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The Duty-Free Hunters

Whiskey collectors are flying thousands of miles out of their way for limited-edition Scotch—and never leaving the airport.

Henry had business in Hong Kong back in the fall of 2016. Despite there being plenty of direct flights from there to his home in Los Angeles, on one trip he decided to book an unnecessary overnight layover in Taipei. Henry had learned that Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport had just opened a standalone duty-free store curated by The Macallan and, to celebrate, the Scotch distillery had produced an exclusive bottling called the Boutique Collection, sold only at that airport. He had to have it.

“I book a lot of layover flights, a lot of broken up flights, in order to hunt for whiskey,” explains Henry, a popular Instagram follow under the handle @thewhiskywalker, who frequently posts from airports. “It’s not uncommon for me to have three or four stopovers on my way home.” This active travel schedule means he is able to intentionally search the world’s airports for unique whiskey finds like the Boutique Collection. (Henry made the same trip in 2017 to score the second annual release.)

While most duty-free shops today are packed with rubes hauling home handles of Johnnie Walker Black to save a few bucks, obsessives like Henry are carefully manipulating their flight plans to pass through airports that may have a rare bottle of single malt—or, better yet, a one-off (known as a “travel exclusive”) whiskey sold specifically at that airport.

Duty-free pursuers tend to be completists of certain brands, unwilling to miss out on a single release, no matter how obscure or far-flung. Hans-Henrik Hansen, said to be the world’s preeminent Glenfiddich collector, is one of those hunters. The Danish hotel chef started buying duty-free when he travelled to Prestwick, Scotland, in 2003, upon hearing they had a duty-free bottling produced to honor the launch of the Queen Mary 2. A few years later, he used his honeymoon as an excuse to grab a Glenfiddich 1978 Private Vintage that could only be bought aboard a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York. His new wife supported that trip, but she doesn’t encourage them all.

“When Glenfiddich Private Vintage 1975 came out [aboard Cathay Pacific flights to Hong Kong], I asked her if she wanted to go to Hong Kong and she said, ‘No,’” explains Hansen. “I told her, ‘But you have to! I’ve already bought the tickets.’” She eventually relented and they bought enough bottles to fill two empty suitcases before returning home.

Unfortunately, the golden days of duty-free whiskey have been over for several years. With continued fears of a global whiskey shortage, many distilleries no longer see a reason to offer particularly compelling airport exclusives.

Zurich Airport, for example, was once hailed as a top-spot for duty-free grabs because of the vast wealth that passes through it. Not so anymore, believes Henry. “Their whiskey selection today is the same as you’d find at JFK,” he bluntly notes—and that’s not a compliment (though he does recommend hitting the Swiss Air Senator Lounge for a quick dram). Travel exclusives in most American airports especially tend to leave much to be desired; the bourbon distilleries mostly don’t produce them, either.

Still, there are occasional finds to be had across the globe if you know where to go and what to look for. Visiting key duty-free shops online won’t help; you’ll find hard-to-navigate websites without much info about current stock. Henry sheepishly admits he sets Google Alerts for all his favorite brands. That was how he saw a random press release announcing that first Boutique release at TPE. Another way to hunt, other collectors will tell you, is geo-locating particular duty-free locales on Instagram. It’s a savvy, albeit time-consuming move, so Henry recommends starting with duty-free stores at airports in the six cities below, which tend to keep bottles excite connoisseurs.

Heathrow Airport (LHR)

The World of Whiskies shops in four separate terminals famously stock some of the most limited and expensive whiskies in the world, including Glenfiddich Cask Collection Finest Solera, a travel exclusive, and Glenmorangie Pride 1974, which retails for £7,200 ($9,648). In the last year, there have been more reasonable exclusives, from a BenRiach 12-Year-Old (a special cask bottling, distilled in 2005 and released in honor of Heathrow Whisky Festival) to a 10-year-old Loch Lomond Inchmurrin Single Cask, which was limited to 278 bottles. You can even pre-order online for pickup.

Edinburgh Airport (EDI)

It’s hardly a surprise Scotland’s busiest airport would have a great single malt selection. The World of Whiskies shops here include travel exclusives for the well-heeled jet-setter like the Craigellachie 33-Year-Old at £2,000 ($2,680) all the way down to more reasonably priced options like Laphroaig PX Cask at £70 ($90). They also offer their own Highland Park 14-Year-Old Single Cask bottlings, these cask strength offerings being a big trend in duty-free at the moment.

Warsaw Chopin Airport (WAW)

While few think of Poland as a whiskey mecca, their main airport is surprisingly well-stocked. Bypass the insane amount of wodka at Aelia Duty Free for exceptionally priced big-ticket Scotch like Highland Park Ragnvald and Bowmore 1973. The diverse selection is also stocked with tons of Asian whiskey that’s largely not available in the U.S., like Nikka 12 Years Old as well as several Kavalan travel exclusives.

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE)

The larger of Taipei’s two airports has several Ever Rich Duty Free locations, which recently opened the Macallan standalone shop in the departures area of the terminal, just after immigration. Besides Macallan one-offs from the newly-introduced Boutique Collection, the name of the game is the hometown favorite here: Kavalan. Ever Rich offers a very wide selection of Kavalan Solist bottlings priced at about half of what they cost in America.

Hong Kong International Airport (HKG)

Last year, the travel retailer DFS Group opened The Whiskey House at Hong Kong International Airport in collaboration with William Grant & Sons. That means a great selection of limited offerings from their portfolio, such as Glenfiddich 25 Year Old Rare Oak and Balvenie 21-year-old Madeira Cask Finish. HKG also has several special Single Cask Series bottlings from Highland Park, specially labeled for the airport.

Narita International Airport (NRT) | Haneda Airport (HND)

You can’t go wrong at either of Tokyo’s airports, both of which used to have Japanese whisky aplenty before the rest of the world caught on. But there are still scores to be had, like the Nikka Taketsuru 21 Year Pure Malt, as well as quality single malts like Laphroaig 25 Year Cask Strength, Glenlivet XXV and GlenDronach 27 Year Old Single Cask. What you really want to stumble upon, however, are the special painted bottlings of Suntory brands like Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master’s Select, which are arguably the world’s top duty-free exclusives.

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