The duty free shopper is a hotly contested demographic for distilleries. Given the restrictions faced by many travellers on the dollar value of duty free purchases and their home country's attendant alcohol import limitations, many travellers will only be able to select one 1L bottle of spirits to bring home and avoid paying duty. This creates a very competitive space for distilleries who must attempt to attract the attention of the harried, jet-lagged, and "baggage-weight conscious" traveller in an international airport. In recent years, whisky advertising in duty free has gone from quiet rows of bottles to floor-to-ceiling banners along terminal walls, to flashy kiosks, to interactive displays and exclusive "nosing" lounges within duty free locations. Along with the uptick in marketing dollars spent to attract affluent global travellers, producers have created a line of bottles unique to the duty free market that have supported and, in some cases, supplanted the shelf space previously dedicated to the traditional core range.
As an Ontario-based whisky blogger one of the giddiest pleasures of international travel is the liquor selection of the airport duty free shops. There's always the chance of finding a great deal on an old favourite or being exposed to something that you missed in the LCBO when it came through. Perhaps even more tantalizing is happening upon a mystery expression from a loved distillery that's been made exclusively for travel retail. Evaluating the options; looking at the rows of bottles in the duty free, is a bit like playing "Let's Make a Deal." You can only bring one back into Canada without paying duty so, do you go for the tried and true or do you take a gamble and go with the tube of mystery liquid?
In my travels, these tubes, cartons, or boxes of mystery spirit all bear a similar sounding pitch; this bottle is exclusive and premium and if you buy it so are you. Words like: "premium," "luxurious," "exclusive," or "reserved solely for the discerning traveller," and "collectable" adorn the packaging and inform the messaging of the supporting terminal dominating advertisements. Coupled with this high status language has been the removal of age statements from the packaging. While non-age-statement offerings are becoming more common across the industry for a number of reasons, in the travel retail market it's another missing piece of information when trying to decide what to buy. Pressed for time, limited by import restrictions, snowed by marketing, and unable to sample the wares, it seems that the traveller is set up to make a choice that's best for the distilleries but might not be right for the buyer or the recipient. To me, there's something ill-fitting about the ubiquitous claims of luxury and prestige when combined with the vagueries of product information and tasting notes that generally accompany travel retail bottlings.
But I digress. On a trip to China in March of this year, David and his partner Jason brought us back 2 bottles from Bowmore's new travel retail range: Black Rock and Gold Reef. Purchased at Pudong Airport in Shanghai for nearly $100 CDN each, the 1L bottles are reduced to 40% ABV and 43% ABV respectively. The new range takes it's inspiration from "the magical and remote island of Islay" and the trio includes the aforementioned bottles along with the White Sands 17 Year Old. We sampled them side by side and found it to be a helpful way of assessing these two non-age-statement releases.