Suitcase Booze: The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Buying Liquor on the Road

Berry Bros. & Rudd, London

One of the occupational hazards of Cocktail Wonkdom is an insatiable desire to find the next great bottle, the big score, the one you’ve only heard rumors of. After tapping out your local liquor stores and become bored (or frustrated) by ordering online, how do you feed the desire? The simple answer: Travel. The moment Mrs. Wonk purchases our tickets for our next great destination, domestic or international, I’ve already started plotting a strategy to maximize the goodies we’ll bring home in overstuffed (but under 50lbs/23kg) suitcases. I’ve learned a lot and am here to share some hard-won wisdom.

By this point in our travels, Mrs. Wonk knows that when I suddenly stop dead in my tracks or reverse course walking down the street, my liquor radar has gone off — be it an unmarked basement shop in Glasgow, a wholesale store in Barbados, or a bodega in Buenos Aires. Mrs. Wonk has called home from a liquor store in Amsterdam and read off liquor bottle labels while I frantically Googled to make yes/no decisions. She muled home seven bottles herself that trip. No opportunity should be squandered!

I think about spirits acquisition on the road in four parts:

  • Goal setting
  • Advance planning
  • Executing the mission
  • Carrying home the treasure

Goal Setting

First, consider why you want to bring liquor home. It’s a pain, especially if you’re flying and trying to avoid checking bags — always a goal for us. Bringing even a single bottle back home obligates you to check the bag and wait for it on arrival, as airlines clearly won’t let it aboard in your carry-on, unless it happens to fit in a quart-size bag. Of course, when travelling by train or car, this is much less an issue. For this discussion, I’m assuming air travel and all the modern-day hassles it entails.

There’s two reasons I buy liquor on a trip:

  • It’s something I want but can’t get readily at home, via retail or online.
  • It’s available at home, but such a screaming deal that it’s worth the hassle.

Liquors I can’t get at home are the vast majority of what I seek out. Here in the U.S. we have a good selection of liquor imported from other countries, but there are plenty of great brands without US distribution.

As for spirits that are less expensive than at home, know how much you need to save to make it worth your while. I personally need to save around $20 on a before I’ll even consider giving up a prime suitcase slots for a bottle I can get at home. A good example is the liter of Mount Gay Extra Old I got for US $25 at the distillery in Barbados—a big saving over $45 for a 750 ML bottle at home.

It should be obvious, but know your targets. If you’re a Scotch whisky connoisseur headed to the U.K., it’s a safe bet to focus on single malt scotch. Ditto for pisco in Peru or cognac in France. If you’re the adventurous type, seek out lesser known, local spirits. On our Buenos Aires trip, I was on the hunt for Argentinian bitter liqueurs, which there are many great examples like Hesperidina and Pineral that aren’t known here in the U.S.

Argentinian liquor acquisitions
Argentinian liquor acquisitions

On a recent trip to London I focused on rum rather than whiskey – England was one of the primary importers of rum from the Caribbean as far back as the 1600s, and the English affinity for rum continues to this day. I lost track of how many brands I found in London that aren’t available in the US, such as The Duppy Share and Bristol Classic Rums. A similar situation exists in France, which imports tons of agricole-style rum from its islands in the Caribbean. In short, the more you know about the breadth of what’s available at your destination, the better you can strike when the opportunity arises.

Advance planning

At this point, you should have a good idea what you’re looking for. The next step is researching and planning as much as you can in advance, saving precious time at your destination.

First task: Create an initial set of stores, distilleries, or other destinations to visit. For stores, I can usually find several solid candidates by searching for phrases like “best liquor store Buenos Aires” and browsing through the results to find which names pop up most frequently. Advanced tip: Sometimes the best spirits selection is found in stores that promote themselves primarily on the wine side of things.  (Our best retail score of Buenos Aires was from a wine shop called Malambo Vinoteca Y Almacén Criollo who also had a small if exceptionally well-stocked spirits selection and great enthusiasm for all things local and Argentine.)

If you happen to have a friend who knows the area you’re visiting, ask for suggestions. During our London trip, Peter Holland of The Floating Rum Shack pointed me toward two stores I wouldn’t have found otherwise. The bottles I picked up there are among the most treasured in my rum collection.

