High spirits: duty free offers sought-after spirits

Words by
Alice Lascelles
Illustration by
Pietari Posti

13th March 2016

Traditionally the preserve of cheap but uninspiring drinks selections, airport duty-free shops have become fertile hunting grounds for sought-after exclusive editions from the world’s top producers

Until remarkably recently, airports offered precious little interest for the epicurean. Unless one was in the market for a litre of bog-standard gin and a carton of cigarettes, there was really no reason to linger in Departures. More recently, however, a booming global market for high-end spirits has seen travel retail undergo a dramatic transformation, with the result that airports, including London’s Heathrow, Singapore’s Changi, Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Dubai, now offer the chance to snap up some of the most luxurious and sought-after spirits in the world. From rare single malts and ravishingly packaged blends to historic bottlings and limited-edition cocktail ingredients, travellers can now find delights to please every pocket and palate.


Whisky, in particular, has produced a raft of travel retail exclusives in the past year or so. Of particular interest for lovers of Speyside single malts has been the launch of Mortlach Special Strength (49% abv, £75 for 50cl), a bottling that exposes a single malt that formerly only saw the light of day in blends or on its own as a limited, under-the-radar release. Bottled at a higher-than-average alcohol by volume, it delivers a generous mix of vanilla and roasted aromatics with power and elegance.

Two other fine newcomers from Speyside are Glenlivet Master Distiller’s Reserve Solera Vatted (40% abv, c£50 for 70cl) and Glenlivet Master Distiller’s Reserve Small Batch (40% abv, c£95 for 70cl), two single malts that showcase the complexity that can be achieved by ageing whisky in combinations of ex-bourbon casks, new American oak and ex-sherry casks. The Solera Vatted emphasises American oak with its moreish notes of creamy toffee and golden marmalade, while the more heavily sherried Small Batch boasts intense flavours of black chocolate, coffee and candied mango, which makes great after-dinner sipping.

They join the Master Distiller’s Reserve exclusively in travel retail. Another big name that continues to innovate in delightful ways is the Highland distillery Glenmorangie. In the past year, Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and whisky creation, Dr Bill Lumsden, has crafted two fine exclusives for travel retail: Glenmorangie Duthac (43% abv, £54 for 1 litre), an indulgent, chocolatey malt part-finished in PX sherry casks, and Glenmorangie Dornoch (43% abv, £49 for 70cl), which layers the distillery’s signature citrus and floral notes with a whiff of peat smoke. Those who prefer something with more pronounced smoke may enjoy collecting Highland Park’s Warrior Series, a family of six single malts that celebrate the Nordic heritage of Scotland’s most northerly distillery. Named after historic figures with connections to Orkney, Svein, Harald, Einar, Sigurd, Ragnvald and Thorfinn (40-44.6% abv, £28-£710 for 70cl-1 litre) take Highland Park’s signature smouldering peat notes through a spectrum of styles from citrussy through to spicy.

Many of these airport rarities boast some really stunning packaging, too. If you happen to be passing through Changi airport, then keep an eye out for the ultra-rare Glenrothes 1969 (42.9%abv), a single cask bottling from the renowned Speyside distillery housed in a jewel-like lead-crystal decanter complete with a stopper hewn from the very cask in which it was matured. Boxed in a hand-tooled leather case, this is a single malt that deserves a first-class seat of its own. The cask yielded just 133 bottles, five of which were destined for sale at Changi, priced at SG$11,275 for 70cl.

Dubai, meanwhile, recently hosted the debut of the new super-luxe Chivas Regal – The Icon, a blend of Chivas’s oldest and rarest whiskies, bottled in a hand-blown Dartington Crystal decanter inspired by the original Chivas Regal decanter unveiled in 1909. Made from a blend of malts that includes some of the hallowed “silent distilleries” – a sought-after class of malts that are no longer in production – this is a blend that cannot be repeated (40% abv, US$3,500 for 70cl).

