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What’s behind the spate of alcohol thefts?

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With a high demand for premium spirits, alcohol theft is on the rise. (iStock)

There have been so many reports of stolen alcohol lately, it sometimes feels like we’re back in the Prohibition days of Boardwalk Empire.

Though alcohol has been legal in the U.S. for more than 80 years now, it’s become highly profitable again for thieves, because drinkers have developed a taste for high-priced, handcrafted specialty spirits that experts say are increasing in value and spurring a spate of daring heists.

Some of the more notable thefts last year included 1,229 cases – mostly tequila – of liquor that were nabbed in Utah and worth $200,000. In Miami, $1.1 million worth of Spirit of the Tsars Golden Vodka (each bottle sells for $250) was stolen after thieves busted a hole through a concrete wall.

And it’s not only happening in the U.S. In April of 2013, a rare, 50-year-old bottle of single-malt Scotch worth $26,000 was snatched from a Toronto liquor shop. And in December, nearly $500,000 in high-end vodka was stolen during rush hour in southern Scotland.

But perhaps the most talked-about heist came in October, when $26,000 worth of rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon was stolen from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky. The culprits remain at large.

“We are pursuing the case actively and now following up on new leads,” Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton said after the robbery. “It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this happen here – it’s interesting!” 

So what’s going on?  When it comes to whiskey – and most other alcohol, really – it’s simply a matter of supply and demand, said David Ozgo, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).

“Let me give you a quick whiskey lesson,” he said in an interview.

“In 2000, whiskey was clocking out at just over 40 million cases – just a fraction of sale in the 1970s,” he said. “In the last three years, though –thanks to renewed interest in high-end spirits, the boom of the craft distilling industry, as well as the cocktail culture revolution – whiskey has seen enormous change.

“By 2012, whiskey set the world on fire,” translating into over $7 billion in sales, Ozgo said.

Demand for Scotch Whisky is also rising, says Scotch Whisky Association communications manager Rosemary Gallagher.

“With increasing consumer knowledge of Scotch whisky, demand is growing for single malts. Single malt exports have risen over the last 10 years by 190 percent from 268 million pounds ($447 million) to 778 million pounds ($1.29 billion) in 2012.”

Much of the stolen alcohol will likely wind up on the black market.  Rest assured that most bars and restaurants buy from reputable distributors, so it’s unlikely the stolen booze will find its way to your drink.

But if a man wearing a black trench coat and sunglasses comes up to you on the street with a good deal on Pappy, it just might be the real thing.