If you waste your days trolling the same online whiskey forums where I waste my days, then between people futilely searching for Pappy and posting more of the same #bourbonporn, you’ll notice near-constant questioning about duty-free liquor shopping across the globe. “Anyone been through Cancun’s duty free store recently?” starts one post on a private Facebook bourbon group. “Dubai duty free?? Amsterdam duty free?? Friend flying back, would like to give him a few things to look for,” reads another. “Any good duty free shops flying out of Porto rico?” [sic] The wealth of misinformation from other commenters in these posts is as common as the misspellings.
And, while other drinks websites continually publish lists of “duty-free secrets” as reliable clickbait, they’re all mostly wrong, too. There are no real secrets anymore. “Travel exclusive” bottlings have mostly dried up, and so have strange American export releases. And there certainly aren’t rows and rows of “unicorn” bottles just sitting in some far-flung terminal somewhere in the South Pacific.
“In the Americas the variety is essentially uniform now across all duty-free stores,” says Henry, the anonymous business traveler behind the @thewhiskywalker Instagram account who may just be one of the most knowledgeable whiskey hunters on planet Earth. He tells me duty-free stores in the Americas and Europe, with rare exception, pretty much carry the same boring variety from the same five to 10 distilleries.
All you need to do to confirm this is to go to duty-free shops at almost any airport — all you will see are slightly cheaper bottles of Tito’s, lots of ugly gift sets, and the same middlebrow whiskey selection you can find at basically any liquor store in your neighborhood. In fact, there are very few opportunities to score anything special booze-wise while traveling by air these days.
That’s because duty-free is dying.
The Slow Death of Duty-Free
“Since the inception of my passion for whiskey, a passion that has taken me to many countries over the last six years, I have seen a dramatic turn in duty-free offerings,” says Ken Gordon, owner of Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors in Boston. “As a whiskey enthusiast, drinker and collector, I have noticed fewer and fewer unique whiskey offerings in duty-free shops while traveling abroad.”
Yet many optimists online refuse to concede to this notion, remaining certain that their next connection through O’Hare or Vienna or Cairo will yield something magnificent. Maybe that was true in the past, but I’m not even so sure of that.
The idea of tax-free airport stores began in Ireland’s Shannon Airport in 1947, and they began arriving in American airports starting in 1960. These stores weren’t designed to sell incredible bottles of scarce whiskey; they were created to incentivize shoppers by saving them a few bucks (saving the “duty”), usually around 20 percent off the typical retail price. But even during the so-called glory days of duty-free, there was never anything all too remarkable.
A 14-year-old duty-free price list that has been circulating around the “whiskey internet” of late confirms as much. According to the list, The Macallan 18 Years Old is a score at $62, and I suppose so is Remy Martin’s Louis XIII Trieze for $950. But aside from those there isn’t much to get excited about on a menu packed with cheap bottles of blended Scotch, Goldschlager, and Godiva Chocolate liqueur bottles. Nevertheless, today, duty-free spirit sales are a nearly $10 billion industry worldwide, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, so it’s certainly not “dead” in a money-making regard. It’s just dead to eager connoisseurs looking for something special.
“It seems like most offerings have been shifted by the distilleries’ marketing departments in an effort to attract a new whiskey consumer by offering NAS [non-age statement] whiskey, bottled at 40 percent to 46 percent ABV,” says Gordon. “In the process, distilleries seem to be forgetting about their loyal customers who search for age statements, cask strength offerings, and/or unique cask finishes in their whiskey. As a duty-free consumer, I look for bottles that I cannot find back home. The whiskey game for me has always been about finding that unique single offering that will never be released again.”
Alas, for Gordon and others, there are still a few gems left to look for.
Where to Keep Searching
If you talk to American whiskey hunters, the brand that most frequently comes up among duty-free desires is Blanton’s. While Buffalo Trace’s single barrel bourbon has become tough to find at normal liquor stores these days — and usually with a jacked-up price when you do see it — I can anecdotally say I’ve seen tons of well-priced Blanton’s of late when flying out of the U.S.
“If anyone needs Blanton’s there’s plenty at the Duty Free inside Atlanta International Airport!” posted a man on Facebook in May of last year.
However, the strictly exported and far more limited Blanton’s Special Reserve, Blanton’s Gold Edition, and the absolutely incredible Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel are simply not to be found at duty-free shops these days despite a lingering myth that they’re abundantly available, especially in some rinky-dink Caribbean airports. Buffalo Trace’s overseas partner Age International has confirmed to me that these products 100 percent do not make it to airports any more.
(As an aside, let me blow your mind with this incredible traveling hack: When in Europe you can order all these limited Blanton’s from Amazon. Just have them delivered straight to your hotel or Airbnb.)
In fact, it’s not just Blanton’s. None of the major American whiskey distilleries really offer any special duty- free products these days. Wild Turkey has its 13 Years Old, but the product has been moved around and is now mainly a Japanese and European release (and it was never particularly exceptional anyway). You see, as whiskey has become more and more sought after, many distilleries simply see no real reason to waste their best “juice” on rubes with rollerboards passing through Terminal C. Take the case of Nikka From the Barrel, which used to be one of the most savvy duty-free scores, coming in its iconic cubed 500-milliliter bottle — it has now become readily available in most American liquor stores.
