In the age of whiskey hype, the rise of whiskey crime was always going to be inevitable. And make no mistake—the distilling industry has always had a seedy side to it, stretching all the way back to before American Prohibition. Certainly, during Prohibition skirting the law became an art form. But in the decades afterward, when few Americans had any kind of interest in brown liquor, such pastimes effectively faded away. With the brown liquor revival of the 2000s, however, obsession with bourbon, rye and scotch returned with a vengeance—and so did the high-profile thefts and heists of that increasingly valuable commodity.
In many respects, high-priced whiskey really is a thief’s dream item. Bottles are relatively small and portable, and an extremely high-end bottle of scotch can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Often, they’re being displayed in unguarded liquor stores, or poorly secured distillery gift shops, and bold thieves can simply walk off with thousands of dollars undetected. The bottles are then sold covertly on the internet secondary market, where massively inflated price gouging has become rampant and expected.
The 2010s in particular essentially turned into a marquee era of whiskey theft, with some stories gaining national attention and capturing the public imagination. Here are eight instances of those notable modern whiskey heists that fell in the range of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
You can’t discuss whiskey heists without talking about the “Pappygate” case, so let’s go ahead and get it out of the way first. This is by far the most widely known and famous of modern whiskey theft operations, mostly because of the depth of the inside job involved, and the extremely hyped status of Buffalo Trace’s Pappy Van Winkle whiskey. Whether the liquid itself is deserving of all that ardor is inconsequential—the media loves stories about “Pappy,” so this one naturally blew up into national news.
The story broke in mid-2013, when Buffalo Trace reported that more than 200 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon and 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye had gone missing from the distillery, possibly over the course of months or years. With a value in the tens of thousands of dollars—much more if selling at secondary market prices—this was a major theft, but it was really only the tip of the iceberg.
Despite hefty offers of reward, police had essentially no leads on the Van Winkle thefts until the following year, when an anonymous tipster broke open a surprisingly wide-ranging smuggling ring that was preying on the lax security measures of two iconic Kentucky distilleries: Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey. Masterminded by a BT employee of more than two decades named Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, the ring was stealing vast quantities of whiskey of all kinds and reselling it through a network of local connections and desperate bourbon aficionados, all of whom later claimed they didn’t know they were buying stolen product. To which we can only say, “sure, sounds legit.”
The most shocking thing about this operation, which is estimated to have resulted in more than $100,000 in thefts (bear in mind, that’s MSRP), is how brazenly it was able to get away with those thefts for such a long time—five years at least. Curtsinger, for instance, wasn’t just stealing bottles and cases of whiskey from Buffalo Trace; he was casually driving away with entire barrels of the stuff and then selling those full bourbon barrels to collectors. One of his confederates, meanwhile, worked at Wild Turkey as a truck driver and was doing the same thing—he’d simply requisition more barrels of bourbon than he was supposed to, and drop off the extra barrels at his home on the way to the warehouse where they belonged. In both cases, their activities went undetected due to the distilleries simply not checking the status of their inventory—both companies seemed to acknowledge that employee theft was almost an expected aspect of the business.
Ultimately, numerous people in Curtsinger’s theft ring ended up pleading guilty to minor violations, while Curtsinger himself was sentenced to 15 years in prison … and then released after only 30 days in a case of “shock probation,” due to the nonviolent nature of his crimes. One can only assume that the major Kentucky distilleries, meanwhile, now take the security of their whiskey considerably more seriously.
Distillery gift shops can be prime targets for theft, because they often have some rare bottles on hand, and they may actually be less stringently guarded than your average liquor store. The people at Speyside scotch distillery Glenglassaugh found that out the hard way in 2014, when an overnight heist resulted in the theft of more than £10,000 in whisky from the brand’s visitor’s center in Aberdeenshire, on the edge of the North Sea.
The thieves here were seemingly well organized, swiping bottles of 37-year-old and 40-year-old Glenglassaugh whiskies. Rather amusingly, they also took a number of branded shirts and other Glenglassaugh merchandise—apparently they really liked the brand?
To date, I can find no reference to the thieves in this case ever having been apprehended.
There’s “brazen,” and then there’s this, which is something else entirely. In Toronto in 2013, an unassuming looking man walked into a busy Toronto liquor store. This middle-aged guy in a brown trench coat proceeded to walk over to a locked display case, jimmy the case open, and extracted a bottle of 50-year-old Glenfiddich Single Malt. That bottle was one of only 50 in the world, and valued at $26,000. The man then inserted the bottle into his trench coat, grabbed a cheap bottle of wine, and paid for his wine at the register. He then walked out the door with his wine and his secret $26,000 prize, and no one noticed a thing.
It sort of boggles the mind, and raises countless questions. How did the guy know that he wouldn’t be caught? He certainly must have planned out the broad daylight theft in advance, to even know that the bottle of Glenfiddich would be there. What was his plan, if someone walked up on him while he was hunkered in an aisle, breaking into the display case? Where does one even try to unload a single bottle of $26,000 scotch? In terms of utter simplicity, this one takes the cake—it’s not often that you can walk in and walk out with a single item of such astronomical value without anyone even knowing.
As will become a recurring theme in these entries, the whereabouts of this guy are still unknown.
What’s going on with Canada and the theft of 50-year-old scotch, anyway? Unlike the preceding case, where the guy simply managed to walk out of a liquor store with his prize without anyone knowing, this thief was considerably more to the point. In 2015, he simply barged into a Montreal liquor store on a weekday morning, “possibly” armed with a handgun according to police, and demanded an extremely rare bottle of 1962 Balvenie single malt scotch.
