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!


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Whisky Forager

I collect whisky. I like good prices for whisky. Living in Toronto doesn’t often allow for both but I'm lucky enough to travel a lot for work. I get to shop around for whisky and I want to share the good buying opportunities that I come across. That’s the premise. I’m not writing about tasting or grading whisky, there’s plenty of other sources for those opinions. I just want to share opportune finds for quality bottles at below market prices. A couple of years ago after discovering a pricing discrepancy at LCBO that provided a few deeply discounted bottles for my collection, I realized that there are lots of opportunities to purchase good single malts at a discount price. And not just outside of Canada but also sometimes in Ontario. It may be hard to believe, but the LCBO can be your ally just as often as it’s your nemesis. This is not a commercial site, I only share my finds based on my own opinions of good prices and good bottles.

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