Duty Free Part 3: By Land

Last week I was in Pittsburgh for work. It’s about a five and a half hour drive from Toronto so I elected to drive rather than fly as the total travel time is about the same either way. Two days in Pittsburgh afforded a couple of opportunities: the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), the state run liquor monopoly, and Duty Free Americas (DFA), a chain of stores which controls ninety duty free outlets across North, Central and South America.

First up, the PLCB. Like our beloved LCBO, the PLCB is a government monopoly that controls supply and pricing. Again, like the LCBO, the PLCB offers monthly discounts on a limited number of bottles but as far as deals go for the Canadian shopper, the competing forces of lower state taxes (compared to Ontario) wrestle with the unfavourable exchange rate between the US and the Canadian dollar. Prior to the dramatic decrease in the loonie versus the greenback, the PLCB prices on a lot of whisky were very, very appealing but one needs to look more carefully these days, noting especially the sales.

So, what did I see? A number of great deals.No picture for this one, but a fantastic deal at the PLCB is Laphroaig 18 year.

Laphroiag 18 PLCB $US 79.99 ($CDN 107)

Laphroaig 18 LCBO $CDN 179.95 (when available, provincial inventory has been at ‘0’ bottles for months now.)

I’ve tasted the 18 year old at a couple of Friends of Laphroaig events here in Toronto and it is an unbelievable expression; definitely on my ever growing list of bottle to add to the collection. Trust me, get a bottle, put it on your top shelf.

Next up at the PLCB, a pair of fantastic Irish whiskies, the ‘Spots’. I know a number of devotees of the Spots, and I’m sure the pricing here will have them consider a quick weekend trip to PA.

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Green Spot PLCB $US 59.99 ($CDN 80.39)

Green Spot LCBO $CDN 85.25

Yellow Spot PLCB $US 89.99 ($CDN 120.59)

Yellow Spot LCBO: nope

There are other gems at the PLCB that I’ll be happy to share in future posts, but for now, go get that Laphroaig!

Duty Free Americas on the other hand, doesn’t have a tremendous range of whisky at their stores. Their outlets are typical duty free store that besides spirits, wine and beer, also offer cosmetics, tobacco, hand bags, sunglasses, etc. Liquor prices tend to be a little cheaper than at state or provincial stores, with a few notable exceptions. As well, all DFA stores use common pricing so that each store sells for the same price regardless of which state you are entering or exiting the US. They have one website for all stores so a little research ahead of one’s trip can give visibility as to what they are offering and for how much, despite the limited selection.

This trip, at DFA is where I chose to make a strategic buy. Expanding the collection is rewarding and fun, but it needs to be protected otherwise the very good bottles tend to get eroded by a lethal combination of curiosity and thirst. This is where ‘buffer’ bottles come into play: ‘every day’ drams that keep me from breaking into all of that good stuff all the time. Today’s buffer: Monkey Shoulder.

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A liter for $ CDN38?!? An easy decision considering the quality of this vatted malt (a marriage of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and the elusive Kininvie; no grain liquor in this one) and comparing the LCBO price of  $CDN 54.90 for a 750 ml bottle.

My Springbank, Yamazaki and Octomore can all rest a little easier now that the Monkey Shoulder is there to take the hit.

Happy foraging!

Duty Free Part 2: Shiny, Sexy Bottles

The open sarcophagus holding a millennia-old mummy. The complete, gigantic but not entirely authentic T. Rex skeleton. Rocks brought back from the Moon. Suits of armour. All fond boyhood memories from a trip to the museum. Items of age and wonder that capture the young imagination, turning the frenetic youngster’s mind to one of awe and contemplation. Sure, museums are still pretty cool but there’s somewhere else that similarly fires the mind…

For all the disparaging I did last post regarding the state of duty free, there is one thing that the outlets in the larger airports excel at, and that’s ostentation. The busier the airport -translate as ‘the greater the amount of money flowing through it’- the fancier the bottles, the softer the lighting and, exponentially, the higher the price tags. It’s almost like they’re trying to outdo each other by showing off whose is bigger. Ahem. Whose age statement is bigger.

The bottle envy aside, a good, extensive duty free shop can in many ways be just like a museum. Priceless (we’ll, certainly out of my price range but up to a couple orders of magnitude) antiquities put on high-security display for the world to admire. Cultural artifacts that capture the imagination of those who appreciate whisky, evoking awe, wonder and a fleeting mental image of how one of these bottles might look centered on the top shelf of our collection.

So, in no particular order, here are a few gems I’ve seen in the last six months.

 

A lovely 40-year old Balvenie. Note the soft lighting.
A lovely 40-year old Balvenie. Note the soft lighting.
A heavy-weight in a Lalique crystal bottle.
A heavy-weight in a Lalique crystal bottle.
Older still. Only 30 bottles of this one.
Older still. Only 30 bottles of this one.

