Bourbon: Real, Rare, & Counterfeit

By Matthew W. Mugavero

Picture this. In 2009, my very best friend was about to celebrate a monumental milestone in his personal life, the kind of milestone that deserves a memorable and meaningful toast, paired with the very best of his favorite juice. His favorite drink was and still is bourbon. So it is to be my highest honor and responsibility to source this special drink as well as present it (to each of us).

I made my way over to the local liquor store, not knowing all that much about this type of alcohol and I asked the clerk, “Do you have any special or top-shelf bourbon available worthy of a good man’s celebration?” He responded, “Yes, as a matter of fact, we just received a couple of bottles this week of rare and very old bourbon from Kentucky. What is your budget?” I replied, “This is a very important celebration, so I don’t mind spending a few bucks.” The clerk hands me an old looking bottle with an even older looking man on the label smoking a cigar and he said, “This is 23-year-old bourbon and they don’t get much better than this.” I paid the $175 asking price and went on my way. Perfect!

Fast-forward 8 years to present day. Another big moment in life comes along, but this time it’s for me. I call my same best friend and say, “Hey buddy, how about we get together and celebrate me this time over that same awesome bottle of bourbon we had back in the day?” He agrees, but somehow, I end up getting stuck with the bill as I make my way back to that same liquor store expecting to find that same bottle. As a ‘seasoned’ bourbon shopper now, I make my way over to

the special glass cabinet that contains all the good stuff and look for the old man on the bottle. However, this time I find nothing but empty shelves and dust where a handful of interesting bottles once stood in their glory. Of course, I ask the clerk for some help and if there was any way to order that 23-year-old bourbon I once had in 2009. He sort of chuckles and says, “No sir, we don’t get to see too many of those anymore since they are allocated and there is an enormous demand and…blah…blah…blah….I tune him out at the word “no” and start thinking internet – it’s as easy as click, click, enter and send, boom there it shall be, the perfect bottle delivered to my door by the UPS man.

Later in the day, I start searching the online retail sites and all I see is, ‘out of stock’, ‘backordered’, ‘call for availability’ and so on and so on. Now, totally determined and frankly a bit pissed, I press on. I change my searching strategy and start to hit the auction sites from the secondary market. In a matter of minutes, there he is, the old man on the bottle smoking his cigar from days long ago for a mere $300. I am thinking that this is a completely acceptable asking price considering 8 years of inflation. I make the call, we make a deal and better yet, I get the bottle for $285 cash. However, just before hanging up, the seller says with a tone that is a bit questioning, “You do know that this bottle is an empty, right?” “What do you mean, empty?” I said. The seller responds, “Empty, as in no alcohol in the bottle.”

What on earth is going on, you ask? Either there is a massive underground market for custom made bourbon bottle lamps or something very strange has occurred in the liquor business. As it turns out, back in 2009 my good friend and I were sipping on the now extremely famed Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old Bourbon from the equally acclaimed Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin Co. Kentucky. That same bottle today will retail for about $500 that is of course if you can find one. Here is the amazing thing. If you are fortunate enough to purchase a Pappy 23, the very second you walk out the store that bottle is worth an astounding $3000.00 or more to collectors on the ‘Internet Corner Liquor Store’.

Truth be told, the above story of my friend and I is fictitious but it is all too real for most new bourbon buyers. There are multiple listings all over the internet of empty bottles and potential fakes. The fakes are outstanding and look just like the real deal. Your local store will never have fakes but the internet most likely will. So, out there, it’s Bourbon Buyer Beware.

Not only is the Pappy 23 extremely valuable, so is the entire line of bourbons from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. It’s a trickledown effect. If you can’t find a 23 year, then you will want a 20 year. If you can’t get a 20 year, then you will settle for the 15 year. If there is no 15 year out there, then you will just have to accept the 10 year. If there is no 10, then you will want the other flavors, such as Elmer T Lee, George T Stagg, Eagle Rare, Blantons and a few other notables. Check out the Buffalo Trace Official Website for all the information and would be trophies for your man cave.