All of your souvenirs will be in the trash 20 years after returning from a trip abroad. Snacks, spices, and even the hardiest canned foods expire. Clothes rip and begin to stink. Books yellow and magnets lose their stick. Furniture crumbles under feet and beneath thousands of butts. Even memories fade. If you want something that will be enjoyed in the moment, lasts, and brings back a flood of memories, few things compete like a quality bottle of booze.
Spirits speak to a time and a place. Some you can only buy in the country that it’s made, a few are worth seeking out whenever you’re abroad. The most valuable in terms of experiences are spirits that are so tied to a culture it’s hard to imagine the place without them. Genever in the Netherlands, for example, or Gosling’s Black Rum in Bermuda, or baijiu in China.
Decades after you touch down at your hometown airport, a bottle of alcohol will still provide your belly, and by extension your brain, all the bright flavors of another place. Wine and liquor evoke the true flavors of a culture, allowing you to share those tastes with friends back home. Stored properly, a bottle will easily keep until the perfect special occasion (though there’s nothing better after a soul-crushing workday than daydreaming about past travels with a happy hour glass from your souvenir bottle).
With boozy tourism on the upswing, many cities now boast at least one distillery, vineyard, or brewery where you can see firsthand how your host’s favorite drinks are made. Nothing completes a stop at one of these sites like a bottle of your own from the gift shop. By going straight to the source, you can even sometimes find exclusive products or cheaper prices.
Next time you go somewhere new, skip the cheap airport gift shop and pick up a quality bottle of booze. Just keep in mind a few tips to make sure it all arrives safely.
It’s legal to bring most alcohol into the US.
Full bottles of liquor and wine are far larger than the 3.4-ounce limit for liquids in carry-on bags, which means you’ll be checking your precious cargo. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t really care how much wine and beer you pack into your checked bag, as long as the alcohol is below 24 percent. For bottles that are more than 24 percent but less than 70 percent (which covers the majority of spirits), the administration allows up to five liters in your checked bag, which is likely more than you’ll need. Anything higher than 70-percent alcohol is a no-go, though we’re not really sure how that’s enforced. Fly with high-proof booze at your own risk.
US Customs and Border Patrol also doesn’t care how much alcohol you bring back, unless you’re planning to import full cases — in which case, you should probably do your research on this topic elsewhere.
Duty free isn’t always the best deal on alcohol.
You don’t have to worry about packing your own bottles or liquid limits in your carry-on bag if you simply grab your bottles at the duty-free shop in the airport. Duty-free shops offer some major discounts, but the selection at these shops remains pretty similar no matter where you are in the world. You don’t go to France for the bourbon, and it would be odd to bring back a bottle of Bordeaux from Thailand. The real tastes of another country lie on the shelves of local liquor stores outside the airport, which means you’ll need to learn to pack your bottles safely for the trip home.
Leave room for a bottle (or two).
Step one is making sure you have physical room for your souvenirs. This could be an excuse to travel light, leaving room in your suitcase, but an even better option is to pack a second suitcase inside your primary checked bag. At the end of your trip, simply break out the second bag and fill it with items from your checked bag to make room.
Invest in a good hard suitcase.
If you fool around with glass containers in a soft suitcase, you will end up with a bag full of liquor-soaked clothes and shattered dreams. Broken bottles happen. A hard suitcase is non-negotiable, and the bottle-protecting qualities is one reason why a good suitcase is the best travel gear investment for at least one Matador editor.
Bring bubble wrap.
Many savvy traveling drinkers will tell you they simply wrap their boozy keepsakes in dirty clothes for the return trip. That’s fine for amateur hour, but if you want to be sure your bottles don’t fall victim to an indelicate baggage handler, bring along a roll of bubble wrap. A combination of packing material, clothes, and faith will swaddle any bottle all the way home. We recommend bringing packing material from home, because no one wants to spend their last precious hours in a foreign city searching frantically for a UPS store.
Plastic wrap too.
Bubble wrap will protect a bottle from bumps and bounces, but it’s hard to get it to adhere tightly to the bottle’s surface. Plastic wrap, on the other hand, can completely encase a bottle, keeping the pieces together in the event of tragedy. Wrap a few layers of plastic around the bottle first before adding bubble wrap to ensure that broken bits of bottle don’t explode into the rest of your luggage.