Tax Free Travel guide to duty-free bourbon ….
Bourbon, the drink of choice for Texas oil barons and cocktail bar lounge lizards, deserves a much, much better profile in the typical duty-free store liquor selection. This characteristically sweet, satisfyingly smooth spirit is lucky to get a look in among the countless bottles of Scotch whisky, Cognac and premium vodkas, which fight for duty-free shelf space.Sadly, this sorry state of affairs is true even at US airport shops, which in general stock a dismally restricted selection even though the bourbon industry is undergoing a renaissance in terms of product innovation, growing consumption and craft distilling. They should be trumpeting bourbon as a spirits category in the same way UK airport retailer World Duty Free has done so successfully with single-malt Scotch whisky.
“What about Jack Daniel’s?” we hear you cry. Well, it is certainly true that Jack Daniel’s, perhaps one of the most cleverly marketed American brands out there, has become one of the top selling duty-free spirits brands worldwide. It enjoys a high-profile presence in most big duty-free shops around the planet, and even has a dedicated standalone store at Houston airport. All true, but we have to break it to you that Jack Daniel’s is technically not a bourbon.
Yep, Jack Daniel’s is in fact classified as a ‘Tennessee whiskey’ due to the fact that it is charcoal filtered before being placed in barrels to mature. That might seem like a minor difference, and it is, but it turns out that rules and regulations abound when it comes to the production of whiskey in the US, which distillers say protects the industry and end consumers from cheaper imitations of the real deal.Today’s highly regulated bourbon industry is far cry from the spirit’s bootleg past. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, but the lion’s share of it is made where it always has been in the state of Kentucky, where Scots-Irish and German settlers in the nineteenth century found the fast-growing native corn and smooth, limestone water perfect for making whiskey.
It was rough stuff in those early days, bottled straight off illicit stills at eye-watering strengths. The first move towards anything like quality control was sparked by a crisis thousands of miles away in France in the 1850s when the phylloxera bug wiped out the country’s wine and Cognac production virtually overnight.
Bartenders in the still French-influenced New Orleans, who were experimenting with making cocktails, started running low on supplies of Cognac so enterprising distillers in Kentucky started to make spirit in the Cognac style. They aged new make spirit in oak barrels before bottling to improve the colour and flavour. Barrels of this new higher quality product, which were still pretty poor quality by today’s standards, were then placed on to ships heading down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
Today, bourbon must be made from a fermented mash of 51% corn, which is one reason why the spirit has such a sweet flavour. The distilled spirit is then placed into new charred oak barrels, which act like sugar cubes, exuding sweet, caramel and buttery vanilla flavours into the spirit. The hot, humid Kentucky climate helps speed up the spirit’s back-and-forth interaction with the oak cask, meaning bourbons mature much faster than Scotch whiskies.
As we have already said, US duty-free shops stock a pretty limited range of bourbons. The names that are there such as Jim Beam, the world’s best-selling brand, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey can easily be found downtown too. One US airport bar does deserve an honourable mention though. The upscale One Flew South at Atlanta airport Terminal E does a nice line in bourbon cocktails, we hear.Away from the States travellers will find better bourbon selections at airports in the big bourbon-drinking export markets like Germany, Australia and Japan, where brands such as Jim Beam and Wild Turkey are very popular, especially amongst younger consumers. Bourbon connoisseurs and those wanting to splash out on something a little bit more special should seek out the Le Clos outlet at Dubai airport Terminal 3, however (see www.leclos.net).
This small shop stocks a nice little range of harder-to-find, fine sipping bourbons such as the award-winning Evan Williams Single Barrel at $33 (£20.70), Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 Year old at $69 (£43.30), and the limited-edition, cask-strength Parker’s Heritage from Heaven Hill distillery, which is priced at $111 (£70).
If you are not lucky enough to be passing through Dubai airport, however, and want to try a bottle of bourbon, what should you go for? Well, if you are passing through one of the big German airports this summer, look out for the memorably named Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, which should set you back about €25.99 (£21.40). This wonderfully dark, powerful tannic spirit is made from the trapped bourbon that soaks into the oak casks as it matures.
Water is sloshed around the used Jim Beam barrels, which releases the bourbon from the wood. It is then filtered to take out any nasty residues and mixed with standard 6 year-old Jim Beam to make an unusually powerful, complex sipping bourbon.
Another bourbon we like is Woodford Reserve. It is run by the same company, which owns Jack Daniel’s, but this small-batch bourbon is a very different beast. Unusually for bourbon, it is distilled three times making it sublimely smooth. Also, a high degree of rye in the production process makes Woodford Reserve a gloriously complex, smoky, earthy character, which some have likened to a single-malt Scotch whisky.
And we also have to give a shout out to Maker’s Mark, which is becoming more and more visible in global travel retail these days thanks to a big marketing push by the brand’s owner. What’s special about this aside from the quaint brown bottle with his red, hand-dipped wax seal? Well, this small-batch bourbon contains a high proportion of red winter wheat, which gives the finished bourbon a particularly sweet taste profile. It is also aged for up to seven years, giving it a special place in many bourbon drinkers’ hearts.
As you can see from just these three examples, bourbons can vary quite a lot in style and ultimately it is up to you to find one that suits your palate, and the drinking occasion. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time!