The rum-wonderland at Gerry's Wine & Spirits, London
The rum-wonderland at Gerry’s Wine & Spirits, London

Wonk alert:  As a longtime software engineer, I find it helpful to pin these locations onto a Google Maps layer I’ve created for the trip. This lets me figure out opportunities to visit a store while I happen to be nearby for some reason.

If you plan to on buy spirits in categories already available at home such as whiskey, rum, gin, and so on, it helps to a have a solid idea of the specific spirits already available to you. It’s a real downer to cart home a really unique looking bottle, only to find that it’s on your local liquor store shelf, but you’ve never noticed it.

For a category you know well, you probably already have a good sense of whether a given bottle is a must-buy. For categories you’re just exploring, I find it useful to visit a couple of online sites with extensive selections (High Time Wine Cellars and DrinkUpNY are my usual two) and save a copy of their spirits lists for categories like gin to a PDF file or application like OneNote that’s readily available on my smartphone. (I’m a big user of OneNote for keeping track of my spirited adventures. See this postfor why.)

Sure, you can plan to pull out your smartphone and look up the availability of a spirit at sites like wine-searcher.com and 1000corks.com. But as a veteran traveler, i can tell you that internet access is glitchy and frequently not there when you need it most for a buying decision. Having at least a basic list that’s available offline is a good insurance policy.

Executing the mission

Assuming your goal is to maximize how many bottles you bring back, Make reconnaissance missions of stores early in your trip, possibly without buying anything. (I often do this while Mrs. Wonk is at a museum or shopping for shoes.  It’s a win-win situation.)  The goal is to see what’s available, which stores have the best selections and prices, and establish a core set of bottles you’re highly likely to bring back.

Let’s say you can get eight bottles in your suitcase (more on this later) and you know there are five bottles on the “must have” list – it means that you have room for three more bottles that you can select spontaneously as the occasion arises.

Scanning for rums at the Vintage House, London
Scanning for rums at the Vintage House, London

During this survey, take notes of the bottles you’re considering. If the situation allows, snap photos of the bottles and prices of anything that looks interesting. If time allows, research the bottles and come to a solid decision which to purchase. In London this really saved the day for me. There were easily thirty bottles I wanted, across three different stores, and I needed to narrow it down to no more than twelve. With my homework completed, I returned to the stores, shopping list in hand, and did the actual purchasing in short order. I have fond memories of an Uber ride across London early on New Year’s Eve with over $700 of liquor in our arms!

While you may have a list of stores to check out before arriving, take advantage of local knowledge. Several times we’ve chatted with friendly bartenders and been pointed to a great store we weren’t aware of. A particularly great example was in Vienna, where a bartender at Loosbar told us about Grand Whisky, which not only had a fantastic whiskey collection (even some from our home state of Washington), it also had a seriously impressive collection of rums I thought I’d never see.

Grand Whisky, Vienna
Grand Whisky, Vienna

What about distilleries? I never pass up a distillery tour — just ask Mrs. Wonk. But honestly, I frequently leave a distillery empty handed. Surprised? Consider this: At the Mount Gay visitor center in Barbados, I found their top of the line 1703 rum for around US $100. However, I could purchase the same bottle online at home for around $80. I have similar stories at Barton (Ridgemont Reserve) in Kentucky, Auchentoshan in Scotland and St. George Spirits in California. The reality is that most distilleries don’t offer any discount on their mass market products. They cater to the casual tourist who’s excited to buy what they just saw being made. Odds are you can find the same bottle at a nearby store for less.

Great prices on Bajan rum at the Barbados grocery store
Great prices on Bajan rum at the Barbados grocery store

When I do pick up bottles at a distillery, it’s either a bottling that’s not exported to the US or it’s a distillery exclusive and/or limited release bottlings. I scored quite a few of these during our most recent Scottish single malt expedition. A few years ago, I was super-excited to pick up several bottles at St. Nicholas Abbey because at the time they didn’t export to the US. Likewise, at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY, I acquired a bottle of Heaven Hill Select Stock, exclusively available at their gift shop.

