You’ll only really experience the world of booze if you stuff your suitcase when you’re away from home – especially if you live in a controlled jurisdiction
The first thing people normally notice about my apartment is the liquor. Eight-foot-long shelves brim with the stuff, with wooden crates beneath them to hold the overflow, not to mention more bottles hidden away in cabinets and of course the refrigerator. When my fiancée first moved in with me she thought it was fun to count it all; the number has tended to come between 300 and 350 items each time we’ve done it. (She’s so over the novelty by now.)
At least three-fifths of the stuff spent time in my suitcase – precious cargo in the hold of an airplane, or in the trunk of my fiancée’s car as we crossed the Peace Bridge between New York State and Ontario.
I buy booze when I travel. Every time. Lots of it. Any person who both drinks and travels ought to consider getting into booze hoarding, too (even if it means having to spend a weekend building a few shelves to hold it all). People fear broken bottles and cranky border guards but as I’ll explain, these aren’t actual risks in my experience – and that experience involves returning home to Canada several dozens of times with many litres of hooch in tow.
I know people also fear the extra charge for checking luggage, when they could otherwise get away with no fee. I can’t help with that – if you’re carting booze home, you’ll have to pay. All I can do is make a case for why it’s worth it.
You’re in flavour countries
The first reason you should bring home some bottles is probably obvious: Wherever you are, you can probably find products that you can’t find at home.
Many of them will carry a certain souvenir aura – they’re drinks that speak to local traditions and agriculture, and are unique to the place you’re visiting. The size of the apple growing industry in Quebec, for example, leads indirectly to a wide range of fermented and distilled apple products available only in the province, from ciders to apple brandies. (Cidrerie Michel Jodoin makes a delicious range of apple boozes.) And when in Nova Scotia, seek out Ironworks rum. And so on.
One reads that the sense of smell is the most primal part of the brain, and isn’t it the truth that a particular flavour or aroma can transport you back in time, à la Proust’s madeleine? A souvenir bottle of liquor becomes a wayback machine when enjoyed months or years later: This small-distillery whisky refreshes the green in the Ireland of your mind; that perfect pastis transports you back to the white stones of a beachside bar in Nice.
How long can you keep your souvenirs? You can cellar age wines and even strong beers. And spirits, especially if unopened, are virtually ageless.
The selection problem
Then there are products that aren’t local, necessarily, but are worth taking home because they aren’t sold where you live. Anyone with a particular interest – be it wine, tequila, whisky, or whatever – will likely find brands and flavours both unexpected and unfamiliar when away from home. I, for example, have a fascination with flavoured Italian spirits – aperitivi and digestivi like Campari, but more obscure. Where do I find the rare ones? Not in Ontario, for the most part. Italy itself has been a source of gems for my collection, of course, but I’ve also picked up plenty of finicky finds in New York, Chicago and London.
The selection in a large private store is going to be especially impressive if you live in a province or state where government-owned or controlled agencies reserve the exclusive right to sell certain (or all) alcoholic beverages. Often they’re the only place to buy spirits. Canadians might think this sort of arrangement is peculiar to our country but there are 13 U.S. states with systems that would seem familiar, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina. (Incidentally, Taiwan has state-owned liquor stores, too, and the outlets in the Nordic countries look downright similar to Canadian ones.)
Let’s be honest: The selection at monopoly liquor stores tends to suck, for reasons too numerous and convoluted to get into here.
If you’re one of the 13.6 million people who live in Ontario, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario is pretty much your only outlet for spirits and wine, and the main outlet for imported beer. Browse the Ontario’s entire LCBO catalogue via its product search function and you’ll discover around 12,000 products.
That sounds like a lot. But wait. The other week, I visited Premier Wines and Spirits in Amherst, N.Y. Chatting with a sales associate who was trying to track down a wine I wanted, he mentioned offhand that the store has about 11,000 SKUs. That means one single store, in Greater Buffalo (population of about 1.2 million) offers almost as many products as are available to all of Ontario. And Premier Wines’ SKU tally doesn’t even count the beer, which for New York State licensing reasons is kept in a sister store next door. (And believe me, the selection there is pretty great, too – better than even the biggest LCBO stores.)
