Kentucky’s case of the missing cases

Someone stole 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the nation’s most expensive bourbons.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEOctober 20, 2013 

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The release of small batches of Pappy Van Winkle to bars and retailers each autumn is tracked by connoisseurs who snatch it up as soon as it hits shelves.

“We get phone calls from people asking, ‘Do you have Pappy in stock?’” said Bill Thomas, owner of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, where a 2-ounce shot of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle costs $65, and the even rarer 23-year-old is $75. “It’s the Christmas toy that’s been hot now for multiple Christmases.”

The disappearance, considered a theft by Sheriff Pat Melton of Franklin County, was reported Tuesday, the sheriff said. He suspects an inside job that took place in the past month or two, after the white-oak barrels, aging on the cooler lower floor of a warehouse, were debunged and the amber bourbon bottled and labeled before the annual deliveries.

Melton said the culprit stole 195 bottles in three-bottle cases of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year, whose recommended retail price is $130 a bottle, and nine cases of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, with a recommended price of $69.

‘SMOOTH AS SILK’

The thief had an obvious motive: The secondary market for the scarce whiskey is hot. A single bottle of 20-year-old Pappy, as aficionados know it, sold at Bonhams auction in New York recently for $1,190.

“It’s the most complex bourbon you’ve ever tasted, but it’s smooth as silk,” said Sean Brock, the owner of Husk Restaurants in Nashville, Tenn., and Charleston, S.C. “That’s why people go crazy for it.”

The day the theft was reported, Brock’s email and Twitter feed pinged constantly with chatter and speculation about who might have been responsible. He has a theory of his own: “I’m pretty sure it was George Clooney and the boys from ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ ”

The sheriff said the theft occurred from one of the 13 warehouses at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, which makes and ages the Van Winkle brand in partnership with the original family owners. He suspects the thief or thieves smuggled it out a case or two at a time. “I don’t think anyone could walk out with 74 cases of bourbon,” Melton said, citing security measures at the 119-acre distillery.

Workers at the distillery, where a water tower looms over century-old brick buildings turned black over the course of many hot Kentucky summers, did not want to discuss the matter as they came off their shift Thursday.

“It’s the talk of the town,” is all one bottling line worker would say, declining to give his name.

Carey Graham, who guides tours of the distillery and warehouses, said visitors always ask to buy Pappy at the gift shop.

“I say, ‘You might as well go chase your tail.’ ”

Even the chief executive of Buffalo Trace, Mark Brown, is out of luck.

“I was in a steakhouse in Louisville Monday night which had three bottles of the 23-year-old locked in a display cabinet,” he said. “I had guests who were dying to try it, but they wouldn’t sell me any. They said, ‘No, this is just part of our stash.’ ”

CULT FOLLOWING

Unlike most Kentucky bourbon that is made from corn, rye and malted barley, Van Winkle substitutes wheat for rye. The taste is softer and milder and allows for longer aging, connoisseurs say. The Van Winkle brand includes bourbons aged 10, 12, 15, 20 and 23 years, with the younger ones more moderately priced: Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year sells for about $39 in stores.

But it is the 20-year-old Pappy that has a cult following like a 99-point California cabernet.

“Pappy” is named for Julian P. Van Winkle Sr., whose roots in the bourbon business date to the late 1800s and who sold bourbon named Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell. In 2002, the third and fourth generations of the Van Winkle family formed a partnership with Buffalo Trace, a sprawling operation on the Kentucky River where whiskey has been made for more than 200 years. It was the first to commercially market a single-barrel bourbon — one not blended from different batches — in 1984.

There are other super-premium bourbons made in small batches, some that cost even more than Pappy Van Winkle. But none, according to bar owners and retailers, have the cachet of Pappy, thanks to its taste and evocative history. A portrait of “Pappy” on the label shows a white-haired bourbon baron wreathed in cigar smoke.

“It’s definitely the No. 1 whiskey people request,” said John Wiseman, an owner of the Whiskey Shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., who counts himself lucky to be allocated a few bottles at a time from his distributor. They sell out instantly. Two weeks ago, Wiseman was contacted by an executive assistant who had called shops all over the country and as far away as Europe trying to buy some for her boss’ birthday.

“She was pleading with us to get a bottle of Pappy 23,” Wiseman said. “I was like, ‘I would love to help you, but I don’t have any.’ ”

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