When travelling internationally, you may be able to take advantage of Value Added Tax (VAT) refunds on your liquor purchases. For example, in London all my spirits included a 20% VAT tax. If the store offers a VAT refund (and not all do), they’ll refund this money to you after you’ve left the country. To claim the VAT refund, the store personnel fill out a form which they then present to you. When you leave the country (e.g., at the airport), a customs official will (in theory) inspect your items and stamp the form, which you then mail back to the store for them to issue your refund.

That’s the theory. In reality it can be a cumbersome, error prone process. During a London departure, there were no agents at the customs station prior to baggage check. After clearing security it was a mad dash to our plane, so no VAT refund for me.  On the flip-side, Mrs. Wonk’s experience with the VAT refund at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was as pleasant as both the rest of the airport and the country itself.  A short wait in line, a few rubber stamps, and they gifted her with a handful of refund cash on the spot.)

Pro tip:  If you’re in the market for locally made spirits, don’t pass up the grocery store as a great shopping option! Mrs. Wonk and I love strolling through grocery stores in a foreign country – there are always crazy things we find, though in fairness, the same could be said of a foreign traveler visiting our local supermarkets.

Often, grocery stores carry a decent collection of locally made spirits. Local markets in Buenos Aires offered numerous Argentine bitter liqueurs, including some passable Fernet Branca competitors for US $4 per liter—great for Fernet and Cokes in our hotel room. In a supermarket in a residential area of Istanbul, we found lots of inexpensive raki, as well the Hare line of liqueurs, including rose, coffee and sour cherry flavors. Great for gifts if not stocking your own shelves.

A final note when selecting your bottles: Be aware that some airlines restrict the alcohol content of a spirit flying in their cargo holds. The number I commonly see is 75% ABV, or 150 proof. So think hard before you plunk down your money for that bottle of 151 proof rum or 160 proof Stroh from Austria. I brought some Stroh back from Vienna on our last trip, but I made sure it was the 120 proof version—a rarity not readily available in the US.

Stroh on the supermarket shelves, Vienna, Austria
Stroh on the supermarket shelves, Vienna, Austria

Carrying home the treasure

It’s the last day of your trip. You’re looking at a table covered in bottles and wondering how it all gets home, unbroken. Between our two standard “fits in an overhead bin” rolling suitcases, Mrs. Wonk and I have consistently been able to bring fifteen or more standard sized bottles home, and so far only lost one bottle. That was my fault, trying to get ten bottles in a single bag coming home from Jamaica. My Hampden Estate gold rum didn’t make it, but my clothes smelled amazing when I opened the suitcase!
So, let’s say that a typical same number of 700 or 750 ml bottles per roll-on bag is eight. When we pack at home prior to departing, our suitcases are stuffed with clothes and shoes. How does all that, plus sixteen more bottles fit? Do we abandon clothes? Throw away shoes? What’s the trick?
Getting ready to return home with lots of bottles, London
Getting ready to return home with lots of bottles, London
Obviously your bottles must go into your suitcase so they can fly as checked luggage. And you’ll want to wrap the bottles well to protect against the rough-and-tumble baggage experience. This is Mrs. Wonk’s Area of Expertise. Her advice:

“First, organize bottles by size and weight, splitting them between the two bags (if you have two).  Think about organizing bottles in two layers—three across on the bottom (where the wheels are), and two or three inverted at the top, with the necks (the most fragile part of the bottle) toward the center of the suitcase.

Lay down a moderately thin layer of clothes on the bottom of the suitcase, to protect against the usual retractable handle frame inside. Using some of your clothes, wrap each bottle well. (T-shirts work really well for this.) No need to overdo it though. Next, arrange the wrapped bottles loosely together in the suitcase, keeping them from around the edge. Once the bottles are situated, tuck other small clothing—t-shirts, socks, unmentionables—snugly into whatever empty space remains. Top this layer with a section of “tougher” clothing—jeans, pants, sweaters—and then repeat the process with another layer of bottles across the top. The end result once zipped should be snug but not super firmly packed.  Don’t forget that most carry-on bags have an expansion zipper at the front—a no-no when carrying-on and trying to shove it in the overhead compartment, but ideal when you are checking the bag and looking for a few extra inches of room for your bounty.”

