This story was originally written for Bloomberg BusinessWeek over the summer. Instead of running it they turned it into a highly-truncated cartoon thing that, being honest, was pretty darn clever and probably more appropriate for the subject matter than a 3,000-word story.
Still, I'd like to have the words I wrote for it all preserved someplace, so here they are.
On March 11, 2015, an anonymous tip was texted to the Franklin County Kentucky Sheriff’s Department that Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, a longtime employee of the Buffalo Trace distillery had some stolen barrels of bourbon on his property. A search warrant was executed and deputies drove out to Curtsinger’s house on a winding country road west of Frankfort. Stolen bourbon is not unusual in bourbon country, but Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton believed that this tip was about something more than your typical bootlegger. He believed that it might be leading him to the Pappy Van Winkle Bandit.
If you’re even a casual consumer of bourbon, chances are you’ve heard of Pappy Van Winkle. It’s the rarest of the many varieties of bourbon made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery and, indeed, the rarest bourbon variety of them all. Pappy, as it is known colloquially, is extraordinarily hard to find. Just 8,000 barrels are produced each year, compared to the millions of barrels of mass market brands like Jim Beam or its Tennessee cousin, Jack Daniel’s. Bar patrons pay upwards of $100 for a single pour. Aficionados who are lucky enough to win lotteries for the privilege of buying it at retail snap up bottles for as much as $300. Those not so fortunate, but who still want the stuff, routinely pay thousands for a bottle on the black market.
On October 15, 2013 Buffalo Trace reported that a little over 200 bottles of Pappy, with a market value of around $26,000, had gone missing. Sheriff Melton characterized it as a “heist,” and characterized the stolen product as “The Mac Daddy” of bourbon. The theft made international headlines, with bourbon enthusiasts inside and outside of the industry speculating about who did it, marveling at the audaciousness of it all and, perhaps, wondering if the theft made it more or less likely that they themselves could get their hands on a bottle. When that tip came in, pointing a finger at a man who had inside access to the place where Pappy was born, Sheriff Melton believed he was about to crack the bourbon crime of the century.
Do you like bourbon? Then I have a story for you.
Some of you may remember The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist from back in 2013. Hundreds of bottles of the most expensive, most highly sought-after bourbon known to man, Pappy Van Winkle was reported stolen. Coming as it did amidst an unprecedented boom in the popularity of bourbon, it made national news. International news even.
In 2015, Franklin County, Kentucky Sheriff Pat Melton claimed to crack the case. A criminal syndicate was behind it, he said. Racketeering! Guns! Drugs! Serious, serious business. Over a half dozen arrested. A man named Toby Curtsinger the alleged kingpin. The assailants faced decades in prison under state RICO laws. It was a major, major deal and, once again, made news around the globe.
And then, three years later, it was no longer big news at all. It wasn't even all that big of a crime.
One person had charges dropped against them. Everyone else pleaded guilty, with all but one serving no jail time whatsoever. The alleged kingpin, Toby Curtsinger, was sentenced to 15 years. He served 30 days and was released on shock probation just this past weekend.
What made the case turn into almost nothing, with almost no jail time? The fact that there really was no Pappy Van Winkle Heist at all. At least not as it was portrayed.
I am the first and so far the only person I know of to speak to Toby Curtsinger about the case on the record. He invited me to Frankfort to interview him back in January. He told me everything. The reality is far more interesting than the coverage, even if it's nowhere close to being as sexy. I did a short writeup of it for it for Bloomberg-Business Week, which they illustrated into a fun little cartoony bit.
The short version: people in distilleries have been stealing bourbon forever. People have been stealing Pappy for years too. No one really paid it much mind. The alleged Heist was mostly a function of an overzealous employee noticing the inventory being off by 200 bottles and calling the police because he was worried he'd get in trouble. Note: the inventory was always off, usually by more than 200 bottles, and there is almost no chance anyone would've gotten in trouble for it, let alone noticed it. Buffalo Trace would almost certainly have done what they always did in such instances: written the missing bottles off as "breakage." Once the police were called, however, it was a big deal and it all spiraled from there.
In reality, the "Heist" was a snapshot in time, made possible by antiquated security and quality control at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, not uncommon at most distilleries until relatively recently. If not for a local sheriff (since voted out of office) trying to make himself look good and the Buffalo Trace Distillery realizing, after the fact, that it was the best free advertising Pappy Van Winkle ever got, none of this would've made even local news. In the end, of course, this was also all made possible by a crazy cocktail culture-fueled bourbon bubble characterized by marks paying thousands for a bottle of wheated bourbon that, 20 years ago, was being sold in novelty, collectable crocks with cartoon hillbillies on it. That sort of dynamic tends to incentivize a black market and tends to help pedestrian stories make the headlines.
Oh, and despite being portrayed as the "Pappy Van Winkle Bandit" none of the charges against Toby Curtsinger actually involved Pappy Van Winkle. He was popped for possessing five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey. It truly was the Pappy Van Winkle Heist that wasn't.
