The Surprising Story Behind This Pappy Van Winkle Heist

In January 2016, Pat Melton, the sheriff of Franklin County, Kentucky, broached the subject of what should be done with the 28 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon that had been recovered from what the media had dubbed The Pappy Van Winkle heist. He suggested they auction off the bourbon for charity. The Guardian reported, however, that Julian Van Winkle III, grandson of Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr., wanted them destroyed, lest their name be associated with adulterated bourbon.

When the bottles were originally recovered in 2015, NPR learned that the haul, which represents only around 10% of the total amount pilfered, was worth at least $100,000. "Gilbert 'Toby' Curtsinger led an organized criminal syndicate based at his residence in Franklin County, Ky., that participated in theft and distribution of stolen bourbon, and also imported and distributed anabolic steroids," Melton added.

The issue with the above happy ending, including Van Winkle's insistence on purity, is that it is a PR fabrication to cover over the reality of how the bourbon trade used to operate. The varnish starts to vanish when Thrillist notes that the actual theft was less of a heist than opening a faulty door. Then there's the fact that one could simply "lose" barrels in transit or convey a forklift full of Pappy Van Winkle to a truck and nobody would bat an eye. Thrillist reports that since the "heist," Buffalo Trace, the distillery in question, has actually invested in some measure of security.

The story falls further apart

When writer Craig Calcaterra performed a full investigation of the Pappy van Winkle Heist, he discovered that even the theft of the bourbon resulted in less of a heist than PR control.

"One person had charges dropped against them," he wrote on his website in 2018. "Everyone else pleaded guilty, with all but one serving no jail time whatsoever. The alleged kingpin, Toby Curtsinger, was sentenced to 15 years. He served 30 days and was released on shock probation just this past weekend."

The actual story, as Calcaterra said he originally wrote for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, was that workers had always stolen bourbon to drink at home as a type of under-the-counter job perk. However, the increase in bourbon's popularity and value led to larger amounts of reselling. The bourbon Curtsinger stole was bourbon the distillery deemed poor and intended to pour away. All Curtsinger did was keep the unwanted bourbon and sell it on his own, though he did admit he was more brazen about his activities than the average bourbon distillery worker.

So when the news reported 200 missing bottles, nobody really cared and, more importantly, no evidence points to Curtsinger's admittedly brazen liftings even totaling that amount. Rather, the distillery and sheriff pinned the totality of the bourbon's shambolic nature on Curtsinger to boost the brand of Pappy van Winkle and create and aura that the police had actually done something impressive. Destroying over $100,000 worth of bourbon was simply a touch to impress the brand's rarity and authenticity.