Saturday marks the 140th Run for the Roses: the Kentucky Derby. Great horses, great hats — but where's the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for the mint juleps?
Last October, more than 200 bottles of the prized spirit were stolen right out of the distillery in Frankfort, Ky. The county sheriff believes it was an inside job, and a $10,000 reward remains on offer.
Pat Melton, the sheriff of Franklin County, Ky., has these facts: In the small city of Frankfort, 222 bottles disappeared from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The bourbon had been aging in oak barrels, some since the mid-'90s, and the bottles were in a locked, secured area, ready to be shipped.
Melton says this had to be an inside job. "It had to be internal. It was behind a second lock and key inside a warehouse," he says. "That was a good clue and a good start."
A Reward From 'Somebody That Cares About Bourbon'
In the sheriff's office, they're following the phone tips and the email trail. "Detectives have interviewed more than 100 employees at Buffalo Trace throughout the course of this investigation so far," Melton says.
As for Buffalo Trace? The company isn't saying anything while the investigation continues.
Melton says he has two promising leads. The $10,000 reward, much of that from someone the sheriff calls an "undisclosed source," helps keep all this alive.
"They didn't want to be identified," Melton says. "It's somebody that cares about bourbon very much and wanted to help with the investigation."
The bourbon was already scarce before the theft; a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle could change hands privately for as much as $1,000. At the Party Mart liquor store in suburban Louisville, asking for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle elicits a laugh from manager Garret Brown.
When the store does have it in stock, 10-year-old Pappy retails for $39, up to $235 for a 23-year-old bottle. Each fall, Party Mart gets an allocation of somewhere upwards of 30 bottles — not nearly enough for Pappy enthusiasts.
"We do a lottery for it," Brown says. "Send out an email and tell people to be here at a certain time on a certain day. And we literally just draw numbers out of a hat."
The last time the store did it, Brown says 640 people showed up. "There [were] people inside and outside, looking in the store."
A Pricey Pour
The Louisville restaurant and bar Bourbons Bistro has 125 regular bourbons, and 25 very special ones, on the shelf. For 2 ounces, the restaurant's customary pour, the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle will set you back $100, says bartender Katie Haddix. A shot of 20-year costs $75.
"A lot of people are surprised, you know, shocked ... that's how much it is for one pour" of the Pappy Van Winkle, she says.
Maggie Kimberl, a bourbon writer for Louisville.com, remembers that just six years ago, Pappy Van Winkle didn't sell so much — it would get dusty on the store shelf, she says. Then came the craze.
"There was an article in, I believe it was Wine Enthusiast — they gave Pappy Van Winkle a 99 or 100 rating," she says. "And after that, you couldn't get it anywhere, you couldn't find it anywhere."
Back at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort — the scene of the crime — PR manager Amy Preske shows off "Warehouse C," a cavernous old brick building full of whiskey.
"This is one of our oldest aging warehouses on property," Preske says. "It was built in 1881. It has six floors in this warehouse and about 25,000 barrels," aging from three years up to 23 years.
Preske and the company have no comment about the October theft. For the moment, it seems like all that Pappy Van Winkle bourbon has somehow evaporated.
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The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow, the 140th run for the roses. Great horses, always great hats, but where is the Pappy Van Winkle for the mint juleps? Last fall, more than two hundred bottles of that prized bourbon were stolen right out of a distillery. It had already been scarce; a bottle of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle could change hands privately for a thousand dollars.
NPR's Noah Adams went to Kentucky to check on the investigation.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: It was a dark night in early October. But then again, maybe not, nobody is talking much. The local sheriff, though, is sort of an exception.
SHERIFF PAT MELTON: I'm Pat Melton. I'm sheriff of Franklin County, Kentucky.
ADAMS: The sheriff has these facts: 222 bottles got away from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. The bourbon had been aging in oak barrels, some since 1990. These bottles were ready to be shipped. Sheriff Melton says this had to be an inside job.
MELTON: It had to be internal. It was behind a second lock and key inside a warehouse. You know, detectives have interviewed over a hundred employees at Buffalo Trace throughout the course of this investigation so far.
ADAMS: And as for Buffalo Trace, the company isn't saying anything while the investigation is ongoing. We'll stop by the Frankfort distillery at the end of our story just to say hello.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Eighty-eight-zero-zero...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ten-four, do we have a listing...
ADAMS: In the sheriff's office, they're following the phone tips and the e-mail trail. Sheriff Melton says he has two promising leads. And a reward offer of $10,000 helps keep all this alive, much of that is from somebody he won't name:
MELTON: They didn't want to be identified. It's somebody that cares about bourbon very much and wanted to help with the investigation.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLES)
ADAMS: Just to get really deep into the bourbon community, I started at a liquor store. It's called Party Mart in suburban Louisville.
GARRET BROWN: The Pappy Van Winkle is not available right now.
ADAMS: I guess that was like a joke to ask for it. This is Garret Brown of Party Mart. When they do have it, the 10-year-old Pappy retails for $39, up to the 23-year old at $235. Every fall, Party Mart gets an allocation of somewhere upwards of 30 bottles - not nearly enough.
BROWN: We do a lottery for it. Take e-mails and send out an e-mail, and tell people to be here at a certain time on a certain day. And we literally just draw numbers out of a hat. The last time we did it, 640 people showed up.
ADAMS: At the store?
BROWN: Yes, at this store. There was people inside and outside looking in the store.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADAMS: The next stop is a Louisville bar and restaurant called Bourbons Bistro.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADAMS: They have 125 regular bourbons on the shelf and 25 very special ones. I check with the bartender, Katie Haddix, about the Bistro's customary two-ounce pour.
So, Pappy Van Winkle, 23 years old...
KATIE HADDIX: Is $100. Yes, a shot.
ADAMS: Twenty years old...
HADDIX: Is $75. A lot of people are surprised. You know, shocked. You know, and I'm like, yes, that's how much it is for one pour.
MAGGIE KIMBERL: If you're writing about Louisville and you're not writing about bourbon, you may as well go home because you're missing the point.
ADAMS: This is Maggie Kimberl. She's a bourbon writer for Louisville.com. And she remembers, just six years ago, Pappy Van Winkle didn't sell so much, would get dusty on the store shelf, and then came the craze.
KIMBERL: There was an article in, I believe, it was Wine Enthusiast. They gave Pappy Van Winkle a 99 or 100 rating. And after that you couldn't get it anywhere. You couldn't find it anywhere.
ADAMS: So let's leave Louisville and go back east to Frankfort to pay our visit to the Buffalo Trace Distillery, back to the scene of the crime. We meet Amy Preske, the PR manager, in a cavernous old brick building that is full of whiskey.
AMY PRESKE: We are in Warehouse C. This is one of the oldest aging warehouses on property. It was built in 1881. It has six floors in this warehouse and about 25,000 barrels.
ADAMS: Aging for?
PRESKE: Anywhere from three years up to 23 years.
ADAMS: Twenty-three years would be...
PRESKE: The Pappy Van Winkle.
ADAMS: The Pappy Van Winkle.
ADAMS: There's a lot here.
PRESKE: We aren't going to tell you where. But...
ADAMS: That's Amy Preske of Buffalo Trace, the company with no comment about the October theft. And for this moment, it seems like all that Pappy Van Winkle bourbon has somehow evaporated.
Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.