Johnnie Walker has also produced some show-stopping travel retail exclusives of late. At the Johnnie Walker House at Changi airport you will find collectibles, including the beautifully appointed Johnnie Walker King George V (40% abv, £316 for 70cl), which comes in a majestic decanter housed in an art-deco-inspired case, as well as the more contemporary Johnnie Walker Blue Label Cities Collection (40% abv, £165 for 1 litre), a series of engraved, limited-edition bottles celebrating six iconic skylines round the world, interpreted by paper sculptor Jeff Nishinaka. If you’re shopping for the whisky fan who has everything, however, you may want something a little more obscure. One intriguing oddity is Bruichladdich Bere Barley (50% abv, c£45 for 70cl), an Islay malt that is not only unpeated (unusual for such a malt), but which is also made with Bere barley, an ancient strain of barley akin to that grown by Orkney communities more than 4,500 years ago.

From rare single malts and ravishingly packaged blends to historic bottlings, travellers can now find delights to please every pocket and palate

Grain whisky, too, is a lesser-known style that has been in the spotlight more lately thanks to the launch of David Beckham’s Haig Club (40% abv, c£44.95 for 70cl), a grain whisky good for sipping with soda, mixers or on its own over crushed ice. For serious sipping, however, William Grant and Sons’ Girvan Patent Still 28 Year Old (42% abv, c£275 for 70cl) has enough complexity to keep even the most searching palate entertained. And don’t overlook Japanese whisky, which is now winning some of the biggest awards and fetching some of the highest auction prices on the market. A highlight this autumn will be the launch of Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master’s Select (43% abv, c£50 for 70cl), a travel retail exclusive that introduces a little more sherry cask influence to the exquisite Hibiki Harmony, which debuted this summer. This year has also been one of big anniversaries for cognac. Martell marked its 300th anniversary with the launch of Martell Premier Voyage, a staggeringly opulent cognac blended from eaux-de-vies (fruit brandies) from between 1868 and 1967 and aged in a 300-year-old cask. Just 300 of these have been released, (40%abv, c£9,000 for 1 litre). Hennessy, too, marked its

250th birthday with the launch of the Hennessy Collector’s Blend (40% abv, c£360 for 1 litre), a 250-cask, limited-edition blend of eaux-de-vies that took four years to perfect. Another newcomer in the cognac department is the striking Camus Extra Dark & Intense (40% abv, c£308 for 70cl), a new travel retail exclusive aged in casks that have been given a little extra toasting to intensify the oak and spice notes. Hine Estate VSOP (40% abv, c£49 for 1 litre), meanwhile, is always worth slipping into your suitcase, thanks to its delicate palate of flowers, tobacco and honey.

When it comes to white spirits, one gin that’s really been making a splash in the travel world this year is Bombay Sapphire’s new Star of Bombay (47.5% abv, c£32 for 70cl), a small batch expression that amps up the juniper (somewhat lacking in the original Bombay Sapphire) and adds new botanicals, including bergamot and ambrette: wonderful in a Martini. Vodka fans should try and bag some of the incredibly smooth Grey Goose Interpreted by Ducasse, (40% abv, c£57 for 70cl) with an initial run of a few hundred bottles available at select international airports. And speaking of cocktails, budding mixologists should also pick up a bottle of the delicious new Cointreau Blood Orange (40% abv, c£22 for 70cl), a travel retail exclusive that uses blood oranges harvested from Corsica to give the classic triple sec a mouth-watering third dimension. Use it to bring a bit of je ne sais quoi to a Margarita cocktail.

If you don’t fancy doing the mixing yourself, then make a beeline for the British Airways Concorde Room at Heathrow Terminal 5, where you can enjoy a cocktail menu designed by winners of the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year, the last word in global bartending competitions.

Alice Lascelles is the author of Ten Cocktails: The Art of Convivial Drinking (Saltyard Books 2015)