This armed robber had exceptionally good taste—that Balvenie is one of only 88 bottles ever made, and less than 50 are thought to exist in the world right now. That one bottle alone is valued at $50,000 or more, which was apparently good enough cause for an armed robbery.
No one was hurt in that considerably more dangerous whisky theft, but neither was the suspect caught or the bottle recovered, as far as I can tell.
It’s not just the U.S. seeing whiskey heists, and it’s actually not just the prestige brands either. In South Africa in 2018, a gang of six thieves managed to hijack an entire delivery truck full of Jack Daniels by posing as police officers and fitting their vehicle with blue flashing lights. Under the guise of a police stop, they pulled over the truck and then hijacked it, making off with a massive quantity of Tennessee whiskey valued at roughly $240,000. Thankfully in this case, police had quick leads and were able to track down the culprits, issuing the following statement:
“Police responded swiftly to the case of hijacking and the Sedibeng tracing team recovered the truck in the yard of one of the houses in Vereeniging where three suspects were arrested. Preliminary investigation led to the recovery of boxes of Jack Daniels whiskey that were already loaded in another truck.”
Those arrests recovered at least a portion of the stolen Jack, although it seems not all of it was recovered. Meanwhile in the U.S., an intriguingly similar incident occurred just last year in 2020, when thieves seemingly bluffed their way into checking out a trailer full of Jack Daniels from a staging facility in Atlanta, GA, without even being asked for ID. The trailer itself was subsequently recovered, but it was largely emptied of its cargo. The culprits remain at large.
This is another theft that occurred from a liquor store in broad daylight, although this one from New Jersey in 2017 is at least a little bit more sophisticated and coordinated. At least four men, suspected of being members of a Chilean theft ring operating throughout the U.S., participated in causing a distraction and screening their operative as he swiped more than $50,000 in rare scotch.
Specifically, several of the men kept store employees occupied while others blocked the line of sight of potential witnesses while one of their confederates broke into the glass case that contained big-ticket items. From that case, they stole a bottle of Tullibardine 1952 valued at $28,000 and a 50-year-old Highland Park worth $22,000. There’s reason to believe, however, that they may not have been experts on pricing, considering that they also swiped a $68 bottle while missing a $42,000 bottle that was in the same case. They then walked out the door with their stolen goods, clearly captured on security cameras, but those images haven’t aided in any arrests to date.
Tullabardine 1952 is contained in a bottle so fancy you literally need to have something else to hold it up without spilling.
Police have since stated that they believe the men were working in conjunction with a Chilean theft ring operating in the U.S., which has consistently targeted high-price items in shoplifting incidents.
The current record holder for the largest whisky heist by dollar figure in modern history, this one made some serious waves in 2017 when Paris’ famed La Maison du Whisky, a temple of rare and vintage bottles, was hit in an overnight robbery that specifically targeted the most expensive bottles in the shop. In this case, the two thieves were after one segment that has commanded an extra-high premium in recent years for its rarity, which is luxe bottles of vintage Japanese whisky. All in all, the value of 69 bottles swiped during this heist is estimated at an astounding $800,000.
That’s a truly crazy figure, indicating that these thieves had really done their research. One of the bottles, in fact, is the queen mother of rare whiskies in terms of a target for such an operation—Karuizawa 1960, known as “The Squirrel,” one of only 41 known bottles from a now-defunct Japanese distillery. That bottle alone was valued by the French press at $230,000.
With a heist involving such a high-profile target and an astronomical dollar figure, one would figure that police would be extra motivated to make arrests in this particular case, but the Maison du Whisky heist remains unsolved to this day. Who knows where the Karuizawa 1960 resides now? There might be a bottle worth a quarter million gathering dust in someone’s basement.
I love this final story, because whereas most of these other cases were traditional heists, robberies or inside jobs at distilleries, this is a case of a guy who just really seemed to enjoy drinking whiskey that he shouldn’t have been drinking. Or to put it another way: Few whiskey geeks ever get a chance to try a dram of perfectly preserved pre-Prohibition whiskey. This guy? He managed to drink more than 50 bottles of the stuff.
The source of this whiskey was a cache discovered by former model Patricia Hill, who had purchased a historic, Scottdale PA mansion in 2012 with plans to convert it into an upscale bed and breakfast. In the process of those renovations, Hill discovered a trove of whiskey bottles in her walls—just over 100 bottles of a pre-Prohibition brand called Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey, which had been bottled in 1912. The bottles were subsequently valued at as much as $100,000, not primarily for the quality of the whiskey but for their historical significance.
Hill then set the bottles aside and hired a family friend, John Saunders, to assist in renovation of the property. She didn’t check in on the whiskey stash again until a year later … only to find that roughly half of the bottles were now empty. Saunders, meanwhile, was the only person with knowledge of the bottles and their location. He denied drinking them, but DNA testing matched Saunders’ DNA to samples found on the lips of several of the bottles. Ultimately, Saunders was arrested in conjunction with the missing whiskey, but eventually passed away of natural causes before he was able to stand trial.
Consider, though, what a year that must have been. Imagine you’re fixing up an old mansion for a family friend, who has discovered a trove of 100-year-old Pennsylvania rye whiskey in its walls. You get curious about what century old whiskey might taste like. Understandable, right? What whiskey geek wouldn’t want to taste at least a tiny dram of that? So you take a sip … and then within a year, you’ve somehow consumed 52 of those ancient bottles. Seems like the kind of thing that someone might notice, doesn’t it? Did he search out some decades old vermouth to make the world’s most absurdly oxidized Manhattan while he was at it? The world may never know, but it certainly does make for one hell of a story.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.