Tuesday, February 4, 2014

In And Out - Buying Whisky Duty Free In Japan

A few cheeky purchases in Japan.
NOTE: This is an old post from 2014 and considerable things have changed in the Japanese whisky market. Take note of  all dates posts are made in reference to your current purchasing considerations.

Buying whisky duty free, or travel retail as it is now called, can be a daunting experience. Do you buy before you depart and pick up on the way back through customs (the big push I found at Sydney Duty Free), or take the chance and buy while overseas hoping for chance to nab something exclusive or hard to get? I had a chance to weigh up the options with a recent snowboarding trip to Japan. Yes it was awesome! According to Australian customs I could carry 2.25L of alcohol back with me, opened or unopened, so I had to think right. I love Japanese whisky so I knew that the Nippon pleasure centred had to be fulfilled.

1L od Laphroaig Quarter Cask chilling in the snow out from my window.
First up a quick look at buying on the way out of Australia. Purchasing in the Sydney International Airport before departure can get you some really good bargains on those everyday whiskies you love coming in at around $20 cheaper than regular shelf price and the bonus of many in a 1L bottle. What you also see is some exclusives or pre-releases but they can be few and far between. This time round though for me there was nothing out of the ordinary that took my fancy but… considering I was going to the ski slopes of Niseko on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, averaging -12ยบ on a normal day I nabbed a 1L bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask to set the blood warming for the 7 days of hard core snow boarding. Believe me it just lasted the week.

Regretfully though I now know even though I paid $84 AU for the Laphroaig, I royally ripped myself off as the price of alcohol in Japan has plummeted since the last time I was there (about 6 years ago). This is especially true of whisky and even more so for Japanese whisky. Everyday whiskies we see here in Aus easily fit into the 30% cheaper category of normal shelf prices while some I calculated up to 70% just at your local 7/11. Examples of the extreme price difference would be Jack Daniels Old No.7 for $15, Wild Turkey $15, Bacardi $10, Glenfiddich 12yo $33, Glenfiddich 15yo $52, Glenfiddich 18yo $67. Japanese whisky on the other hand was insanely priced in comparison to Aus. Examples are Suntory Hibiki 12yo $64, Nikka Taketsuru 12yo Pure Malt $30, Suntory Yamazaki 21yo $134. Now keep in mind these prices are standard shelf prices with tax on Japanese shelves. So why did I feel ripped for my Laphroaig Quarter Cask purchase? Not because of price but because I could have bought awesome Japanese whisky for the weeks consumption instead. I did enjoy the Quarter Cask though no question but then I always do.

Some regular shelf pricing from one of the local stores in Japan.
 In the Niseko village, where I was staying for the week, they had many stores hosting a fine selection of both local and foreign whiskies but my focus of course was on Japanese. I was lucky to score an amazing purchase of a bottle of Suntory Hibiki Mellow Harmony for an insane price just at the local Aussie wine merchant or all places. They had a great selection of other whiskies but alas I could only grab one bottle in anticipation of what I could grab on the way back. None-the-less this bottle of Mellow Harmony was a very special limited release of only 4000 bottles. I had to smack myself a few times when I realised 6 bottles of it was in front of me. Released November 2013 within a month it was already impossible to find. Wow!

A collection of duty free pricing at Narita Airport
So moving on as you can see we have not even gotten to the duty free purchases coming back to Aus from Narita Airport. My experience first and foremost was that Narita had a poor selection of whiskies to buy duty free if your not interested in Japanese whisky. There was the most limited selections on take for single malts from all over the world and I think Australia's Sydney duty free does a far better job with the price difference is marginal. In many cases I actually saw Scotch Single Malts cheaper on the store shelves at a 7/11 in Japan than I did in duty free (how does that work?). So if your in the market travel duty free whiskies coming from Japan and want Scotch, put your faith in the Aus duty free store. On the other hand if your crazy for all things Nippon then Japan is a country that clearly wants to support and push its whisky brands (unlike Australia) with the prices reflecting that clearly. Pricing for Japanese whisky in Narita duty free as an example: Suntory Hibiki 12yo $37AU, Suntory Hibiki 17yo $70AU, Suntory Hakushu Single Malt $32AU, Suntory Hibiki 21yo $161AU, Nikka Taketsuru 12yo Pure Malt $22AU. Madness I tell you MADDNESS! And I loved every moment of it.

