Buttery, smooth, oaky. They are the hallmarks of the best bourbons, and a growing cult of enthusiasts are willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to get their hands on rare American spirits, and even bend or break the law.
The first challenge is figuring out which liquor stores have these premium bottles on their shelves, and insider knowledge can give bourbon hunters a leg up and possibly land them in legal trouble.
In Oregon, several top officials at the state’s liquor regulatory agency are under investigation after an internal investigation found they used their influence to obtain scarce bourbon.
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That included the holy grail for bourbon lovers: Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old, which can sell for tens of thousands of dollars on resale markets. High-end bourbons have found themselves at the center of criminal investigations in at least three other states, from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Kentucky.
Premium spirits were always expensive and sought after, but interest is growing. Distillers have ramped up production to try to meet the increased demand, but before the whiskey reaches stores and bars, it must age for years and even decades.
Each state gets a limited amount of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old, produced by Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery of Frankfort, Kentucky.
In 2022, Oregon received just 33 bottles.
“The average person can’t get good bottles,” said Houston bourbon aficionado Cody Walding. He believes finding Buffalo Trace Distillery’s five-bottle Antique Collection is years away, despite reaching out to liquor store officials.
“For example, to be able to get a Pappy Van Winkle or a Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, unless you’re basically best friends with a store manager, I don’t think it’s possible to get those,” he said. At a bar in Los Angeles that Walding visited last week, a shot of 23-year-old Pappy went for $200.
Six officials with the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission — including then-executive director Steve Marks — have admitted to funneling Pappy or another hard-to-get bourbon, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, to liquor stores for their purchase. All six denied that they had sold the bourbons.
Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’s Pappy 23 Year Old retails for $299.99. Because of its extreme scarcity, it can go for much more on the resale market.
In December, a single bottle sold at Sotheby’s for a record $52,500. Two other bottles were auctioned for $47,500 each. All three were originally released in 2008.
The Oregon agency’s internal investigation determined the employees violated a statute that says public officials cannot use confidential information for personal gain. Gov. Tina Kotek called for Marks’ resignation in February, and he did. Five others are on paid temporary leave. An investigation is underway by the State Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.
Marks did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday. In his answers to the commission’s investigator, Marks denied violating ethics laws and state policy. However, he has admitted that he has received preferential treatment “to some extent” in acquiring whiskey as a commission worker.
A surge in demand for bourbon has led to extreme measures to obtain rarer and more expensive brands, such as some Oregon liquor officials illegally using their offices. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The practice is believed to have been going on for many years and involved not only state employees, but also members of the Oregon Legislature, the investigator said.
Five bottles of Oregon’s allotment of Pappy’s 23-year-old went to the “purchase option,” a lottery that began in 2018.
Utah, Virginia and Pennsylvania are other states that have prized liquor lotteries. Two Pennsylvania men each bought a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle after winning the liquor lottery in different years. They tried to sell their bottles on Craigslist, but undercover agents posing as buyers nailed them for selling liquor without a license.
In Virginia, an employee of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority downloaded confidential information about which liquor stores in the state would receive rare bourbons. An accomplice then sold the information to Facebook groups of bourbon enthusiasts. Now the former employee pleaded guilty in September to felony computer trespassing, received jail time and a fine, and was banned from all liquor stores in Virginia.
In Kentucky, an employee of Buffalo Trace Distillery was arrested in 2015 for stealing and selling bourbon, including Pappy, over several years. The caper became part of the Netflix miniseries “Heist” in 2021.
Whiskey is a growing industry, especially high-end products.
Sales of purveyors of American whiskey — including bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye — rose 10.5 percent last year to $5.1 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Revenues for American super premium whiskey producers grew 141% over the past five years.
Bourbon, in particular, has a rich American heritage. Kentucky has been around since before it became a state in 1792 and is where the majority of bourbon comes from. In 1964, Congress declared bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States,” preventing whiskey produced in other countries from being labeled as bourbon. Today, some of Kentucky’s most popular bourbon distilleries are foreign-owned.
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In the 1960s and 70s, bourbon had a reputation as a cheap drink. Then came a change: Targeting Japan, Kentucky distillers developed single-barrel, small-batch versions in the 1980s and 1990s that later flourished in the United States, said Fred Minnick, who writes books on bourbon and judges world whiskey competitions.
“The distillers were starting to wake up; there was an interest in whiskey because the culture itself was starting to change,” Minnick said. “We were going from a nation of steak and potatoes to foie gras and wagyu.”
Minnick lovingly describes what it’s like to sip a great bourbon that gets its sweetness from absorbing natural wood sugars from charred oak barrels.
“It starts at the front of your tongue, it goes back, it’ll drip down your jaw a little, a little like butter, very velvety,” Minnick said. “Caramel is one of the main notes, followed by a slight hint of vanilla.”
Some of the world’s leading beverage companies owning major brands are Kirin (owner of Four Roses), Beam Suntory (Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden), Diageo (Bulleit, IW Harper), Sazerac (Buffalo Trace, Van). Winkle, Blanton’s) and Campari Group (Wild Turkey).
They boosted bourbon production with multi-billion dollar expansions and upgrades, but it’s still not enough of the best stuff.
Despite the 23-year-old Pappy’s red-hot reputation, Minnick isn’t a big fan.
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“Right or wrong, Pappy Van Winkle 23 is the most sought-after modern whiskey, year after year,” Minnick said. “I personally think 23 is not unexpected. It’s usually too much for me.”