Finally: I actually did a much, much longer and in-depth writeup of all of this that, for various reasons, didn't work for Bloomberg, but I'm happy they ran with this at least. I may be writing up the longer version someplace, even if I only end up putting it on this blog.
Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
I really enjoyed "Jessica Jones" season 1. Season 2 came out on Thursday and I continue to enjoy it. Beyond the characters and the plots, though, I am fascinated by Jessica's bourbon and whiskey choices.
If you don't know the show, Jessica is a private eye with a lot of past trauma and she drinks . . . a lot. Like, to crazy excess, usually to forget stuff or deal with stress. She often has hangovers but rarely seems drunk, even after drinking an entire bottle in an evening. They don't mention it, but I suspect that since she has super powers she has super tolerance too. Either way, getting the headache but not the buzz seems like a pretty shitty deal for her.
Her brands are what interest me most. Jessica is a brown liquor woman, but she was all over the map with her whiskey choices and I can't watch an episode without noticing what she's drinking and wondering why she, or, rather, the producers, chose it.
In season one she had a different brand every episode. Sometimes multiple brands an episode. Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes bourbon, sometimes Canadian. She occasionally drank some fictitious brands from the prop department. The real products came from multiple distillers. In light of all of that I don't suspect that any of those bottles were there by virtue of product placement.
If it was product placement it was pretty crappy product placement for the distilleries involved. For example, in one episode she asks a convenience store clerk for "the cheapest you got." He sells her Wild Turkey 101, which is not the cheapest he or anyone else has. I doubt Wild Turkey would like to have 101 portrayed as rotgut if it was paying to have its bottle featured. In the next episode she's drinking Old Grandad and earlier drank Beam, Teacher's and freakin' Cutty, so she obviously does know where to get cheaper stuff. She's a detective!
For the first two episodes of season two, she drinks only Tin Cup. Because the exclusivity and because the bottle and its label are shown so prominently, I suspected that Tin Cup had paid for exclusive rights for the much more anticipated Season 2. But . . . nah. In episode three she's back to Four Roses yellow label. Again, though, if Tin Cup did pay for that placement, they may not care for how it was used. Jessica drinks it like water -- at one point she literally fills a 10 ounce water class with the stuff, straight up and chugs -- and at another point she has a nightmare where she's hooked up to a Tin Cup IV, the bourbon flowing straight into her veins. There's no such thing as bad publicity I guess, but I feel like a distiller wouldn't want to have its brand being used explicitly to show how much of a problem drinker a character is. "Drink Tin Cup: the preferred brand for functioning alcoholics everywhere!"
If it isn't product placement, I don't understand all of the switching. Sure, a whiskey enthusiast may get a different bottle every time, but Jessica isn't someone you'd call a whiskey enthusiast. She's a drunk. Or at least a wannabe drunk. I've known some drunks in my time. If they're like Jessica and they are (a) functional; and (b) at least make a passable living, so that they don't have to take whatever they can get, they tend to have brand loyalty. Or at least price point loyalty. Even if they do change up brands, they don't bounce from bourbon to scotch to rye the way she does.
Last season some sites like Buzzfeed kept track of what she was drinking. I am only three episodes into season 2 -- it's a treadmill show for me, so it's a one a day thing, not something I, uh, binge -- but I'm gonna continue to keep track myself. I'm more fascinated in this than I am in the shady forces Jessica Jones is fighting. She'll beat them in the end. I have no idea what's gonna happen with the next bottle.
Today Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was rescinding Obama-era directives to U.S. Attorneys General ordering them not to target marijuana businesses in states which had legalized recreational marijuana such as Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and California. The move plunges marijuana-related businesses into legal uncertainty and will, no doubt, lead to a major backlash from state governments, small businesses and American citizens.
Why is Sessions and, by extension, the Trump Administration, doing this? Two reasons. One moral, one political. The moral component of it will get all of the attention, but it sort of bores me. The political one is far, far more significant. Indeed, I think it's a harbinger of a new political realignment I've been discussing in this space in recent months. A realignment which will do untold political damage to Sessions, Trump and those who follow their lead, be they Republicans or Democrats.
Let's quickly dispense with the morality of it: Sessions is obsessed with keeping marijuana illegal. He's long been on record about this. He believes it's a dangerous scourge that leads to crime and depravity and has vowed to stamp out its use. His move today will cause everyone to man their marijuana battle stations again. Sessions and his fellow moralists will offer their Joe Friday-meets-Nancy Reagan talking points, complete with citations to debunked studies of the dangers of marijuana. Everyone else will talk up the benefits of legalized weed and the desirability of normalized drug laws and decriminalization. We've heard all of this before. The former group is simply wrong, the latter is correct and it's ridiculous we even have this debate anymore. I'll leave it for others to take up again.
Not everyone is a zealot like Sessions. Most politicians who oppose marijuana legalization do so out of political calculation. There's one problem with this, though: polling shows that far more people support legalization than oppose it. Indeed, as Five Thirty Eight noted today, a record high 64 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. And it's not just lefties. Fifty-one percent of Republicans favor legalization. Given that politicians who make political calculations tend to make them in a way that favors going in with what the majority of people or, at the very least, a majority of what their constituents want, why would these guys continue to oppose legalization?
