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When something becomes valuable, its potential as a lure for criminal activity grows. And that’s just what happened when Pappy Van Winkle bourbon skyrocketed in price.
After celebrities and food connoisseurs like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang began touting the brand in the late aughts, it became quite the commodity. People were paying upwards of thousands for just one bottle.
The most famous crime connected to the coveted liquor was “Pappygate” in 2013 when 195 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and 27 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle rye were reported stolen from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. The stolen bottles were valued at more than $26,000 and the liquor heist made international headlines. It’s a robbery featured in Netflix’s new docuseries, appropriately named “Heist,” which focuses on some of America’s most infamous thefts. Two episodes of the series focused on former Buffalo Trace Distillery employee Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger who was blamed for “Pappygate.” While he went to prison for a bourbon-stealing operation that spanned years and netted him thousands, he denied being behind the specific "Pappygate" heist.
But that theft wasn’t the only crime connected to Pappy Van Winkle. The pricey booze has been the catalyst for several.
In 2016, Esquire did a story on a loosely organized Pappy Van Winkle forgery scheme in which people took advantage of the inflated price. People involved in the scheme would purchase empty bottles of Pappy Van Winkle — some sold for up to $200 on eBay — and then they filled the bottles with liquid that was not Pappy Van Winkle. Then, they made hundreds and sometimes thousands in profit reselling the faux Pappy.
And then there were people trying to sell actual bottles of the bourbon, but illegally. In 2019, a Pennsylvania man was arrested and slapped with a criminal charge for selling a bottle of liquor without a license when he tried to sell a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for $550 on Craigslist, KDKA reported. The state later withdrew the misdemeanor charge and the man paid $267 in fines along with court costs. Because the bottle was technically considered evidence, which is typically destroyed, he reportedly told police he wanted them to drink the coveted bourbon instead. Another man was arrested in the same state that same year for doing, you guessed it, the exact same thing, and he got in trouble for trying to sell liquor without a license, Penn Live reported. In this case, the culprit sold it to an undercover officer.
A 2016 food podcast referred to Pappy Van Winkle as something “you can’t get [...] unless you’re exceptionally lucky or you’re willing to break the law.”
To date, some bottles of the bourbon go for nearly $2,500.
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