All About Fake Pappy Van Winkle
I’ve been tracking fakes in whiskey for over a decade. In the US, the crowning achievement in counterfeit bourbon is Pappy Van Winkle -- and some fakers have masterfully suceeded.
I've spotted fakes throughout the "Pappy" lineup, which we'll keep calling "Pappy" regardless of if it says "Pappy Van Winkle" on the label, since that's common nowadays. (So that's PVW 15, 20, 23, Van Winkle “Lot ‘B’” 12-year bourbon, Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year, and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13-year).
I'm going to share lots of details I haven't revealed before. With all due respect to the Van Winkle family and their heritage -- not to mention their extremely fine bourbon -- buckle up. We've got a ton to cover.
WHO MAKES THESE FAKES AND HOW?
A few guys in Kentucky make the best Van Winkle fakes. These counterfeiters obtain empty, used Pappy bottles from places like eBay, bars, restaurants, and literally wherever they can. These empties are refilled with cheap substitute bourbon, and then resealed convincingly.
That "convincing resealing" is the tricky part.
The seal on Van Winkle products -- called the "capsule" -- is a thin, flexible tin painted in red, gold, or black. These capsules bear no branding or special features, but it's still obvious if the wrong kind is used.
So, how do the fakers make their own capsules?
They steal them.
At least, that's my #1 guess. The distillery has told me they keep their Van Winkle capsules "under lock and key," but I doubt the strength of that "lock." The first reason is because Sazerac/BT doesn't use "Pappy foils" exclusively for their Pappy lineup. They are also used on non-Pappy Van Winkle products. Buffalo Trace uses the same foil capsules -- for what is literally THE most collectible bourbon brand in existence -- and also uses them to seal $29 bottles of off-brand, mystery-source bourbon.
An enterprising criminal might find that holds some interesting opportunities.
Foil capsules come in boxes of thousands, aligned in stacks called "sticks" since that's what they look like. A couple employees could smuggle out a huge supply. Or perhaps a "lost" shipment gets intercepted... or there's an arrangement with someone who knows/bribes the right person at the capsules manufacturer. Regardless, fakers have been getting and using these foils for many years.
In fact, in 2019, a BT employee who had worked in the bottling hall told me, “There’s a lot of theft that goes on there. I moved (departments) to get away from every single one of the people that are doing it. And that includes a supervisor.” Now, this guy was also involved in faking too -- so that could mean that his credibility is suspect -- or it could mean the exact opposite. We'll talk about him in a bit, but I'm inclined to believe his description here.
In the Buffalo Trace hand-bottling hall -- where all Limited Editions such as PVW are carefully and slowly bottled -- the foil capsules are applied with a specialized, hand-operated machine known as a “spinner.” New capsules are gently slid over the top of each bottle, like a cylindrical sock. Then, the spinner literally spins a series of polyethylene wheels in circles around the capsule, from top to bottom, pressing that capsule snugly onto the bottle. (Pic at right from a video of PVW 20 bottling in 2014).
That's how they get that clean, tight, professional look
To clarify: PVW does not use “heat shrink” plastic PVC capsules, despite the confusion of many. Foil capsules are applied with physical pressure -- and no heat. PVC is the opposite -- heat, no pressure.
But even if a faker has those real foil capsules, how do they achieve that professional, spinner-applied look?
Simple. They buy a spinner.
And that's how it's all done.
A faker gets an empty, pours in something brown, and 30 seconds later they've got a beautiful, sealed, "new" bottle of Pappy.
HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS?
Professional-grade fake Pappy has been around at least as far back as 2016. Prior to that, I'd spent a couple years warning people to be on the lookout, because the high prices paid on eBay for empty Pappy bottles made it obvious that they were being refilled. But as much as I tried to warn people, most laughed it off.
So in frustration, in February of 2016 I became determined to prove I was right. I looked at *empty* bottles of PVW 23 recently sold on eBay and jotted down the handwritten, unique bottle numbers on each. I then compared those to new, *full* bottles for sale online. Because if I could find the same exact bottle sold empty in the past, but full and "new" now, it would be undeniable proof of a fake. And maybe that would finally wake everyone up.
It took me all of five minutes to find a match.
People went nuts.
WHO BUYS THE FAKES? WHERE ARE THEY IN THE MARKET?
These KY fakers generally sell in Louisville, where it's easy to find well-funded people looking for Pappy. Go on Craigslist Louisville any day, and you’ll see a number of “ISO” (In Search Of) ads for PVW. The fakers answer those ads... the fakers LOVE those ads.
These Craigslist buyers have turned out to be all types -- ranging from a very successful and wealthy local businessman to a naive college kid barely old enough to buy liquor. All thought they’d found a secret goldmine. All of them believed that a random man in Louisville, findable via Craigslist, with no verifiable personal information, would meet them in fast food parking lots to sell carloads of rare Van Winkle products. All under market value, just for them.
Anyhow, those buyers buy those fakes, and bam -- those bottles circulate into the secondary market as they're traded away and flipped for profit.
Stores buy on the secondary market. Restaurants buy on the secondary market. Even though most aren't supposed to, they do.
I know of an “expert” bourbon retailer that bought fakes to sell in their Kentucky shop. They even "verified" the fakes were "real."
I've seen a famous chef pour a fake at his high-end Chicago steakhouse. Apparently, even his palate couldn't tell the difference.
Over and over, I see the same retailers buying mass quantities of Pappy from strangers, no questions asked.
Over and over, I see people end up with fakes, learn they have fakes, and THEN DO THE SAME STUPID THING and buy more.
Please don't be that kind of person. There is no Magical Pappy Claus. Use your head.
