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What’s the Deal with Whisky Travel Retail?

Travel retail, or retail sales within travel environments like airports, cruise ships, and border shops, accounts for up to 13% of all personal spending on luxury goods. We’re talking Burberry scarves, Bose headphones, perfumes, cosmetics, and yes, fine whiskies.

All told, the whisky travel market was valued at $63.5 billion in 2015. By 2020, Fung Business Intelligence Center predicts it will grow to $85 billion. Wine and spirits account for 16.4%, making them the second-largest category. Scotch whisky alone, long a leader in the space, represents 5.7% of all travel retail spending.

Whisky Travel Retail
A whisky travel retail store at Gatwick in London, UK. (image via Punchyy/Flickr)

One of the attractions of travel retail is its exemption from local taxes and duties, so sometimes the price of your favorite bottle is a little lower than you’re used to paying. But if you only use travel retail to stock up on discounted Highland Park 10, you’re missing one of the best parts: limited-edition releases.

The travel retail market has proven itself a fertile place for whiskey brands to engage in experimentation, particularly when testing out new concepts or special releases that depart from a brand’s established standard lineup. That’s why serious whisk(e)y enthusiasts look at travel retail as a kind of secret channel of exclusive, one-off, or rare expressions they can’t get their hands on any other way.

Why do brands use the travel retail channel to release these unusual whiskies? Some think it’s to avoid muddying the brand in mainstream channels; others posit it’s a way to make something feel even more exclusive and hard-to-get. The Drum thinks it’s because travel retail offers something few other environments do: a consumer base that consists exclusively of people who are already primed to spend money, either on vacation (treats!) or business (tax write-offs!).

That all seems true, but let’s not forget the last piece: a captive audience. When the alternative is scrolling aimlessly through your phone or dropping $12 on a mediocre turkey sandwich, shopping for scotch just feels like the right thing to do.

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is the former managing editor of Edible Portland, as well as a cofounder and former managing editor of The Whiskey Wash. In 2017, Margarett won the Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year award. She received a fellowship for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2017 and 2019.

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