I have an inability never to be less than extremely early for flights. My wife always despairs that despite all my fretting or perhaps because of all my fretting, we’re always through security with at least two hours to spare. Still, at least it leaves plenty of time for whisky shopping.
Your average airport whisky customer can be divided into three categories: people who shop solely on price, gift buyers, and whisky aficionados looking for something unusual. I’m normally in the first and third categories. Duty free can be a bargain hunter’s paradise if you’re travelling outside the European Union. The duty on a bottle of 40% whisky is £11.50 and then you have to pay 20% VAT on top of that. Duty free avoids these costs though retailers don’t pass all the savings on to the customer.
If you’re flying within the EU, prices won’t be significantly cheaper. But that’s no reason not to have a browse because you can buy whiskies at the airport that aren’t available on the High Street. “Aberdeen Airport is full of Nordic oil people buying whiskies that they can’t find at home,” Dr Nick Morgan, Head of Global Outreach at Diageo told me. Dr Morgan also pointed out that the joy of these exclusives from the retailer’s perspective is that customers can’t compare prices between duty free and the High Street. To further complicate comparisons, spirits in European duty free stores normally come in litre bottles rather than the usual 70cl.
Some airports, especially in Scotland and England, have specialist whisky shops with extremely knowledgeable staff. Dr Morgan recommends the World of Whiskies stores at larger UK airports, where staff will give “as good advice as a specialist retailer in London or New York” – particularly helpful if you’re buying a gift.
They can also help you with pronunciation of whiskies such as Eirigh Na Greine (something like ae-ree ne gray-nyuh), the best-selling travel exclusive from Islay single malt Bunnahabhain. This is a non-age statement whisky (known as NAS), which are increasingly common because global demand has led to a shortage of mature Scotch.
Some whisky fans are sniffy about them because they contain younger spirits but NAS whiskies can be seriously good. The Dalmore Valour, for example, aged in bourbon casks and then finished in oloroso sherry and port casks, took Gold at the International Wine & Spirit Challenge 2017.
NAS whiskies can do things a bit differently. Each expression within The Glenfiddich Cask Collection is aged with the solera process as with sherry. Gillian Murphy from Glenfiddich explained: “This finishing process, unique to Glenfiddich, marries whiskies from all different casks and age variants together. It would be impossible for us to put an age statement on the Glenfiddich Cask Collection range.”
There are, however, plenty of exclusive whiskies with age statements too. Tomatin (pronounce like tomato with tin at the end), a Highland single malt, offers three aged whiskies(8yo, 15yo and 40yo) which are only sold at airport stores. You might also fine some extremely rare spirits in duty free, such as the recently-released Craigellachie 33yo. There are only 1,700 bottles available at £2000 a pop, available only through selected airport shops.
It’s not just about single malts though. For me part of the fun of travelling is seeing blended whiskies that are globally massive but rarely seen in Britain, such as Ballantine’s or Buchanan’s. Then there are rare duty free-only blends such as Johnnie Walker Island Green, which is made up of four malts, Clynelish, Glenkinchie and Cardhu with a big chunk of Caol Ila for a smoky flavour. The standard Green Label is superb but this version is a whisky worth missing your flight for.
Talisker Dark Storm 45.8% (£52.99 for a 1 litre bottle)
A NAS whisky which is essentially Talisker Storm, an already very smoky, spicy whisky, aged in ultra-charred barrels to make it even smokier and spicier.
Johnnie Walker Island Green 43% (£50.99 for a 1 litre bottle)
A blend of four malts with no grain, this duty free-only incarnation of a classic whisky turns up the smokiness a few notches.
Tomatin 8 year old 40% (£45 for a 1 litre bottle)
Matured in sherry and bourbon casks, this rarely-seen Highland malt majors on flavour with sweet fruity notes, toffee, ginger and a smoky tobacco finish.
Prices will vary according to location