It's a metaphor, of course, but only just, and not nearly as rhetorical as it might first appear. The world of departures - of the duty free, of travel retail - is the tiny and narrow walkway along which 15 per cent of the globe's population wander, its enforced wait softened and stimulated by the opportunity to shop, eat and drink. Last year a billion people spent nearly £31 billion in travel retail. In 2019, that will have risen to around £64 billion, which to put things in context is the net worth of Facebook. Easy to see why Lavernos should have labelled it the sixth continent - officially also ferries, ships and border stores, but in reality a market dominated by airports.
While I'm old enough to have witnessed a get-what-you're-given bargain bucket culture of stacks of fags and booze become one of retail's fastest growing sectors, my real education as to the Final Frontier type uniqueness of this new continent begins with a bottle of whisky; namely, the Glenmorangie Dornoch. One of travel retail's latest offerings, and which at the time of writing stands as malt of the month at World Duty Free Group's (WDFG) specialist whisky outlet World of Whiskies. I had the opportunity to taste it pre-release, and chased up its progress in December.
Briefly, the Dornoch, another Bill Lumsden creation, was always in the making - with or without travel retail. Lumsden already had the final spirit in the bag when approached by WDFG at the Tax Free Association World Exhibition in Cannes. However, being both limited in stock and persuaded of the view that it's name and back story, which pays tribute to the estuary the distillery overlooks, would prove a best fit, says Lumsden, for "whisky connoisseurs as they make their own journey through travel retail." Glenmorangie handed WDFG a small coup, agreeing to make it exclusive to the company for two months, after which it would become available across travel retail.
I say coup, but as Glenmorangie well knows, suppliers are falling over themselves to get at a slice of the travel retail cake. Parent company LVMH reports its travel retail arm Selective Retailing as being the fastest growing part of the business. More pertinently, wine and spirits in general constitutes nearly a fifth of said cake, and if any of the other travel retailers' figures break down anything close to those of WDFG's, then it's wet with whisky. According to Nigel Sandals, Liquor Buying Manager for WDFG UK, whisky accounts for 45 per cent of its liquor sales, half of which is in the single malt category. In fact, adds Sandals, "World Duty Free Group UK sells 25 per cent of all single malt retailed in the UK." Please reread that last sentence slowly.
Based on these admittedly UK-centric figures, not only is it whisky's brand new home, the volumes of sale a no brainer, travel retail's a market-frontier like no other. Landside, single malt whisky may shout loudly, but it accounts for a paltry seven or eight percent of the whisky sold worldwide. Airside, it's going toe-to-toe with blends - Glenfiddich, the Glenlivet, the Balvenie, Glenmorangie, the Macallan, the Dalmore and Highland Park most obviously, but also many of the Islay whiskies, plus one or two surprises, Aultmore and Craigellachie being perfect examples. Johnnie Walker may rule continents one to five, but the sixth is proving something of a sticking point.
All of which begs the question: what in the name of hell and vodka's going on? It's simple and complicated - and always sophisticated. Whisky today, in all normal continents, rides high, and for many reasons, though not least notions of provenance, of premium and of difference. Clearly, the rarefied and privileged exclusivity of a market championing unmatchable prices, limited offers and sole availability fits well with its modern profile. For WDFG UK, whisky is imagined as standing apart. The World of Whiskies recent revamp (cask-motif, wood, exposed brickwork, a tasting bar) is designed to contrast, says Sandals, with "the black and white" look of the rest of its wine and spirits offer. It might not, as Sandals says, share the same breadth of "references" that a landside whisky specialist does, but there's enough here - in terms of the exclusive (WDFG only), the experimental (regions), the well-understood (known brands) and the collector-connoisseur (rare and vintage) - to pique most interests, particularly on the single malt front, which gets a lot of airplay.
Key to all this - from the point of view of sales of whisky in general and of single malt in particular - is the actual experience of buying it. The sixth continent may have integrated the digital, but it is by definition all about the physical: it's real-world old school shopping. Meaning, for a moneyed, experimental and reasonably time rich consumer, nothing beats being guided by people who know and love their stuff. "Some," says Sandals, "have been with us for ten years. They're mad for whisky. They go home and blog about it at night." The ongoing training, the supplier funded knowledge trips up to distilleries and the new release introduction days keeps things fresh, as does the fact that producers also provide agency and their own staff, all of whom arrive with shareable expertise. According to Sandals, when Lumsden arrived to run a session on the Dornoch, 110 staff turned out to mob him. Small wonder, then, that it should be currently selling at an extraordinary 1,000 bottles a week. Enthusiasts sell whisky, and especially single malts.
