If you're killing time waiting for an international flight, check out that duty-free shop--it just might be a repository of hidden treasure.
If you're killing time waiting for an International flight, venture into that duty-free shop - it just might be a repository of hidden treasures.
You got to the airport early for a transatlantic or transpacific flight, and surprise, surprise—your flight is actually scheduled to leave on time. Still, you have a couple of hours to kill before being squashed into your seat. Or maybe you've arrived at the airport in the nick of time, only to find that, because the French air-traffic controllers have gone on strike, even though you're traveling to St. Petersburg, your flight has been delayed; you're not going anywhere soon. How are you going to keep yourself entertained?
Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, it might occur to you to wander into one of those ubiquitous duty-free shops and buy a bottle of something special. If you're looking for a quick bargain, buyer beware. But if you're willing to take the time to figure out whether a particular bottle is a deal or not—or, better yet, if you're open to browsing for treasure in the form of products that might not be available anywhere else—the duty-free shop can be a goldmine.
Why Buy Duty-Free?
In many instances, the duty-free is a bargain solely because its prices are so much better than those you'll encounter in your destination country. On the whole, liquor is far more expensive just about anywhere else in the world than it is in the United States. And wouldn't it be oh so nice to have a bottle of Cognac or single malt Scotch in your room that would save you the mega-bucks that a high-priced foreign restaurant wants to charge you? (We learned this the hard way after paying $50 for a blended Scotch on the rocks in Provence.) And whatever you do, don't talk yourself into thinking that because you're visiting, say, Scotland, you'll find inexpensive bottles of Scotch. It just doesn't work that way. Taxes on liquor in most other countries are far higher than they are in the States, so you'll just be lining the government's coffers by buying their homegrown products on their home turf.
Bargains can be had in duty-free shops, but more importantly, many duty-frees carry products virtually unavailable anywhere else in the world. How does that work? As you might imagine, these shops are a major source of revenue for liquor companies, and as such, they have some pull with distillers. Duty-frees don't want all the same bottlings that you can find at your neighborhood liquor store, and liquor producers go out of their way to keep them happy. But beware, there are a few things to look out for when buying duty-free liquor.
First, if you're traveling within Europe, the European Union has rendered the duty-free tax advantage largely moot, although there are still benefits to be had if you are traveling into or out of the EU.
Next, you should understand that duty-free shops aren't bound by the strict rules and regulations that bind liquor retailers within a spirit's country of origin, and therefore they can put as much or as little liquor into the bottle as they please. Often you'll see bottles of, say, Cognac, that look as though they are of regular size when in fact they contain just a teensy weensy bit less brandy than the bottle you're used to buying. Look at the label: Most bottles in the U.S. are issued at 750 ml and at 1 liter, but some duty-free bottlings are 700 ml—1.7 fluid ounces smaller than the 750 ml, or 10.1 fluid ounces smaller than a full liter. Nonetheless, you still might be getting a bargain here, and since your flight's just been put on hold for another hour, you can go buy yourself a duty-free calculator and do some math. (To add to the confusion, some spirits are labeled in centiliters instead of milliliters, but this one's fairly easy to convert: 10 cl = 100 ml.)
Suppose, for instance, you're a fan of Hennessy Cognac, and you spy their top-of-the-line bottling, Hennessy Richard. Heck, you haven't been on a real vacation for over three years, and you deserve something out of the ordinary. If you're lucky, you can pick up a 750-ml bottle of this wonderful brandy in New York for about $1,300. But here you are eyeing a special duty-free 700-ml bottle that's priced at around $1,100. How much are you saving by buying duty-free? Almost $5 per ounce, that's how much. And believe us when we tell you that in Europe or Asia, you'd pay far more than you would in New York for this fine Cognac.
More Booze For the Buck
The bottle-sizing issue can also work in your favor, since some companies sell only 1-liter bottles in duty-free shops, and most people usually buy 750-ml bottles of spirits for home use. Take, for instance, the case of Plymouth Gin. A 750-ml bottle of this prized product will set you back about $30 at home, but if you buy a bottle of the Plymouth Navy Strength in a duty-free shop, you'll get a full liter for only $25. But that's not all. Plymouth Navy Strength is a whopping 57 percent alcohol by volume, whereas the regular U.S. bottling comes in at 41.2% abv. There's another savings for you.
Liquor within the U.S. (and most other countries) is taxed according to the amount of pure alcohol in the bottle, not according to the size of the bottle itself, so if you find high-proof goods in duty-free, you're more than likely to be getting a bigger bargain than you initially suspect. In the case of the two Plymouth gin bottlings, in America, you pay almost $3 for one ounce of pure alcohol, but the duty-free bottling comes in at about $1.30. That's a huge savings, especially when you consider how many more G & Ts you can get out of that bottle by pouring a little lighter than usual and still making a substantial drink.
A number of spirits can't be found anywhere but in a duty-free shop, but there's no guarantee that you'll automatically find them at any one particular store. Numerous chains of duty-free shops exist; LVMH, the luxury goods chain that owns Louis Vuitton and Moët & Chandon, predominates in Asia and the Pacific Basin with its DFS Galleria shops, while BAA plc, the British airport operator, runs some 200 World Duty Free shops in the United Kingdom and the U.S. All the shops strike their own deals with the liquor companies, so although we're going to let you in on some of the special bottlings available in duty-free, don't expect to see all of them at every airport, and please realize that the prices quoted here came from specific chains, and might vary depending on your departure airport.
If it's single malt Scotch you seek, you might just find a full liter of The Macallan 18-year-old for a mere $68. Compared to its regular U.S. price of around $85 for a 750-ml, this is a true bargain ($2 versus $3.34 per ounce). Or maybe you'd like to try a bottle of the 12-year-old Glenlivet American Oak Finish, a single malt not available anywhere except in duty-free shops. You'll find it for about $40 for a full liter.
Wild Turkey always issues great whiskeys, and indeed, we often pick up a bottle of their 8-year-old Bourbon in duty-free when traveling to Europe, but they have another bottling that's not available in the U.S. that's worth grabbing on your duty-free travels: Wild Turkey Stampede. It's a little pricey at about $45 for a 500-ml bottle, but what a treat! And if you're a fan of Tennessee whiskey you might want to look for Jack Daniel's Silver Select, a single-barrel offering that's available in duty-free shops only at about $50 for a 750-ml bottle. You can also find a special bottling of Southern Comfort liqueur that's made with 6-year-old Bourbon for around $23 for a liter.
While we're still talking whiskey, Irish bottlings that aren't available in the U.S. but can be found in duty-free shops include Bushmills 1608, at about $32 per liter, Redbreast ($32 for 700 ml), Crested Ten ($24 for 700 ml) and Paddy, which will set you back not much more than a mere $16 for a full liter. Midleton Very Rare is an Irish whiskey that costs around $135 for 750 ml within the U.S., but the duty-free 700-ml bottling is a bargain at about $95. This translates into $4 per ounce duty-free versus $5.32 per ounce at U.S. prices.
Martell issues a couple of very high-end bottlings of Cognac specifically for the duty-free market. Martell Odys Cognac will run you about $120 for 70 cl (700 ml) and Martell Artys Cognac costs around $50 for a 35-cl bottle. Yet another Cognac available only in duty-free is the Hennessy XO Grande Champagne Cognac which will set you back about $90 for 700 ml.
So next time you're wandering a foreign airport, think about rounding off your vacation or business trip with a bottle of duty-free liquor. Dig that calculator out of your pocket and rummage a little—if you shop with care, there are bargains to be had all over the world.