Duty Free Deception

I have always liked duty-free shops; one of the minor deceptions of travelling internationally is the idea that you can save $5 or $6 on a bottle of vodka and somehow stick-it to one tax collecting authority or another.

It is, like so many other rather petty transactions a touch deceptive; alcohol pricing is such a dog’s breakfast worldwide, that the concept of “Duty Free” representing any consistent saving is simply not on. The cost of booze is so low, relative to the price that with the elimination of one or more taxes, duties or levies the specialist retailers at airports worldwide can make a big deal over the savings.

I remember some years ago having a friend who worked in the promotions side of a famous Scottish distillery. Not only is she a fine person, but having a friend with the ability to offer whisky at cost price (in limited quantities) had its benefits. At the time, a bottle of their single malt was selling for about £30, but the distillery was allowed, for promotional purposes only, you understand, to write-off whisky used for this purpose at only about £2.25 per bottle; the balance, representing the take of Her Majesty’s Government.

Duty Free shops take advantage of this spread to offer travellers’ terrific “bargains”, and extraordinary profit margins for themselves. The world’s top brands too, use the system to their advantage. Brands like Louis Vitton, Tattinger Champagne, the top-end Swiss watch makers and so on do not want their products discounted in the normal sense of the word; you will not see them subjected to the usual department-store mark-down in an attempt to move volume. They do, however, use the airport shops heavily, and as a vehicle for discounting to shift their surpluses, and in the current economic turmoil, sales of these fashion icons are hurting.

Another sign of the growing power of duty-free retailing comes through the commercial arrogance that is developing among some producers, and should be firmly rejected by whisky lovers everywhere. The Macallan is a terrific whisky, and a friend of mine has, for many years enjoyed their 12 Year Old that was branded “Elegencia”. This is no longer available, and the reasoning, as described to him by a whisky seller is interesting.

The Elegencia has been replaced by a deceptively similarly-packaged product called “Select Oak”. “A good brand”, he mused, “for a paint or a wood-stain, but hardly suitable for the water of life”. This new brand shows no year on the label, a very odd omission for a true whisky drinker; apparently this allows the distiller to “maximise consumer benefit” by allowing them to mix the products of various years together in this delicate offering.

It does of course beg a couple of questions; firstly about why distillers have, for so long been espousing the virtues of single batches, and selling gallons of the stuff according to the year, and secondly concerning whether sales of The Macallan in duty-free stores to a frequently unsophisticated audience have outstripped sales to whisky lovers to a point that they are prepared to toss away hundred’s of years of goodwill to their previously superb brand.

We will never know.

I have to admit that I rarely buy at airports; many years ago I purchased a bottle of cheap Tia Maria in Mexico, but put it down rather heavily on the floor at the Minneapolis airport on the way home. Seeing an increasing brown circle appearing at my feet, I sidled away and watched the process of spread, for it must have been only a hairline fracture of the bottle, surprise at the appearance of the puddle and its eventual clean-up from a balcony.

To this day I feel embarrassed by my behaviour at the airport, and have rarely bought a bottle of duty-free since.