought might be a good Scotch blend. Blends have been getting beat up a good bit in the past decade with the growth of single malts. I can’t seem to throw a cork without hitting a single malt snob these days. The truth is blends are good. Some can be very good. They also seem to have a higher tax/duty mark up and therefore offer great buys in a duty free shop. I’ve regularly found Dewar’s Signature and Chivas Royal Salute 21 Year Old for half of retail price. You might only save 10% or 20% on the bottle of single malt sitting next to it. With deals like that maybe it’s time to see how good blends can be. Personally, I always have a good blend at home and if it’s more than $100 you can bet I got it duty free.

I hope some of this might help you in the near future while waiting for your next flight. I want to be clear that this is purely from personal experience. I have no data from expansive international pricing surveys but I travel regularly and I’m always looking for something interesting. Hopefully, on your next layover or trip to visit the family you can find something interesting too.

Oh by the way, most of the shops gift wrap too. 😉

Drink wisely my friends,

Richard

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