Last, and don't forget, this is travel retail, a continent fashioned by reams of flight data. Where else in the world of retail would you have advanced (a week) notice of who's going to be walking through your store, when they're coming, how many, and their purchase interests and potential? How things look - the language of particular signs, who's running the special promotions bar, and the product - depends entirely on airport data as to who's flying when and where. Example: If you're flying Air China (destination China), and find yourself standing at a WDFG bar staffed by a multilingual bartender, ten to the dozen you'll be introduced to a whisky, Johnnie Walker and the Glenlivet being China-based favourites. If the supplier-provided bartender's good, then you'll carry on with a single bottle purchase, if very good, two. If you didn't realise at the time, then be advised: the bar - its information, the signage, the digital content, the bartender - has been specially designed, sourced and prepared for you and your fellow passengers. And if you find this disturbing, then welcome, dear traveller, to the machine. Data sells whisky too.
What all this means for whisky, generally speaking, is to the good. Financially, travel retail would seem an absolute must. Also, if aforementioned figures with regards to single malt translate worldwide, then it offers single distillery releases a definitive alternative market. Official bottlings of Aultmore, for example, are few and far between, it being stock traditionally reserved for blends. I can't say for sure whether travel retail drove the idea, but having the 21 Years Old out in the world's a good thing - it's a fine dram. World of Whiskies may well remain, as Sandals admits, a relatively limited archive, especially in terms of non-Scotch and smaller supplier offerings, but there are some real gems here, most of which get sold and (hopefully) drunk. So, to finish, the future. As Sandals says, we're going to get more and more Dornoch-type exclusives. While Glenmorangie will continue selling the Original and Signet through travel retail (as well as elsewhere), the rest of the shelf is almost certain to be travel only, a trend in keeping with the aims and practices of other producers. Also, look out blends and look out malt and look out Scotch; Haig Club's sitting pretty, and forms an introductory platform to grain, and Bourbon's the fastest grower. In short, whisky's sixth continent's here to stay, and if it's not quite what da Vinci would have had in mind for the moment before the moment above, then odds on you'd find him getting over it at one of them there tasting bars, hitting on a Dornoch, the Craigellachie 19, a bottle, dare I say it, of Brora 40.
Dornoch 43% ABV
Aroma: A classic Glenmorangie spirit matured in ex-bourbon American white oak then transferred to ex-Amontillado casks.
Taste: The swirling of under-current of peat adds an unexpected dimension of sweet smoky apples, complemented by vibrant sweet nutty flavours layered upon the rich, warm toffee and dried fruits.
Finish: After tasting you are left with added layers of distinctive floral notes, the softness of vanilla with hints of citrus.
12 Years Old 46% ABV
Born of fog, bog and brimming wee burns, a verdant nose of dewy moss and delicate flora, sweet liquid tracking a secluded path, gliding through green grass and fresh wild herbs.
21 Years Old 46% ABV
Ethereal summer nights, gloaming air tinged with fruity olive oil and rosemary, then velvety sweetness with soft melon and cereal hues; a sleekit-smooth secret, shared at last.
25 Years Old 46% ABV
Reclined in damp shorn grass, vapours of lime and baked apples, each silken sip unveiling lush vanilla and buttery biscuits; dreich skies deserve a top-class dram.
13 Years Old 46% ABV
Flames. Flared light. Fireworks. Breathe in Bonfire Night. Clove-studded baked apples. Sulphury cordite. Hefty, malty, mazy in the mouth. Bonnie sweet, but with fire in its belly.
17 Years Old 46% ABV
A caustic candy store. Vanilla, exotic fruits. Sweet treats. Then the sucker punch; a jab of aromatic liquorice and a smooth, smouldering end. A nippy sweetie of a nip.
19 Years Old 46% ABV
Stand fast for a skirmish. Tempting, pungent pineapple. A deil's cauldron of tangled flavours; spicy, sulphurous, biscuity beneath. A bellicose malt of backbone and brimstone. Feisty but braw.
Dave Waddell tasted the Glenmorangie Dornoch at Glenmorangie Distillery in November 2014. He visited World of Whiskies at Terminal 5 late December. Dornoch will be made available across the travel retail sector as of 30th January 2015. A portion of the return on each bottle is donated to the Royal Conservation Society. RRP £59.99.