Tax-free travel guide to American whiskey ….
America may not be universally loved as a country, but the whiskey it produces is certainly gaining more and more fans around the world as each year passes. There are now more barrels of bourbon ageing in Kentucky than the State has people.Quite frankly, this age-old business has seen nothing like it since the pre-Prohibition era. New flavoured styles of American whiskey and fancy, high-priced sippin’ whiskeys ideal for savouring neat or with ice, are taking the market by storm. Indeed, many of these new products are finding their way to a duty-free shop near you. Unsurprisingly, Jack Daniel’s is the most dominant US whiskey brand travellers are likely to find in a typical duty-free store.If we can get technical for a second, we should note Jack Daniel’s, or ‘Jack’ as its devotees tend to call it, is actually a Tennessee whiskey rather than bourbon. There is only one other Tennessee whiskey out there called George Dickel, a great-tasting 8yo whiskey in an even better looking old-time bottle, but one you are sadly unlikely to encounter outside the States.
The difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon comes down to just one thing: Tennessee whiskeys like Jack Daniel’s are charcoal filtered after distillation. This extra step in the production process (known as the Lincoln County Process) creates a drier, softer taste than bourbon. It also pushes notes of liquorice and caramel to the fore in the drink’s finished flavour.
Now as nice as good Old No. 7 is it’s pretty much available everywhere. There’s not much reason to buy it on your travels (unless you find it for a good price, of course). However, why not go for the duty-free exclusive Jack Daniel’s Silver Select, which is bottled at a much higher strength (50% abv to be exact)? Each bottle contains whiskey from just one barrel, and many Jack Daniel’s fans having tasted it, won’t go back to standard Jack.The folks at Jack Daniel’s also have something new (and exclusive) up their sleeve coming to duty-free stores everywhere during the course of 2013. It transpires that that old crooner Frank Sinatra had something of a soft spot for Jack Daniel’s. In fact, he regularly called it the “best booze in the world” and insisted on having a bottle of it in his dressing room after all his concerts. It made for a very short concert rider (Mariah Carey take note), but woe betide any promoter that forgot that bottle of Jack.Ol’ Blue Eyes has been gone for many years now, but there is still a pot of money to be made from the Sinatra name, of course, which is why the Sinatra family and Jack Daniel’s have teamed up to create Sinatra Select, a new whiskey created in honour of the great man. It’s a handsome looking bottle and contains a fascinating booklet detailing Sinatra’s 50-year relationship with the brand, but there’s more to this $150 (£120) whiskey than just fancy packaging.
The whiskey has been aged in special ‘Sinatra barrels’ that have a ridged rather than smooth interior to create more interaction between the whiskey and the toasted oak of the barrel. The result is a much richer, deeper whiskey that has a lot in common with smoky single-malt Scotch whisky, but with an added hit of vanilla sweetness. If you are a Jack Daniel’s fan, we recommend you try and track this one down. You won’t be disappointed.
The only other American whiskey, which takes duty-free seriously, is Jim Beam, far and away the world’s best-selling bourbon. Sales of Jim Beam in duty-free were up by over a fifth in 2011 and this multinational juggernaut has woken up to the potential of this niche area of retailing. The bourbon has recently launched a super-premium version, Jim Beam 1795, at Frankfurt airport in Germany, one of Beam’s biggest overseas markets. Priced at €140 (£112), this limited-edition 8yo comes in at a powerful 47.5% abv and is presented in a cool-looking glass flask with a swing-top closure.If the price of that one seems a little steep or you are not travelling to Frankfurt any time soon but still fancy stepping up from either Jim Beam White or Black, look out for the great-sounding Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, which retails in duty-free for around €26 (£20.80). This 45% abv winner is made with spirit that was previously trapped inside used bourbon barrels. Filtered and then mixed with 6yo Jim Beam Devil’s Cut is rich and woody without being overpowering. Perfectly enjoyable on its own, Devil’s cut is not so fine it can’t be drunk with cola or as part of a cocktail.Now if you are new to bourbon and fancy giving it a try, why not try one of the flavoured American whiskeys coming onto the market? Both Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s both have honey-flavoured variants that make for very easy drinking, while Red Stag by Jim is cherry flavoured. All of these newcomers are pretty sweet even for bourbons, which can often be a little saccharine for some tastes, but they have been hugely popular since coming onto the market.
Away from the big boys of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s the selection of alternative US whiskeys to try in duty-free is pretty small but it is improving as the popularity of bourbon continues to grow. Two brands you are likely to find that we’d recommend are Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark, two bourbons with a more complex, less sweet taste profile, which are both best enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
For something a little less well known try tracking down a bottle of Old Forester if you are passing through New York JFK Terminal 8. As of late 2012 it was the only airport in the world to stock this historic bourbon, which has been on sale continuously since 1771. Old Forester was just one of ten spirit brands the US government licensed for “medicinal properties” during Prohibition.
We are not going to claim any health reasons for buying a good bottle of bourbon in duty-free, but we believe it would make a great gift for any whiskey-loving friend or relative.