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DRINKS

Prosecutors: Workers busted for stealing bourbon that would last a lifetime

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The theft targeted the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries. (iStock)

Nine people were indicted Tuesday on charges of spiriting away what Kentucky authorities say was more bourbon whiskey than one 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 Franklin County shed.

The theft targeted the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries, they said, and included some of the most prestigious brands in the business, including pricey Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. It had been going on since 2008 or 2009, 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 are charged with engaging in organized crime as members of a criminal syndicate.

Two defendants worked at the Buffalo Trace distillery and one worked at and 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 heavy barrels of Wild Turkey whiskey earlier this year and the disappearance of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Investigators said 15 of the purloined barrels recovered were confirmed to be Wild Turkey whiskey, including five barrels authorities previously indicated had been recovered, Becker said.

Two other stolen barrels appeared to be filled with whiskey made at Buffalo Trace, Becker said.

Bourbon coming off the still is put in new, charred oak barrels for aging in warehouses, which gives 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.

Also recovered were more than two dozen bottles of stolen Pappy Van Winkle whiskey, and investigators had statements from buyers who admitted they purchased multiple cases of the whiskey, authorities said.

The theft also included large amounts of another brand, Eagle Rare bourbon, authorities said.

The investigation gained steam earlier 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. His wife, Julie Curtsinger, who is not a distillery worker, was also indicted.

The hard-to-get Pappy Van Winkle brand is made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, using a Van Winkle family recipe that traces back to the 1800s.

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.

Industry leader Jim Beam has full-time security guards, monitor alarms and surveillance cameras, a company executive said.

"We are extremely confident in these security measures," said Kevin Smith, a Jim Beam vice president. "However, we continually review our processes to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect Jim Beam."

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. The industry has invested more than $1.3 billion in projects that have been completed or planned in the next five years, including new distilleries, barrel warehouses, bottling facilities and tourist centers.