Q&A

A Bourbon Blogger Gets Involved in the Pappy Van Winkle Case


Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.

Photograph by Luke Sharrett/The New York Times via Redux

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.

In October, 195 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, the world’s most expensive and sought after bourbon, mysteriously disappeared from Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky. Ever since, Tom Fischer has assiduously followed the investigation. The Louisville (Ky.)-based creator of BourbonBlog.com, a site visited by hundreds of thousands a month, frequently checks in with Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton to find out how he is faring in his effort to recover the missing bourbon cache, which has been valued at $26,000, and apprehend the thieves. Fischer says Melton has some promising leads. All the same, the blogger is starting to wonder if the widely publicized thefts may have been part of a different sort of conspiracy. I called Fischer recently to find out the latest about the scandal he calls, “Pappygate.” (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

I haven’t heard much lately about the Pappy heist.  You’ve been tracking the investigation closely. What’s going on?
I actually just called Sheriff’s Melton’s office a couple hours ago to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.  There really isn’t much of any kind of new update, except that in early December, the $10,000 reward was offered. The sheriff’s office says a lot of tips have come in, but there haven’t been any arrests yet. I believe they’re doing all they can. I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll find the thief. But you’re talking about a few hundred bottles of whiskey, and the thief is obviously on alert he or she is being looked for. That bourbon could be anywhere by now.

How is Sheriff Melton’s morale?
Well, he’s always optimistic.  They think they have some good leads.

What about the Bardstown High School principal who was a “person of interest” early in the investigation, and was eventually cleared?
[The sheriff's office] couldn’t go into a lot of detail about it, but they did some interviews with him, and I think they may have even looked at his [bourbon] collection.  When I talked to the guy’s lawyer, he said the investigators never could prove that he even knew anybody that worked at Buffalo Trace. There was no obvious connection. He never seemed like a culprit to me. I felt bad for the guy. I think the guy went into the liquor store and jokingly said, “Well, I have some Pappy to sell,” and maybe it was misunderstood.

Do you think this is an inside job?
No one knows for sure.  When that $10,000 reward came out, I just thought for sure someone would rat on somebody else at the distillery, but they didn’t. Maybe they don’t know either. Buffalo Trace is not commenting. But security has been beefed up a little bit, not only at Buffalo Trace, but at many of the other Kentucky distilleries, just to make sure this doesn’t happen again. So it could have been an outsider. These places get thousands of visitors every week.

Why do you think it’s so tough to catch the culprit?
It’s not exactly easy to find a stolen bottle of Pappy. They look like all the other bottles on the market.  So if I’m a collector and I want to buy a bottle on the collectors’ market, and I buy a bottle of 20-year-old today, and I get it, do I know if it’s stolen?  We went to the distillery and said,  ”Hey, have you guys considered releasing the strip-stamp numbers,” which—are you familiar with that?

No, explain it to me.
It actually shows the day and time that each bottle came down the line.  So you can see which of these Pappy Van Winkle bottles were released in 2013, vs. maybe one that I have in my closet from 2011. I think they should be able to account for which bottles they’re missing. From what the sheriff has told me, it sounds like he’s in possession of those strip-stamp numbers. But they’re not being released for some reason. It makes me wonder, well, why aren’t they? You know, if I’m a collector and I really have a good conscience about helping Pappy Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace find those bottles, well, maybe I would call them up and say, “You know what? I think I got one of the stolen.”

Hey, should other distilleries be worried about getting ripped off?
[Laughs.] Well, I think if another distillery wants some publicity, they should hire somebody to steal some bourbon. As far as I know, Pappy Van Winkle doesn’t spend a dime on advertising. This was once of the biggest stories in the industry last year. It makes you wonder if this was publicity stunt.

Do you have any Pappy Van Winkle?
I have a few bottles on reserve.

Are you locking it down?
[Laughs.] Yeah. I guess I need an attack dog or something to protect it. Actually, most of the stuff in my [liquor] collection, nobody would want.

I think you need a three-headed pit bull.
Exactly.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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