THE BEST PAPPY FAKES ARE PERFECT
Because the fakers are using entirely real bottles, real labels, and real capsules to make fakes, they look identical to the real thing. You can't tell they're fake. At least, not by looking at one.
I can sometimes spot them through special techniques (I'll discuss this later). But usually, I can't tell the difference either. I have to open them up and analyze the contents to know for sure.
This isn’t unique to Van Winkle products, by the way. There are many bourbons that I’ve seen “perfect fakes” of, but that’s not our focus here.
HOW MANY VAN WINKLE FAKES HAVE BEEN CIRCULATED?
It’s hard to know. My guess is "only" a few thousand. This will exponentially get worse unless something is actively done to combat counterfeiting itself. Four Roses recently took steps to create custom counterfeit-deterrent seals, and I hope Sazerac does something similar soon. I know they've researched it for years, but I've seen nothing implemented.
IS IT KNOWN SPECIFICALLY WHO THESE COUNTERFEITERS ARE?
Yes. People who have been defrauded know and even Sazerac knows. But even if names were printed here, they'd mean nothing, even if you're deep into bourbon. The best fakers are not active in the online whiskey trading community. And of course, they don’t use their real names or real personal info when selling.
My understanding, having talked with Buffalo Trace about this, is that stopping them is “very complicated." And as far as law enforcement is concerned, think about this: does the average person care if someone spent $2,000 on a bottle of grey-market bourbon that turned out to be fake? Would Kentucky taxpayers find it a good use of public resources to try to prosecute a case?
As for myself, I want nothing to do with catching and punishing "real criminals." And I'm definitely not the law.
HOW TO SPOT A PERFECT VAN WINKLE FAKE… WHEN IT'S NOT PERFECT
As I mentioned above, Pappy Van Winkle 23 has handwritten bottle numbers on the front, as does VW Family Reserve Rye. Each bottle's number is unique. When some collectors see an empty of those products, they jot down that bottle number. (This is not the same as the laser code). Then, whenever a bottle of PVW23 is for sale, its handwritten bottle number is compared against the list of known empties. If there’s a match, it's a refilled fake.
This has caused at least one PVW counterfeiter to alter bottle numbers to make them harder to track. Most commonly we’ll see a “3” changed to an “8” or a “1” to a “4.” Short numbers get extra digits added onto the end.
The good thing is, that's made it easier to identify those fakes! With just a little scrutiny, you can tell someone futzed with the numbers. Ink gets smeared, numbers are poorly traced... it just looks kinda strange. Usually I don’t reveal secrets like this — because it tells the fakers what they’re doing wrong and how to improve — but this faker already knows that his crappy rewrite job is "good enough." Because he's still regularly duping new victims. It's a smart con, because those victims are always too afraid to ask too many questions for fear of “offending” and losing their secret magical source.
As a sad side note, Buffalo Trace/Sazerac removed those hand written numbers from the Family Reserve Rye this year (late 2020). They know those numbers were used to identify fakes, and I've heard no reason as to why they stopped this helpful practice. I presume the official explanation will be that the change was to reduce human workload.
WHO WAS THE BUFFALO TRACE EMPLOYEE SELLING FAKES THAT GOT BUSTED?
Sidney Vincent. That’s been public info since Jan 2019, so I can repeat it here. It was due to a lot of work by me and many other people behind the scenes. Vincent worked for Buffalo Trace in the bottling department (later in distribution). I do not have any proof that he ever stole any property from the distillery, and I’m not saying he did. What there is plenty of evidence of, though, is him buying empty Van Winkle bottles… and then mysteriously reselling those exact same bottles a few days later, suddenly full, sealed, and “new.”
I spoke with Vincent in two long phone calls. He was kind spoken and super friendly. At times he was surprisingly candid in ways that I do mostly believe (as mentioned above). When I finally broke it to Vincent that there was a chain of evidence linking him directly to fakes, and that I knew he'd been lying to me, he broke down in tears. I know it sounds weird, but he really sounded genuine in that moment, realizing he was about to lose his job. He then quit as soon as he could, before Sazerac could fire him.
Vincent swore to me the he wasn’t doing the refilling himself. Instead, he claimed he’d give the empties to certain people, and then get full bottles back from them. Apparently for Vincent, that distinction makes a difference.
As of Oct 2020, I received credible tips that Vincent is still buying empties and peddling fakes.
BUT WAIT, DON'T YOU HAVE SOME SECRET WAYS TO SPOT FAKES THAT ONLY YOU KNOW?
Yes. But they are honestly very hard techniques to teach. You also have to know when the exact same thing is a "false tipoff" that appears on real bottles. See my facebook whiskey page for a deeper discussion.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER KINDS OF “IMPERFECT” PVW FAKES?
There was a guy in Texas using heat-shrink PVC capsules to re-seal refilled bottles of Pappy (who may still be doing so), and a guy in Missouri. These capsules are easily identifiable if you know what the real foil looks like, and Google can show you hundreds of real foil capsule examples.
The heat-shrink plastic looks like plastic. It shines wrong and has the wrong tint. And the wrong perforation. And extra holes in the wrong places. And the Missouri bottles even have hand-drawn lines in paint pen to mimic the gold ring that's screen-printed around real foils.
Yet people still fall for it.
…AND THAT’S ABOUT IT. FOR NOW.
Don’t be paranoid. Just be smart. By and large, the secondary market is very safe. Statistically speaking, you have a low chance of buying any fake....
But as soon as you think the problem of fakes doesn’t apply to you? Your chances of being duped go way up.
Thanks for reading. Cheers all.