So what did I buy? Well if the picture does not say enough I purchased up to my allowed customs quota as follows:

Leaving Australia -
Laphroaig Quater Cask 1L @ $84AU, Sydney Duty Free

Leaving Japan -
Suntory Hibiki Mellow Harmony (4000 bottle limited release) @ $130AU Niseko Village
Suntory Hibiki 12yo 700ml @ $37AU, Narita AIrport Duty Free
Nikka Pure Malt 12yo 700ml @ $22AU, Narita Airport Duty Free

The end result is a very happy traveller picking up things I wanted and ridiculously cheap prices. I certainly know what I will be doing on my next scheduled trip to Japan at the end of the year and it won't be buying whisky on the way out of Australia.

Until next time ja mata ne!

The Baron


  1. Great little summary Baron. I find it tough to know whether to risk duty free or purchase in town. Last time I came back from the US I was going to buy at the airport (JFK Terminal 7) but they barely had anything on offer and I had to go back empty handed!

  2. Nice write up and even nicer purchases! Safe to say I'm thoroughly jealous :) Look forward to reading your reviews of this trio in due course!

  3. You're absolutely right about their supermarket prices, I was there 2 years ago and picked up an ardbeg 10 for the equivalent of $55! And this was in a small supermarket on a back street. Got a yamazaki 10 and hakushu 10 as well at under half of what the 12 year old versions sell for here. I was blown away by the prices of standard stuff like Bacardi and Jim beam etc. Really shows how ripped off we are with taxes and duty.

  4. Great write up mate, you aren't wrong about the prices either, Japan has it all over us when it comes to getting the good stuff cheaply, wonderful drinking culture so many sneaky bars that just fill your heart. This is some solid duty free advice, If only I'd known this last year, I put my faith in buying duty free once back down in Australia so that I wouldn't have the hassle of extra things on the plane. big mistake.

    But more importantly! Sweet pick up getting that Hibiki Mellow Harmony, thats the sorta thing people will go green over knowing they can't get it haha I know I am.

  5. Recently I went through duty free in Narita Airport and spent some time through Tokyo and Japan in general. Early 2015 has brought drought to the Japanese whisky market in a big way. With the award nominated to Suntory there has been a fever for Japanese whisky purchasing.

    Even though you could never buy the Suntory Yamazaki Sherry Cask in Japan, as it is was a EU release only and in very limited stocks, travellers just bought any Yamazaki they could find. As Yamazaki became scarce travellers went for any Suntory. As Suntory ran out travellers hit the Nikka and so on. Now there is literally no Japanese whisky in the Airports or even on Japanese shelves. As soon as they get in any stock at all it is sucked up.

    It is a sad case that the prices are also rising in Japan on Japanese whiskies due to this fever pitch. Right now my recommendation is to consider a back up plan in case you cannot get any Japanese whisky in Japan. Travelling to Australia from Japan will see better prices for Scotch on the way back in at the Australian terminals. Scotch though on in Japan, prior to entering the airport is as cheap as chips so it may be worth buying while traveling in Japan instead.

  6. I left from Narita Interational just a week ago. There was no Yamazaki or any japanese whisky for sale other than super top shelf stuff (18,25yr). I was told (and even information brochure) explaining it will no longer be for sale in Narita Interational duty free since March 2015. I was sorely disappointed as I put off buying my whiskies until airport for convenience. Not sure if I would risk $100+ bottle of whisky in my suitcase though.

  7. Are the Japanese whiskies still available in stores in Japan? I am trying to decide whether to buy some scotch and Japanese whisky from stores in Japan or at Narita Airport itself (or Sydney on the way back?). I want the best prices and best selection. Any tips appreciated.

  8. Japan duty free is becoming more and more dry. Travellers are just buying anything on the shelf with little regard to what it is but as long as it is Japanese. When it comes to stores in Japan yes you can get them but be aware that liquor is available almost anywhere. Due to this there is few specialists stores that really deliver on choice of product. You are also gong to find the price increase is significant as those that have experienced non duty free access are hitting up the retailers.

    Has Japanese whisky improved from 20 years ago? No it is made exactly the same as back then sparking questions about this fever buying. You must consider as well that many Japanese whiskies are just average in quality also so don't do the random buy as you will probably be very disappointed.

    If you want more info on locations to buy or try Japanese whisky be sure to read http://www.nonjatta.com

    In the current environment I recommend splitting your choices for purchasing between some duty free here and grabbing a bottle in Japan off the shelf. Also if you are keen on the Hibiki ranges or any age statement whisky from Nikka you buy in Aus now off the shelf and lock it away. Age stamens are almost all gone from Japan and Asia but Australia has heaps of stock at the bottle shops. you will also find the cost buying here is comparable to the rare bottle of Hibiki 17yo appearing in Japan.