The 'Ocean's 11' of Bourbon Burglaries: Uncovering the Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist
Prosecutors claim a criminal syndicate stealing and selling the most coveted bourbon was an audacious inside job.
Call it Pappy’s Revenge.
On Tuesday, at a courthouse in Frankfort, Kentucky, nine people were indicted, accused of a long-running scheme to steal and sell bourbon.
They had chosen Pappy Van Winkle, the grand cru of bourbons—bad move. Until recently, Pappy brand whiskeys were merely cognoscenti-craved obscurities.
But by a couple of years ago the craze for the ever-so-limited-release bourbons was in full frenzy—a fevered condition that continues, and that transformed a simple scheme to steal some whiskey into a crown-jewel heist.
It’s Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger’s bad luck that the Van Winkle family of whiskeys has become such a phenomenon.
He stands accused of organizing a criminal syndicate in Kentucky, using his position as a 26-year employee of Buffalo Trace distillery, where he manned the loading dock, to lift liquor not only by the case, but also by the barrel.
Prosecutors say he worked the scam with, among others, Mark S. Searcy, an employee at the nearby Wild Turkey distillery, which was also regularly robbed. His ever-so-convenient job was to truck barrels between company warehouses.
For years, nobody seemed to notice all the bottles and casks that went missing from the two companies. That’s right—years.
Curtsinger is accused of systematically lightening warehouse shelves as far back as the beginning of 2008.
Of course in those days no one had heard much about Pappy Van Winkle. Which may explain why the gang didn’t attract any attention when, several years ago, according to the indictment, it sold some 20 cases of Pappy.
Someone trying to sell 20 cases of Pappy these days wouldn’t be arrested; they would be trampled to death by a mob long before any police arrived.
Prosecutors say the criminal conspiracy was organized through the outwardly innocent networking opportunities presented by a softball league.
Curtsinger allegedly recruited both his gang and his customers through the sport, which provided ample cover for traveling the state and meeting plenty of thirsty people.
The distillery workers didn’t hide where they were getting their barrels from, just how. When Curtsinger was arrested last month, some of his regular customers started calling the sheriff, hoping, it would seem, to get out ahead of any raps for receiving stolen property.
They said that Curtsinger told them the distilleries had been remarkably generous with their valued employees, saying: “Hey, we’ve got some extra liquor that we aren’t going to sell...take it home.”
The gang had been getting good money for the whiskey, prosecutors said, even at a steep, back-of-the-van discount—selling for $1,500 each barrels the distillery would have gotten $3,000 to $6,000 for.
However much they got for the bottles of Pappy, though, was not nearly enough.
Over the last few years, Pappy has become a (overhyped) sensation, with soaring aftermarket prices and hens-teeth scarcity.
So valuable had Pappy become, by 2013, that even the lax loss-prevention folks at Buffalo Trace took notice when cases went missing. What had been a longstanding and ongoing pilferage was all of a sudden The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist.
The key to solving the case was, in its own way, simple, and can be found in an article in Louisville’s Courier-Journal back in October of 2013 when news of the Pappy heist broke.
“Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton said his office has been inundated with calls about the theft—some tips and a lot of media calls,” the C-J’s Mark Boxley reported. The sheriff’s reaction to all the media attention? “I’ve just been blown away by it,” he said.
And yet even with all that motivation to solve the crime, it was nearly a year and a half before the sheriff got the break he was looking for.
From the beginning of the investigation, Curtsinger might have been a prime suspect: The sheriff in 2013 noted that the whiskey had gone missing from a (clearly only semi-) secure location at the Buffalo Trace factory, and that his investigators would be looking at anyone with “regular access to the whiskey.”
But it wasn’t through the distillery that Curtsinger became the prime suspect. The Sheriff’s Office was working to unravel a local steroid ring, and stumbled on what appears to have been the whiskey gang’s other line of work—importing illegal anabolic steroids from China and putting them on the street.
When police raided Curtsinger’s house looking for bodybuilding drugs, Sheriff Melton says they found a couple of whiskey barrels out back, and several bottles of Pappy inside.
The officers deduced that these were clues.
Of course Mr. Curtsinger and the eight others indicted today have only been accused of crimes. As is the admirable custom of the country, they cannot—and should not—be assumed to be guilty.
That said, the moral of the story remains for any future distillery employees who know where the security cameras’ blind spots are: Lug away all the bulky barrels of mid-market liquor you like, but it’s best to leave the stuff labeled “Unobtainable Nectar of the Gods” alone.