The Pappy Van Winkle Heist that Wasn’t


Do you like bourbon? Then I have a story for you.

Some of you may remember The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist from back in 2013. Hundreds of bottles of the most expensive, most highly sought-after bourbon known to man, Pappy Van Winkle  was reported stolen. Coming as it did amidst an unprecedented boom in the popularity of bourbon, it made national news. International news even. 

In 2015, Franklin County, Kentucky Sheriff Pat Melton claimed to crack the case. A criminal syndicate was behind it, he said. Racketeering! Guns! Drugs! Serious, serious business. Over a half dozen arrested. A man named Toby Curtsinger the alleged kingpin. The assailants faced decades in prison under state RICO laws. It was a major, major deal and, once again, made news around the globe. 

And then, three years later, it was no longer big news at all. It wasn’t even all that big of a crime. 

One person had charges dropped against them. 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.

What made the case turn into almost nothing, with almost no jail time? The fact that there really was no Pappy Van Winkle Heist at all. At least not as it was portrayed.

I am the first and so far the only person I know of to speak to Toby Curtsinger about the case on the record. He invited me to Frankfort to interview him back in January. He told me everything. The reality is far more interesting than the coverage, even if it’s nowhere close to being as sexy. I did a short writeup of it for it for Bloomberg-Business Week, which they illustrated into a fun little cartoony bit

The short version: people in distilleries have been stealing bourbon forever. People have been stealing Pappy for years too. No one really paid it much mind. The alleged Heist was mostly a function of an overzealous employee noticing the inventory being off by 200 bottles and calling the police because he was worried he’d get in trouble. Note: the inventory was always off, usually by more than 200 bottles, and there is almost no chance anyone would’ve gotten in trouble for it, let alone noticed it. Buffalo Trace would almost certainly have done what they always did in such instances: written the missing bottles off as “breakage.” Once the police were called, however, it was a big deal and it all spiraled from there. 

In reality, the “Heist” was a snapshot in time, made possible by antiquated security and quality control at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, not uncommon at most distilleries until relatively recently. If not for a local sheriff (since voted out of office) trying to make himself look good and the Buffalo Trace Distillery realizing, after the fact, that it was the best free advertising Pappy Van Winkle ever got, none of this would’ve made even local news. In the end, of course, this was also all made possible by a crazy cocktail culture-fueled bourbon bubble characterized by marks paying thousands for a bottle of wheated bourbon that, 20 years ago, was being sold in novelty, collectable crocks with cartoon hillbillies on it. That sort of dynamic tends to incentivize a black market and tends to help pedestrian stories make the headlines. 

​Oh, and despite being portrayed as the “Pappy Van Winkle Bandit” none of the charges against Toby Curtsinger actually involved Pappy Van Winkle. He was popped for possessing five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey. It truly was the Pappy Van Winkle Heist that wasn’t.

Finally: I actually did a much, much longer and in-depth writeup of all of this that, for various reasons, didn’t work for Bloomberg, but I’m happy they ran with this at least. I may be writing up the longer version someplace, even if I only end up putting it on this blog. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.