And the pièce de résistance, seen at Changi airport, Singapore:

Whoa.
Whoa. Click to enlarge.

Are any of these a good deal? I mean, that’s why I’m writing this blog, right? Considering that some of these bottles have a world-wide inventory of less than 50, I hardly think that price comparing is relevant or appropriate. Just to keep things on track though, at Changi where I saw the epic Highland Park display I bought a Hakushu 12 for $SIN 90 or about $CAD 82. For a bottling that is both a Suntory whisky with an age statement, and perpetually out-of-stock in Canada and the US, this was a good deal.

Happy foraging!

Duty-free Part 1: A Bittersweet Relationship

Duty-free is, generally, not the friend of the collector. Not really. The allure of Duty Free is that items sold there will be tax-free for use or consumption outside of the country in which it is sold. Sounds great but it doesn’t always translate into a good deal because the stores are free to set their own pricing. This often results in pricing just the same as if the product was being sold, with tax, at a regular retail store. Yes, I’m looking at you, Schiphol Duty Free.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so negative here…duty-free is more bittersweet than unfriendly. The bottles offered to the collector are stunning, the prices though for these bottles, appalling. More on that in Part 2.

There is always plenty of shiny at these stores, which for the whisky collector usually takes the form of a dazzling and often bewildering array of mysterious and nigh-unpronounceable Gaelic names, warm enticing colour-names, or titles that feature words like ‘Reserve’, ‘Select’, or ‘Cask’. Oh, and then there’s the lines of bottles with rather banal references to ‘exploring’ or ‘discovering’. Feh. This so-called ‘travel retail’ market is obviously thriving, as evidenced by the amount of product gracing the  shelves, but the fair questions to ask here are (a) is the price worth it, and (b) how do I know if it’s any good? That (a) depends on your appetite for collecting, not mine, and (b) on your palate, not mine. Personally I stay away from these bottles.

Here’s why: a few years ago I was enticed to buy a liter bottle of Bowmore Enigma at duty-free in Schiphol Amsterdam. I thought that it was a perfectly good every-day sort of dram, so much so that I bought another bottle my next time through. Turns out that I was quite obviously incorrect in my assessment of its quality because this product line was quickly discontinued, replaced by three new Bowmore travel retail ‘exclusives’: Gold Reef, Black Castle and White Sand. Note the adherence to the colour theme I mentioned above…ugh. What are these, I asked myself, and how do they relate to my Enigma? Or is there any relation at all? I love Bowmore but seriously, Et tu, Brute?

The short lesson here is to stick with the numbered, age statement bottles. The consistency of both the quality and the availability of the age statement products are assured. Bowmore 12 now replaces Bowmore Enigma in my permanent rotation. Not exactly the same, but close and I have confidence in what I’m getting and that I will be able to continue to get it.

So what to do? My suggestion is to buy your ‘good’ bottles elsewhere, like the local shops, to take advantage of the local markets. There are often bottles available in local shops that are priced for the local market but due to geographical variations in demand, may be significantly cheaper than buying at home. The bottle of Yoichi 10 I shared a couple of posts ago is a great example. A second strike here against most duty-free shops is that they do not post their full selection online (and some not even their prices!) so making an informed decision before getting there is nearly impossible. Hmmm…maybe they don’t want to be price compared.

But since I was through Schiphol (Amsterdam) and Munich last weekend, I’m happy to share some pricing with you!

(As always, the disclaimer here is that if I think a price is good, it is in terms of what I would be paying for a comparable bottle in Toronto. Your local market pricing will obviously vary.)

First, Schiphol, Amsterdam.

Schiphol. Lots of nice age statements here. Approved.
Schiphol. Lots of nice age statements here. Approved.
No age statements. Not approved. Highland Park, you should know better...
Schiphol. No age statements. Not approved. Highland Park, you should know better…
Approved. Approved?
Schiphol. Approved. Approved?

Oh yes, this is definitely approved. Sure, no age statement but Corryvrekan is a core bottling for Ardbeg rather than a ‘travel retail’ bottling, and a fine, fine one at that. Especially at 83€!

On to Munich.

Munich. Also very much approved.
Munich. Also very, very much approved.

Even better, we see Corryvrekan’s little brother here for a remarkable 59€!

Munich. Last bottle!
Munich. Last bottle!

A sad and  lonely last bottle of Yoichi 10, the only one on the shelf for a mere 67€. Won’t someone please take it to a good home?

Approved. Octomore 7.2
Approved. Octomore 7.2

And a big finish with the Octomore 7.2. Or Monkey Shoulder. Your call, but I’m leaning towards the Octomore.

Happy foraging!