FRANKFORT, Ky. — America’s decade-old romance with Kentucky bourbon, a drink formerly as plebeian as a Chevrolet, has come to this: High-end bar chefs and foodies everywhere have been abuzz since someone stole 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the nation’s most expensive and sought-after bourbons, from a Frankfort warehouse.
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, the owner of 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 theft was reported Tuesday, Sheriff Pat Melton of Franklin County said. He suspects an inside job that took place recently, as the liquid was being bottled before the annual deliveries.
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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 of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, with a recommended price of $69 a bottle.
Smooth as silk
Whoever did it had an obvious motive: The secondary market for the extremely scarce whiskey is robust. A single bottle of 20-year-old Pappy, as aficionados know it, sold at Bonham’s 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 ‘Oceans 11.’ ”
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. Workers at the 119-acre distillery, where a water tower looms over century-old brick buildings blackened by weather, did not want to discuss the matter.
“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 the warehouses holding what he refers to as “hooch,” 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.’ ”
Bourbon is hip
The Van Winkle brands, including bourbons aged 10, 12, 15, 20 and 23 years, are still made in small batches, with the younger ones more moderately priced: Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year sells for about $39 in stores.
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.
According to Wine Enthusiast magazine: “The nose is intensely fruited but also bears a tantalizing citrus zest note. The body is huge and almost chewable and the palate is tremendously buttery with some sherry notes, a dash of dried fruits and some rich, creamy vanilla. The finish is long and elegant.”
Bourbon sales by distillers exceeded $2.2 billion last year, up from $1.3 billion in 2003, a boom driven by sales of high-end brands, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Foreign sales have also been on a tear as drinkers in Europe and Asia discover the quintessential U.S. whiskey.
“After 2000, 2003, bourbon exploded,” Thomas said, as urban drinkers pushed beyond Scotch, and bourbon became hip with drinkers intent on high-quality, locally produced food products.
“We opened our first bourbon bar 13 years ago,” said Thomas, who in addition to Jack Rose Dining Saloon owns two bars named Bourbon in Washington, D.C. “I would never have thought I’d sell a bourbon for $75.”
“Pappy” is named for Julian 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 there has been a distillery since 1857. It was the first to market a single-barrel bourbon commercially, Blanton’s, 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, 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.”