Our writer in heaven (specifically, Premier Gourmet in Amherst, N.Y.)
To put it another way: Ontario’s entire system stocked 58 gin products when I checked, and of course no single store will have them all. Astor Wines of New York, meanwhile, carried 100. And that is just one store.
Be ready for an emotional response. If all you’ve ever seen are control stores and duty free outlets, visiting a real, honest-to-goodness private liquor store can be overwhelming. Heck, even after years of international liquor hoarding, I still almost got verklempt at a Binny’s superstore on a trip to Chicago last year. I mean, the way products are just jammed onto the shelves in their multitudes is like paradise, for a certain kind of boozehound.
Meanwhile, think about your last visit to a duty free shop or a government-owned liquor store. Recall the wide-open vista of shelves, often filled out with rows of the same product, five or 10 units wide. These are not signs of plenty. They are signs of someone trying to create the illusion of plenty.
How to pack, and legalities
Feeling depressed about your home jurisdiction’s liquor selection now? Ready to do some DIY importing?
Breakage is often the first concern. The good news is liquor bottles are hardier than you think. Don’t get complacent, though: Pack bubble wrap, scissors and tape. Bubble wrap in particular can be surprisingly hard to locate if you’re staying at a central hotel in a big city (downtown pharmacies and convenience stores tend to be small and bare-bones).
Swaddle each bottle in plastic bubbles, and then wrap that in some clothing – like a T-shirt or something – and finally, make sure everything is packed in really tight. If your mummified bottles are packed hard up against each other and not bouncing around, they should be fine. I’ve never lost one yet.
Another way to make sure you’ll get to keep your precious loot is to be honest. Don’t lie on the form or to a border guard about the amount of hooch you’ve got in your trunk or suitcase. Not only could you get into trouble, paying duty isn’t so terrible anyway. The border agents (the Canadian ones, anyway, in my experience) even help you massage the numbers a little to minimize the amount you’ll pay – but that’s presumably a privilege reserved for the honest and the polite.
For a U.S. resident returning home, your duty free limit is a litre of anything. For Canadians, it’s 1.5 litres of wine, 24 standard bottles of beer or equivalent, and/or 1.14 litres of spirits**. If you combine different categories, some complicated arithmetic comes into play. Let’s not think about that until we have to.
To counter a myth about duty free limits: They’re not the limit of booze you can bring back to your country. They’re the amount you’re allowed to bring in without paying duty. You’re allowed to blow over it – way over. Throw up to 45 litres of total product in the trunk if you live in Ontario, for example. You’ll simply have to pay a fee to bring the hooch in, and at that point it will be substantial.
Here’s the receipt for my latest cross-border booze run. I had spent roughly US$250 over the limit on a mix of spirits and wines, and I think the total volume was about nine litres of stuff. As you’ll see, my bill was just under $150 Canadian.
Most of what we call “duty” in Canada is actually a provincial markup fee, meaning the province in question gets a cut of profits on the booze you buy â even if you buy it elsewhere!
It did not feel wonderful to stick my Visa into a government pay terminal. But as always there was no other way to get my hands on any of the products involved. Maybe someday politicians in my home jurisdiction will come to the practical realization that allowing me to order products online from abroad and pay duty and markup fees on them would make my responsibly boozy life better, while keeping their revenues the same.
Until then, it looks like we’re stuck with the little ritual of travelling everywhere with bubble wrap and making sure to look border agents in the eye – as if you’re raising a toast to them. If they wave you through without paying, you might do so later on.
Adam McDowell is deputy editor of Billy and the author of Drinks: A User’s Guide (Tarcher Perigee).
(**Bonus rant: Why is 1.14 litres the import limit for spirits into Canada? Because it works out to 40 ounces, a wonky bottle format that’s in use in Canada … but nowhere else. In other words, our duty free limit for importing spirits is set to a weirdly precise amount that works out to a bottle size you would never import anyway. To look at it another way, the only scenario under which you would hit the limit exactly would be to buy a 40-ouncer in Canada, travel to another country, and then bring it back. Try to find the logic in that.)