If you have anywhere close to seven or more bottles in the suitcase, weigh it. We bring a small hand-held travel scale to reduce any potential debates at the check-in desk. Your goal is to not exceed 50 pounds/23 kilograms; above that, many airlines start charge a higher fee, even if your first checked bag is free. If necessary, remove items to make each suitcase less than 50 pounds.

Unless you packed very lightly for a frolicky beach vacation, you’ve probably got extra clothes, shoes, and so on that remain to be packed. This is where Mrs. Wonk’s secret weapon comes in:  A lightweight, nylon zip-out bag. She highly recommends the Baggallini Large Zip-Out Shopping Bag—it zips down to a compact 8”x8” size on the way to your destination. Fill it with your remaining items, plus any last minute items acquired between now and getting on the plane. This is now your large, but allowable carry-on.

The Duty Free conundrum

You may be all packed and ready to depart, but there may be one more liquor acquisition opportunity if you’re traveling internationally: Duty Free. Duty free liquor isn’t the panacea some people believe. In my experience, most of the liquors in duty free shops are from the big players and readily available anywhere. Sure, you may get a decent price on a bottle, and frequently duty free bottles are 1 liter, as opposed to the 700 or 750 ml bottles you normally see, but is the savings really worth the effort? That’s a choice you need to make on a case-by-case basis.

Sometimes there are “travel retail exclusive” bottles, which companies put out as a way to test a new spirit with a (presumably) upscale crowd, i.e., international travelers. Many duty free chains show their inventory online, so you might be able to find out in advance if there’s anything of interest.

If you do purchase at Duty Free, beware that getting it home may be an additional challenge, especially if you have a layover prior to your final destination. When you purchase from duty free, you’ve already checked your bags before going through security, so you’ll need to carry these bottles in your cary-on, which isn’t a problem if you land in your home city. However, if you have a connection after arriving in the U.S., you’ll need to go through security again, and if so, you won’t be allowed through with your duty free bottles in hand. You’ll need to claim your baggage at the connection city and recheck it. If this is the case, and you have room in your checked bags, you’ll have an opportunity to stash the bottle in your suitcase, assuming there’s room and you’re not rushing to board your next flight. You roll the dice, you take your chances.

Update: Commenter Chris points out that TSA regulations now allow you to carry-on duty free purchased liquor as long as it’s in a secure, tamper-evident bag and in a transparent bottle. However, stories of the TSA not always allowing this have been reported.

And finally, the big question: Customs. Many people mistakenly believe they can only bring a certain amount of liquor through U.S. Customs and Border Patrol when returning home, e.g. “One liter”. However, that one liter is simply the amount you can import free and clear of customs taxes. If you bring back more than that, you simply pay the duty owed. All indicators are that it’s at most $3 per bottle. Obviously this might change, and I’m not providing legal advice here, but at $3 per bottle, it’s hardly worth passing up the great finds overseas.

When we travel, we always declare all our purchases, including liquor. We’ve always been prepared to pay the duty owed, but so far (fingers crossed) we’ve never been asked to pay. Realistically, the duty on our ten liters of liquor is small enough that it’s likely not worth an agent’s time to deal with it. Obviously your mileage may vary.

Update, Feb. 2017: I recently blogged about paying custom’s duty on spirits in detail in this post. Short story: If you get flagged, it’s slow but inexpensive.

Building your liquor collection while travelling can be an enjoyable pastime and provide you with plenty of great spirits and stories to share with your friends back home. It can also give you a “mission” during your trip, if you’re the type that enjoys that, like I do. If you’ve got your own insights and experiences, drop them in the comments.

Barbados liquor acquisitions
Barbados liquor acquisitions, 2013
Liquor haul, UK and Amsterdam, 2016
Our biggest haul, UK and Amsterdam, 2016
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10 thoughts on “Suitcase Booze: The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Buying Liquor on the Road”

  1. Overall great post but one minor comment – TSA does allow you to bring liquids of any size purchased at Duty Free through security as long as they are packaged in tamper evident bags and have the receipt showing. They will open the bag and swab the bottle (sometimes even remove the bottle from the bag for inspection) but overall it's an easy process and comes in handy if your bags are already close to the weight limit.

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