The one area where there may be some hope is in Asia, according to Henry. “Duty-free shopping is not just a quick stop you make before catching your flight,” he says, “but for many [airports] a destination in itself. [Hong Kong-based] DFS and other duty-free operators in Asia clearly see the need for an above-average and curated selection for customers.”
Henry cites Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney, and Taipei as still being particularly good. During a layover in the latter city’s Taoyuan Airport last year, Henry claims the selection of single cask and independently bottled single malt was “mind blowing.” He saw a 30-year Caol Ila from Hunter Laing, 26-year-old GlenDronach finished in an oloroso sherry butt, and a 41-year-old Port Dundas for an incredibly reasonable $350.
Airports in Japan continue to reign supreme, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll just run across shelves of Yamazaki 25 or Hibiki 30 Year, though that does occasionally still occur. For many whiskey hunters like Henry, the crown jewel of duty-free these days isn’t even some unique expression — it’s the painted bottlings of different Suntory releases, which can sometimes be found in Asian airports if you happen to pass through on the days they hit shelves. These are really nothing more than the standard releases of stuff like Yamazaki 18 and Hibiki 21 in gussied-up packaging for exorbitant up-charges, though, admittedly, they are beautiful bottles.
On the other end of the Suntory spectrum, Mike Vacheresse, the owner of Brooklyn’s Travel Bar, always likes to score a bottle of Chita, Suntory’s under-appreciated single grain whiskey, when passing through duty-free. Though it’s not particularly rare, and certainly not expensive, it’s never been available in America, and it’s damn tasty.
“For me, picking things up at duty-free is not to get a better price on a handle of Johnnie Walker Black, no, no, no,” says Vacheresse. “I’m exclusively looking for whiskey that is not sold in the American market.”
Travel Exclusives Worth Seeking Out
While most brands aren’t stocking anything especially unique or interesting on duty-free shelves these days, Glenmorangie is one of the exceptions. In October 2019 Glenmorangie released an entire travel retail exclusive range, which included three airport-only bottlings: The Accord, The Elementa, and The Tribute. The range launched at Dubai International Airport and will be offered globally at duty-free this year.
“We love hearing from people who get to buy something there that’s ‘different,’ something they can’t get anywhere else,” says Brendan McCarron, the head of maturing whisky stocks at the Glenmorangie Company, who attended the Hong Kong International Airport launch in November. He refutes that duty- free offerings have been getting worse over the years, claiming that, at least in Glenmorangie’s case, they are giving customers exactly what they’re asking for: age-stated whiskey that is innovative, delicious, and limited.
Similarly, Laphroaig offers some fairly compelling travel exclusives. Vacheresse was a big fan of Laphroaig’s An Cuan Mor travel retail bottling, which was released in 2017. In the past several years, the brand has also offered such exclusives as The 1815 and Four Oak, which is matured in four different cask types. “Laphroaig is continuously releasing travel exclusives that sometimes end up in the regular lineup,” says Vacheresse, who also likes that many Scotch travel exclusives seem to come in liter bottles. “A kind of market research, I suppose.”
It’s no coincidence that these are Scotch brands, as the two major Scottish airports, Edinburgh and Glasgow, are still pretty solid for travel retail exclusive Scotch like Bruichladdich Octomore 10.2 as well as single cask offerings from distilleries like Highland Park and BenRiach, the latter of which Gordon scored while passing through Edinburgh Airport last summer.
Unfortunately, as whiskey runs drier and drier across the globe, looking at non-whiskeys may actually be your smartest duty-free move these days. Glasgow Airport has a massive selection of obscure European gins like Edinburgh Gin and Eden’s Mill that are rarely seen in the States. Similarly, tequila companies like Patrón have started offering intriguing travel exclusives, like their Lot 221 release, a blend of añejo aged in French, Hungarian, and American oak barrels that first hit global duty-free locations in 2018.
Finally, though, what duty-free has mostly become today is a rich person’s showroom. Major hubs like London and Singapore have become places where brands stock their most limited and most expensive offerings, hoping the millions of business travelers passing through might buy one.
“Lots of 30- to 50-year-old, super-limited bottles can be found in some major hubs behind glass or the counter,” says Henry. Heathrow has an entire Macallan store in Terminal 5 with bottles like the M Black Decanter for £5,500, while the World of Whiskies shops in four separate terminals currently offer such items as a Bowmore 1965 for £6,000 and Glenfiddich 50 Year Old for £10,000.
But, the reason duty-free might actually not be dead — and might matter more than ever very soon — is for the very reason it was started: to skip out on paying taxes. With the U.S. on the brink of President Trump imposing a 100 percent tariff on imported spirits and wines, soon duty-free might be the only place for Americans to find some of those prized Scotches and Asian whiskies.
It might also be the only place you can actually afford them, which could be the final lifeline keeping duty- free alive to big-time connoisseurs.
“So I wouldn’t say duty-free is necessarily dead yet,” says Henry. “But it certainly seems to be dying.”