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The Pappy Van Winkle Whiskey Mystery

By Jeremy Wilson

During the dying days of Summer last year, something very strange was happening in a nondescript 1920s industrial building on the outskirts of Frankfort, Kentucky. The building in question belongs to the oldest continuously-operating distillery in the United States, Buffalo Trace, and over a couple of months somebody was helping themselves to its prize store of “Pappy Van Winkle” bourbon. By the time the theft was discovered, 222 bottles of Pappy had vanished in what NBC News would later call “the bourbon theft of the decade”.

To understand why anyone would go to the effort of spending months siphoning bottles of booze from a secure room in a distillery instead of robbing a bank, you need to know one thing about Pappy Van Winkle: it’s rare. Very rare. The retail value of the 195 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbon and 27 bottles of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye netted in the heist is about $26,000, but that’s only for the favoured few on good terms with a prestige liquor dealership.

For most bourbon aficionados, getting their mitts on a bottle of Pappy is next to impossible. Julian Preston Van Winkle, a descendant of Pappy who is tired of people begging him for a drop of his namesake, puts it like this: “We have people with literally billions of dollars who can’t find a bottle… They’d have an easier time buying our company.”

Buffalo Trace Distillery, where the disappearance occurred

Buffalo Trace Distillery, where the disappearances occurred

How did Pappy Van Winkle, once an unassuming and easily available drink, become the most unobtainable and expensive bourbon in the world? Well, Pappy has been making bourbon connoisseurs go weak at the knees for years. The Beverage Tasting Institute gave Pappy’s 20 Year Old Family reserve 99 out of 100, describing its flavour in florid prose.

“Lavish aromas of caramelized pecans, chocolate fudge, and rich baking spices. A bold, powerful entry leads to a dryish full body of intense dried fruits, buttery praline, vibrant baking spices. Finishes with a seemingly endless and evolving cascade that introduces notes of cigar box, sweet tobacco, leather, dried tangerine, and so on.”

Not only does it taste good, the yearly supply of Pappy is subject to a business plan that was written up in the 1980s, when bourbon was distinctly unfashionable. Judging demand is a tricky business when your product takes 23 years to produce. Pappy sells between 7,000 to 8,000 cases each year; Jim Beam by comparison sells 7-8 million.

The result is simple: retailers can’t meet demand and the more demand can’t be met, the more the hype around Pappy grows. Pappy is released in yearly batches on what is known in Kentucky as “Pappy Day”. If you’re a regular Joe, your best bet for snagging a bottle is to camp out, iPhone style.

The situation has left liquor store owners scratching their heads as they try and figure out the best way to sell their limited stock. Some reserve bottles for their best customers, while others are starting waiting lists. But it’s often of little comfort to Pappy lovers: the waiting list at the popular South Carolina liquor store Southern Spirits is now ten years long.

Other stores have decided that it’s fairer to raffle off their stock, but the punters’ chances are still slim. In November over 600 people turned up for a raffle at the Party Mart Liquor store in Louisville, which only had thirty bottles of Pappy.

The result of this demand is rather predictable. There’s a thriving black market in Pappy, with $200 dollar bottles regularly changing hands for over $2,000. Despite being banned on Craigslist and US law requiring a license to sell alcohol, full bottles of Pappy are being flogged as collectibles on the classified ads website. The Louisville site has daily new listings offering bottles of Pappy for between one and two thousand dollars. It’s the same story in just about every other city in the US.

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Kentucky produces 95 per cent of the world’s bourbon and the Pappy whiskey mystery is causing quite a stir in the state that’s home to more barrels of ageing bourbon than people. Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton has been tasked with retrieving the stolen spirits and has been pleading with the public to call in with tips.

“We’re just trying to bring Pappy home,” Melton said at his last press conference as he upped the ante by offering a $10,000 dollar reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bourbon bandit.

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Melton is stretching the two detectives under him by making them work the Pappy case in addition to the child abuse cases they are also currently dealing with. The consensus among the police is that the theft was an inside job. The Pappy was stored behind locked doors and the missing bottles were removed from the back of pallets so that anyone checking from the doorway would see nothing amiss.

Additionally, the thief avoided appearing on security cameras. Over one hundred employees at the Buffalo Trace Distillery employees have been interviewed by police.

The lack of leads has led to the most tenuous of tips being taken seriously. When Chris Pickett, a high school principal, went into Packages and More Liquor store in Elizabethtown to ask if they had any Pappy, little did he know that he would soon become a suspect in the whiskey case gripping the state. The owner of the store misheard Mr Pickett and passed footage of the high school principal to the police.

Described by WAVE3 News as “viral surveillance footage” the video was soon racking up views online and being shown on local TV stations.

The police soon caught up with Mr Picket, who was named a person of interest, but he has since been cleared of all charges.

The Pappy story took another twist when the lawyer who represented Mr Pickett called a local TV station to suggest that the whole thing might be a publicity stunt. Speaking to reporter Claudia Coffey, he outlined his hypothesis.

“Don’t they say sometimes, follow the money. Who has profited the most from this? It wasn’t somebody stealing 65 cases or two hundred bottles of Pappy Van Winkle. I think the world wide attention that Pappy Van Winkle has gotten has certainly been wonderful to their advertising and marketing departments.

“Doesn’t feel right to an old country lawyer,” he added.

Something doesn't feel right to Doug Hubbard

Something doesn’t feel right to Doug Hubbard

As leads on the case run dry, Pappy enthusiasts are starting to embrace the theory that the bottles were stolen to order for a rich connoisseur. People who have expressed a deep love for Pappy in the past are now coming under scrutiny. Obvious suspects include notorious bon viveur and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who once tweeted that he was considering a full back Pappy Van Winkle Tattoo.

When a journalist asked Mr Bourdain for his thoughts on Pappy Van Winkle, this was his response.

If you’re not in possession of the resources to pull off a Pappy Van Winkle heist of your own but are still desperate to taste the legendary whisky, there are still options available to you. The PappyTracker app for iOS constantly monitors Twitter and Instagram for up-to-date information on where other people are finding Pappy.

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If the social media monitoring app doesn’t work, you can always try Ghetto Pappy. If you want a Starbucks Latte but don’t want to cough up the full price, you can make a Ghetto Latte by buying an Americano and adding milk. In much the same way, bourbon enthusiasts have been devising what they call “Poor Man’s Pappy”.

To understand how this works, you need to know a little about how bourbon is made. Put simply, the vast variety of bourbons all derive from stock “mash bills” that are unique to each brewery. The different bourbons are made by using different production processes, with each label branching off from the main distillery “mash” over the years.

From the book ‘The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining’ by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell,  published by Abrams Books

From the book ‘The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining’ by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, published by Abrams Books

By looking back at Pappy’s tree, we can see that W.L Weller 12 years, which can be found online for $26, is the same whisky as Pappy Van Winkle 15 years, just three years younger. By cutting the Weller 12 you can create something approaching Pappy.

The bourbonr.com blog recommends mixing W.L. Weller 12 and Old Weller Antique 107 at a 40:60 ratio. But, if that doesn’t work, robbing a distillery might be your only hope. Just don’t get caught: there’s a legion of rabid fans out there waiting to be furious with you.