All About Fake Pappy Van Winkle
The crowning achievement in counterfeit bourbon is Pappy Van Winkle -- and some fakers have masterfully succeeded. I (Adam) have seen counterfeits of the entire Van Winkle lineup all over the US going back years.
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 (although some decent ones are also coming out of Japan). These counterfeiters obtain empty, used Pappy bottles, refill them with a cheap substitute, and then reseal them as convincingly as possible.
The seal on Van Winkle products (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 best fakers make their own capsules? They don't.
They steal them.
At least, that's the #1 guess, especially given Buffalo Trace's well publicized inentory problems in the past. The fact that "Pappy foils" have also been used on $30 lower-end bourbons seems to indicate a serious gap in attention to how these closures are distributed and used.
Foil capsules come in boxes of thousands, aligned in stacks called "sticks." 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, during a 2019 interview, 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 his credibility is of course dubious, but I'm inclined to believe his description here. More about him in a bit.
In the Buffalo Trace hand-bottling hall -- where 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 by hand, 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).
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 online for empty Pappy bottles made it obvious that they were being refilled. Most laughed off the warnings as paranoia.
So, to prove the point, in February 2016 I searched empty bottles of PVW 23 recently sold on eBay and jotted down the handwritten, unique bottle numbers on each. I compared those to new, full bottles for sale online. Finding the same exact bottle sold empty in the past -- but full and "new" afterward -- would be undeniable proof of a fake.
It took all of five minutes to find a match.
People went nuts.
WHO BUYS THE FAKES? WHERE ARE THEY IN THE MARKET?
These KY fakers have traditionally sold around 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.
As fakes awareness has grown, the counterfeiters have been requesting to conduct their deals out-of-state. Tennesee is popular. This may be due to a perceived legal benefit.
These Craigslist buyers have turned out to be all types -- ranging from a very successful and wealthy 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 from 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.
There's an “expert” bourbon retailer that bought fakes to sell in their Kentucky shop. They even "verified" the fakes were "real."
There's a famous chef who poured a fake at his high-end Chicago steakhouse. Apparently, even his palate was fooled.
Over and over, the same retailers will buy mass quantities of Pappy from strangers, no questions asked.
Over and over, some of the same 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. It's only by analyzing the contents of many of these PVW counterfeits that they can be verified as fake.
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 personal guess, as of early 2024, is between 10 and 20 thousand bottles. This will continue to get worse unless something is actively done to combat counterfeiting itself, which I have yet to see Sazerac take any truly significant steps towards.
IS IT KNOWN SPECIFICALLY WHO THESE COUNTERFEITERS ARE?
Yes. There are two kinds, the first being the "hobbyist fakers." These people are already active in the whiskey community. They're genuine collector-enthusiasts with a good network of whiskey friends -- and for one reason or another, they get desperate. Picture a suburban dad in a temporary financial bind... who makes some fakes to get out of it, and then can't resist the temptation to keep the "business" going. When those types are discovered, they get confronted, outed, and blackballed within the whiskey community in a sort of self-policing.
Then there are the "professional fakers." These types make the "perfect fakes" discussed here. Some names are known -- people who have been defrauded obviously know them -- and even Sazerac knows some. But those names would mean nothing to anyone who's part of the bourbon community. The pro fakers aren't active in the online whiskey trading community. And of course, they often use aliases when selling.
That brings up the question of "Why hasn't anyone done anything about it?" Well, it doesn't seem to be a law enforcement priority, though it's hard to think it wouldn't be if a major KY company pushed for it.
As for myself, I want nothing to do with catching and punishing "real criminals."
HOW TO SPOT A PERFECT VAN WINKLE FAKE… WHEN IT'S NOT PERFECT
As mentioned above, Pappy Van Winkle 23 has handwritten bottle numbers on the front. 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 and photos 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, these identification number used to be on Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, and were used to spot many fakes of that brand. But in late 2020, Buffalo Trace/Sazerac stopped issuing those bottles with hand written numbers despite knowing their value in anti-counterfeiting.
WHO WAS THE BUFFALO TRACE EMPLOYEE SELLING FAKES THAT GOT BUSTED?
Sidney Vincent, who was exposed in 2019. Vincent worked for Buffalo Trace in the bottling department (later in distribution). I have never seen proof that he ever stole any property from the distillery, nor am I saying he did. What there is plenty of evidence of, though, is Vincent 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 that 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 2023, I received credible tips that Vincent is still buying empties and peddling fakes.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER KINDS OF “IMPERFECT” PVW FAKES?
There has been a man in Texas using heat-shrink PVC capsules to re-seal refilled bottles of Pappy, 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.
See Herz's Serious Whiskey Info on facebook for more info/updates on counterfeit whiskey and bourbon scams.
Thanks for reading. Cheers all.