Duty Free Gin

Tax-free travel guide to duty-free gin

Duty Free GinGin is a spirit with a new lease of life. The fortunes of alcoholic drinks tends to rise and fall with the passing years and until fairly recently gin was perceived by many as a drink for silver-haired drinkers the wrong side of 40, who would invariably drown whatever brand they had bought from their dusty local off-licence with large quantities of flat tonic and not enough ice.Wind the clock back much further to the eighteenth century, of course, and gin was famously “mother’s ruin” – foul-tasting, cheap and drunk in industrial quantities by England’s growing urban poor to blot out their troubles. So whether as a drink for the poor or the middle classes, it’s fair to say gin has never had much romance, style or mystique attached to it in the same way as say, vodka or rum.However, gin has had something of a makeover in recent years. In fact, it has become decidedly trendy among bartenders, mixologists and drinks writers. Quite what has inspired this gin renaissance is difficult to say. Certainly the global revival of interest in cocktails has helped, as has the growing fatigue many bartenders now feel for vodka. In contrast, there has been a growing appreciation of gin’s subtlety; its use of exotic botanicals from around the world, and its rich history.

A crop of super-premium small-batch gins led by the quirky Scotch gin brand Hendrick’s, (which famously should be enjoyed with a slice of cucumber in a G&T rather than a slice of lemon), has appeared to fulfil this growing demand for top-quality, and scores of craft-distilled gins are being launched this year. Now has this blossoming gin scene filtered down to the duty-free aisles of the world’s airports? Sadly not for the most part, travellers will undoubtedly find a decent selection of well-known brands such as Beefeater, Gordon’s and Bombay Sapphire, but not much else.

The duty-free business beats to the drum of those travellers with the biggest pockets, which at the moment are travellers from China, Russia, India and Brazil. And we are sad to say gin just isn’t that big a category in those emerging markets, at least not for the time being. The best airport shop for gin in our opinion is undoubtedly World Duty Free’s stores at London Heathrow airport, especially Terminals 3 and 5.

If you are lucky enough to be flying from either of these terminals look for the retailer’s impressive white spirits wall where you will find the tremendous Caorunn gin, a small-batch brand from Scotland made with Celtic botanicals such as rowan berry, heather and dandelion, and also Martin Miller’s, a batch-distilled spirit made in the UK, but cut to bottling strength with pure, soft glacial water from Iceland.Sadly, travellers flying from other airports around the world are likely to be faced with a much more limited selection of gins, but that still leaves the question of which gin to plump for. A cynic might say that if somebody is going to add buckets loads of tonic to a shot of gin, it really doesn’t matter what brand gin you buy. After all, who drinks gin neat? We have some sympathy with that point of view, but gins do variably considerably in taste, and if you are into martinis and other gin-based cocktails, it pays to find a gin that suits your palate.Here is our quick, handy but highly personal guide, to some of the brands you are likely to see on your travels:

Bombay Sapphire

In 2011 Bombay Sapphire became the best-selling gin in duty-free thanks to a sustained global programme of airport tastings and art-inspired promotions. The brand’s beautiful square bottle certainly looks good on any bar’s back shelf, but not everybody is a fan of the gin’s decidedly citrusy flavour. If you are a big Bombay Sapphire fan, however, look out for the new Bombay Sapphire East, which is being rolled out to large international airports in 2012. This gin contains two new botanicals from Asia – Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese peppercorns – giving it a spicier, more complex flavour than its older sister.


For many people Gordon’s is still the benchmark of a decent gin and it’s true this very old brand, which dates back to1769, continues to sell many cases in duty-free. This gin is often bundled up with other popular spirits by duty-free retailers to offer as a multi-bottle deal, making it a very good value buy. It’s also sometimes offered in handy, lightweight PET bottles.
On the downside many people feel this gin’s low 37.5% abv strength is a bit weak to make decent cocktails. Look out for the higher-strength export version of Gordon’s if you can track it down. The quirky Gordon’s Sloe Gin variant is also well worth a try and great in cocktails (try adding champagne or sparkling wine for a refreshing summery aperitif).


This quirky Scottish gin packaged in an apothecary-style bottle and marketed in a madcap, Monty Pythonesque style, is very trendy. In terms of taste it is quite delicate and the rose and cucumber flavours makes it an ideal summery drink. Hendrick’s is quite pricey though and tends to get a bit lost in a classic G&T.


Still made according to a closely guarded 1860s recipe, Beefeater is the only major gin brand still made in London. In our view it is a lovely, well-balanced gin, which is great both in a G&T and in cocktails.


There aren’t many rules and regulations when it comes to the production of gin, but the key stipulation is that the spirit’s dominant flavour must be juniper. Now arguably this is not the case with many of the newer gins, but Tanqueray, a venerable old London gin dating back to 1830, certainly delivers a massive juniper hit. It makes a sensational G&T, and is perfect for a beautifully dry gin martini.

Plymouth Gin

In our view this wonderfully smooth gin from Devon, England, should really be better known. Established way back in 1793, Plymouth gin is the only gin to have protected EU status. It has recently been repackaged and is a real favourite among bartenders who love its versatility and smooth, well-balanced flavour.

Of course, there are plenty of other gins than the ones mentioned above, many of which are great too. If you are still unsure, don’t hesitate to ask shop staff for their advice and recommendations. And if there are some tasting promotions going on, do take advantage. You will soon see that gins don’t taste alike, even after you have added the tonic!