To those who love bourbon, it’s no secret that Pappy Van Winkle is one of the most highly coveted bourbon labels on the market. But to some, this popular and widely recognized bourbon once became a little bit more than just a drink they hoped to have a chance to sample one day. In October of 2013, a robbery was reported at the Pappy Van Winkle Distillery that quickly gained attention as one of the priciest thefts in the liquor world at the time.
What is Pappy Van Winkle?
If you’re not that well-versed in bourbon, you may not know much about Pappy Van Winkle—but if you are, then chances are good you’ve heard the name of this distillery more than once. Pappy Van Winkle is one of the leaders of the bourbon world right now, with its bottles coming in at high prices and even higher demand.
The success of this bourbon label lends itself largely to the incredible taste and complex palate of the bourbon itself. Pappy Van Winkle is robust, intricate, and refined, but it goes down smooth, making it accessible and delicious from start to finish. It’s no wonder why so many people are interested in trying it, and why it remains difficult to find even though the distillery continues to put out product every year.
Of course, the current trendiness of bourbon also has something to do with the popularity of this product. Bourbon is fashionable right now, and bourbons that come from small batches of locally sourced distilleries tend to top the charts in terms of what trendy people want to drink. Pappy Van Winkle uses local ingredients and includes wheat instead of rye, making it an interesting twist that still caters to the tastes of the in-crowd.
All of this amounts to a bourbon that is bound to be enticing to anyone—even to thieves.
Is This Bourbon Really Worth Stealing?
Just because a bourbon tastes great and keeps up with current trends, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth stealing, right?
Of course, the price was also a factor in this 2013 theft. Since Pappy Van Winkle bourbon was (and still is) hard to find, supply and demand drove the price of this liquor higher and higher, especially on the secondary market. Around the same time the liquor was stolen, a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle was auctioned off for over a thousand dollars, so it’s easy to see why it became a target for robbery.
Even the “young” bottles of bourbon—which means bourbon that hasn’t aged more than a couple of years and therefore hasn’t developed a complex flavor yet—sell for more than many other labels on the shelves of liquor stores. So all this value combined to make Pappy Van Winkle the target of a large-scale robbery that was, at the time, nearly considered a full-blown heist.
What Was Stolen?
When the theft was discovered, the distillery reported over two hundred barrels of bourbon missing from their stocks. The value of the missing alcohol was estimated at near fifty thousand dollars. An investigation was launched immediately, and the theft soon went viral, attracting attention from all across the country but generating no real leads.
As time progressed and the case continued, police received an anonymous tip: an employee of the distillery had actually been stealing Pappy Van Winkle directly from the barrels, bringing the total value of the stolen liquor much higher than was previously anticipated. Although no final exact total was released, police estimated around one hundred thousand dollars of liquor was stolen in total.
Who Did It and How was the Crime Solved?
After the tip came through, police were led to two Pappy Van Winkle Employees named Toby Curtsinger and Sean Searcy. Curtsinger worked within the distillery itself, and Searcy was a delivery driver with access to transportation that could easily haul full barrels of the liquor as part of the heist.
Police followed up on the lead and discovered bourbon barrels, some empty and some full, on Curtsinger’s property. After returning with a warrant, they found five total barrels of Wild Turkey bourbon with the labels sloppily covered up, along with illegal prescription medication and illegal firearms. Curtsinger was arrested on the spot.
Throughout the coming weeks, locals called the police to volunteer information about purchasing Pappy Van Winkle bourbon secondhand from Curtsinger. The investigation went smoothly from there, as police were able to trace the stolen bourbon directly to Curtsinger and then to a network of others involved in the theft of Pappy Van Winkle along with several other bourbons in the area.
As police dug deeper, they realized just how common theft really was among the employees of bourbon distilleries, and how frequently these employees simply took home liquor without so much as a second thought. This investigation also uncovered many instances of security negligence at various distilleries, where it was possible to simply walk right up, take the bourbon, and walk away again.
In the end, ten total people were charged in connection with the theft of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon as well as bourbon from other local distilleries, particularly Wild Turkey.
The Pappy Van Winkle distillery robberies were one of the most publicized thefts in the world of bourbon, but they certainly weren’t the only ones at the time—and they probably won’t be the last, either. The bourbon market is packed with high-quality liquor with very low supply and extremely high demand, and as long as this persists, there are going to be thieves looking to get their cut of the action. Since the robberies, security has been improved at most Kentucky bourbon distilleries, so there is hope that a theft of this scale will not happen again.