Sting highlights demand for Pappy Van Winkle bourbon

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Jan. 30, 2015, 11:17 p.m.

He thought he had a hot commodity he could flip quickly for a profit: a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year, one of the nation's most highly sought-after bourbons.

So he put the Kentucky spirit — carrying a suggested retail price of $130 — up for sale on Craigslist for $800.

He took the cash from the interested buyer who met him Thursday on Duquesne University's campus — only to find out the “buyer” was a police officer carrying out a liquor enforcement sting.

“He was stunned,” said Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Enforcement Sgt. William Baker, who teamed with Duquesne University campus police on the investigation, which was triggered by complaints.

“The bottom line is you can't sell alcohol without a license.”

Police confiscated the bottle of Pappy and questioned but did not arrest the man, whose name has not been released. He was over 21 years old and not a student, Baker said.

The misdemeanor charge for a non-licensed person selling liquor carries a penalty based on the volume of alcohol, at $4 an ounce, or $103 for a 750 ml bottle of Pappy.

That potential fine is 10 times less than what some sellers have fetched for a bottle of Pappy on various secondary and black markets, as bourbon's popularity grows and high-end brands like Pappy are tight on supply.

The United States does not have “rare whiskey dealers” that operate like those that deal in antiques or pawned items, the L.A. Whiskey Society points out to those wondering how they can sell alcohol they own.

Ebay halted the sales of alcohol as collectible items in 2012, after reports surfaced of teenagers using the loophole to buy booze.

And last year, Bonhams New York announced it was stopping the whiskey auctions it had been holding twice annually.

Baker said they cannot be sure how the man caught in Thursday's sting acquired his bottle of Pappy.

He may be one of 1,300 buyers who snapped up Pennsylvania's 2014 Pappy supply — 1,665 bottles — in less than half an hour last month.

The Dec. 11 online sale by the Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board drew so much traffic that it locked out thousands of users before they could make their purchases.

“The demand for Pappy Van Winkle is far greater than for most other products, if not all other products,” Pennsylvania LCB spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said.

The “frenzy” over Pappy has spurred the LCB to reconsider the process for selling it. A lottery system is possible, Kriedeman said.

Another plausibility — albeit less likely — is that the bottle can be traced to one of 195 Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year bottles stolen in 2013 from a warehouse in Frankfort, Ky., Baker said.

The disappearance of 65 cases of Pappy quickly escalated into a high-profile case that still befuddles Kentucky County Sheriff Pat Melton.

“We know it was an inside job,” Melton, who still gets tips on potential suspects, said by phone Friday. “Whoever did this, I think they had something or someone lined up, and it was gone and sold very, very quickly.”

Domestic bourbon sales have climbed by 36 percent in the past five years, according to industry data.

Bourbon is Pennsylvania's second-highest-selling spirit, generating $115.5 million in sales in 2013-14, up from $106.4 million in 2012-13, the LCB reports.

Pappy's “has always been a prominent bourbon, but it's really blown up in the last five to seven years,” said Thomas Garboury, a mixology instructor for the Dormont-based Elite Bartending School.

Downtown's Butcher and the Rye and South Side's Acacia Cocktails offer Pappy Van Winkle. Acacia has two Van Winkle products on its menu: A 2-ounce pour of the 20-year sells for $45; the 23-year pour is $75.

“It's very wholesome, very savory, but not necessarily something that's too spicy or super aggressive,” said Luke Felak, a former sales representative for Southern Wine & Spirits and longtime bar industry professional who lives in Crafton.

Pappy is a “wheated mash” bourbon, meaning it's made of corn, barley and mash as opposed to corn, barley and rye, Felak said. That gives Pappy a softer, creamier texture and rounder taste than some more traditional bourbons.

“It's a really buttery flavor. It's rich, and the older stuff has a lot of complexity,” said Tom Fischer, founder of BourbonBlog.com.

“But there are some really great bourbons you can buy for 20 or 30 bucks a bottle,” Fischer added. “I really can't see in good conscience paying thousands of dollars for it.”

Such private alcohol sales also would be illegal, “with very narrow exceptions in some states,” such as at estate sales and auctions, said Mark Flaherty, a Downtown attorney and associate member of the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators.

And when someone files a complaint, state Liquor Control Enforcement officials are “obliged to look into it,” Flaherty said.

Baker said his liquor enforcement team in Pittsburgh will continue to look into complaints about illegal alcohol sales through online sites. A judge could decide to return the Pappy back to the man who tried to sell it, or he could order it be destroyed.

“I'm not a bourbon drinker myself,” Baker said.

He quipped, “I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and I like my Steelers and my I.C. Light.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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