Editor’s blog: Missing duty free

Everyone who was there must remember the wailing and gnashing of teeth when, 10 years ago, those deadly killjoys from Brussels announced they were getting rid of duty free within the EU. It was going to be the death of our airports. When it was abolished the duty free market was worth several billion a year in Europe and the British – never ones to miss the opportunity of something for nothing – bought nearly a quarter of the total.

We were big fans of weird foreign hooch. What is unusual about the averagely stocked British drinks cupboard is not its volume but how long most of the contents have been languishing there. Having bought spirits and exotic drinks while abroad we hoard them like boozy squirrels and then forget they're even there.

Two factors figured strongly in our devotion to duty free. The first was nostalgia. Returning to the UK and the misery of work after a holiday we've always been great ones for trying to re-create the pleasure of foreign lands through native varieties of alcohol. Everyone knows, for example, that retsina is just about palatable in a taverna the full flush of holiday felicity. (You need something with a bit of edge to cut through most Greek food.) Somehow, though, retsina never tastes quite so good when consumed on a wet winter's evening in Crouch End.

The second is pure serial acquisitiveness. Even when you already have the full array of whisky, gin, vodka, rum and brandy, there are those who feel they have to complete the set of the socially acceptable drinks cabinet.

The British are extremely resistant to novelty when it comes to buying spirits at home in the supermarket or off licence. A subjective telephone survey of a number of friends and acquaintances who had clearly got very relaxed while abroad trawled up a remarkable range of exotica gathering dust. There was Fernet Branca, the Italian herbal digestif. 'We tried it once in Florence but I can't remeber what it tasted like.'

Another had some Pineau des Charentes, a sweet aperitif from Cognac. 'I think my mother in law brought us back that one.'

Several had grappa, the fiery Italian spirit made from discarded skins, pips and stalks, which is best left, along with after shave, to Hemingway clones. And there were also quite a few bottles of cassis – a delight nestling under a bone dry white of a Summer's evening in Provence, a bit out of place during a British December. 'I was sure I'd get to use it in summer pudding,' said one sad owner.

Another had a miniature of 'Mahon gin' from the Balaeric island of Minorca, not known as a centre of spirit-making excellence. 'It was the only excursion on the island. They blend it with different treacles. Mine must be 20 years old and still in the back of a kitchen cupboard.' I can even lay claim to a bottle of Lebanese arrack, unopened and certain to stay that way for the foreseeable future unless a platoon of Druze militia comes to visit.