Kentucky authorities indicted nine people this week on charges of spiriting away what one prosecutor called more bourbon whiskey than a person could drink in a lifetime.
Prosecutors say the scheme led by rogue distillery workers lasted for years and involved tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of whiskey but began to unravel when whiskey barrels were discovered behind a shed.
The theft targeted the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries, they said, and included some prestigious brands, including pricey Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. It had been going on since 2008, officials said.
Franklin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland said last week the case involves “more than I could imagine one person drinking in a lifetime.”
Sheriff Pat Melton estimated the recovered whiskey alone is worth at least $100,000.
All nine defendants are charged with engaging in organized crime as members of a criminal syndicate.
Two of them worked at the Buffalo Trace distillery and one worked at Wild Turkey, authorities said.
“ You had some rogue employees who took advantage of both the trust of their companies and their knowledge of the security measures to steal the barrels and bottles of bourbon from these two distilleries,” said Zachary M. Becker, an assistant Franklin County prosecutor.
The indictments tied together the theft of barrels of Wild Turkey whiskey earlier this year and the disappearance of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon dating back to 2008 or 2009. Pappy Van Winkle is made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, using a family recipe that traces back to the 1800s.
Becker said 15 of the recovered barrels were confirmed to hold Wild Turkey whiskey. The recovered whiskey also included barrels of Russell’s Reserve bourbon. Two other stolen barrels appeared to be filled with whiskey made at Buffalo Trace, Becker said.
Barrels were worth $3,000 to $6,000, depending on the type and age of whiskey, but the theft ring sold them for $1,200 to $1,500 apiece, officials said.
The heists included more than 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, 50 to 70 cases of Eagle Rare bourbon and other barrels of whiskey that were stolen but not recovered, Becker said.
Investigators recovered more than two dozen bottles of stolen Pappy Van Winkle whiskey, and investigators talked to buyers who admitted they purchased multiple cases of the whiskey, authorities said.
One recovered barrel contained 17-year-old Eagle Rare bourbon valued at $11,000 to $12,000.
Bourbon coming off the still is put in new, charred oak barrels for aging, giving the whiskey its distinctive taste and color. Barrels weigh more than 500 pounds when filled but lose some liquid through evaporation, known as the “angel’s share.
The investigation gained steam this year when authorities found several bourbon barrels behind a shed in Franklin County. The labeling on each barrel had been obscured. Wild Turkey’s owner, Italian-based Gruppo Campari, had said there were no signs anyone broke into the warehouse where those barrels were stolen.
The barrels were found behind the home of Gilbert Thomas Curtsinger, a longtime employee at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. He was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to multiple offenses, including receiving stolen property over $10,000.
Curtsinger was among those indicted Tuesday, and authorities called him a ringleader. He also is charged with trafficking in anabolic steroids. The syndicate had dual roles — the theft and sale of whiskey and the trafficking of steroids, Becker said.
Curtsinger transported stolen barrels, covered by tarp, in a pickup truck to customers, officials said.
Curtsinger’s wife, Julie Curtsinger, who is not a distillery worker, was also indicted
Attorneys for the Curtsingers said they are in the early stages of preparing a defense.
In a joint statement, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey said they cooperated fully and thanked investigators.
No other distilleries were apparently targeted, authorities said.
Other prominent Kentucky bourbon makers including Jim Beam and Four Roses Distillery said they were confident of their security systems.
Kentucky is home to about 95 percent of the world’s bourbon production, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
The state’s bourbon production has increased more than 150 percent since 1999, and by 2013 bourbon inventory topped 5.3 million barrels — the highest supply since 1977.