I believe they do so because of inertia. Inertia born of the political alignment of the past 40-50 years in which politicians have constantly fought and refought the culture wars that broke out in the 1960s. A war that, given all of the advances in women's rights, civil rights, gay rights and the overall liberalization of American culture since the 1950s, most believe was won by the liberals, but by purely political measures, was really won by conservatives and reactionaries. At the very least it is the conservatives and reactionaries who have controlled the discourse in these areas since at least 1980 and, in turn, have caused Democrats to opportunistically tack to the right.
It's this dynamic what has put us in the rather absurd place we're in today, with marijuana legalization and a whole host of other issues. Those who recognize this absurdity and break its cycle will find that those 1960s-era culture wars are not worth fighting anymore and that a new political alignment awaits them.
It took a hell of a lot of work, protest and, often, bloodshed to get there, but it's fair to say that liberalizing forces were ascendant in our national politics as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. Medicare and Medicaid came online. Welfare and anti-poverty programs, however flawed they were or eventually became, had public support. Public arts, sciences and humanities initiatives, came into being. Environmental and consumer protection programs and agencies had real power and asserted real authority. Prison and legal reform efforts took root. Even Nixon and his gang didn't put much of a stop to it. They had other things on their mind.
None of which is to say that these initiatives were uniformly successful. There were lots of flaws, inefficiencies and wrong turns when it came to this stuff, some of it bureaucratic, some of it structural. While those flaws would be challenging enough to overcome in and of themselves, America also saw its crime rate rise and a couple of disastrous oil embargoes and recessions hit, one of which -- from 1973-75 -- that hit pretty damn hard. These crisis, poorly addressed by Presidents Ford and Carter, created an opportunity for conservative forces led by Ronald Reagan. Forces which began to roll back the progress achieved since the 1960s and which began to recast the nature of political discourse in this country.
If you win an election or two, you get the right to set the agenda, and that's what Reagan did after 1980. He cut taxes, social programs and regulations while massively increasing military spending and enacting laws and regulations that put the interest of business and the wealthy first. He likewise encouraged and enabled the ascension of religious and cultural conservatives who launched a war, in policy and rhetoric, against that which they considered undesirable and immoral. The word "liberal" soon became an epithet and liberal and progressive values were cast as un-American or, in some cases, anti-American.
One can argue about the prudence or success of Reagan's policies, and one can take issue with the manner in which opposition to his agenda was cast as un-American, but one cannot argue with the success of his undertaking.
Reagan cruised to an easy reelection in 1984 and his successor, George H.W. Bush, cruised to victory in 1988. These victories were almost always occasioned by the victor taking up the mantle of so-called Real Americans who were shocked and offended by everything that had happened in this country between 1960 and 1980. He and those who followed him made the promise, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that they would return America to the way it was before that time. To that end, Reagan and his acolytes would bash working women and single mothers. They'd demonize minorities as criminals or as insufficiently subordinate. They'd scapegoat gays for a public health crisis that they themselves refused to acknowledge or address. They'd blame drugs -- at least certain drugs -- for societies' ills.
Democrats who tried to fight back against all of this were routinely trounced at the polls. It was pretty understandable, actually. The vast majority of active voters in the 1980s either came of age before the 1960s and didn't much like what they saw before Reagan came on the scene or made a lot of money in the 1980s and thus felt adequately compensated for leaving their youthful ideals in the past. People vote with their hearts just as much as their heads and the story of America that Reagan was telling them either made them feel better or made them rich. That's the heart and the head.
By the time the 1990s rolled around the Democrats had a serious goddamn problem on their hands. How do you fight political opponents who control both the hearts and the minds of the majority of the electorate? How do you take on forces of seemingly overwhelming superiority?
The answer: guerrilla warfare.
Bill Clinton and the New Democrats knew better than to launch a full frontal assault on Reagan's shining city on the hill or to relitigate the cultural battles of the 1960s and 70s. Those fights would be too hard. Rather than fight on those extraordinarily wide fronts, they would focus on tactics. They'd adopt a strategy of triangulation in which they'd pick some narrow battles in which they had a clear advantage while avoiding being dragged into fights they didn't feel comfortable having. They did so, in large part, by doing what guerrilla armies often do: going underground and trying to blend in.
Reagan and Bush could find success by casting their opponents as hopeless hippies or mindless moonbats, but what could they do when their opponents looked . . . a lot like they did? When they went out of their way to demonize criminals and the poor and to talk even tougher on drugs than they did? When the manner in which they favored banks and corporate interests were, more or less, indistinguishable from the way in which they themselves did? It was an impossible challenge, especially in a tough economic year like 1992. Clinton hammered Bush on his inability to feel the economic pain of ordinary Americans, Bush's efforts to portray Clinton as Mondale or Dukakis or McGovern or Carter were unconvincing and Clinton rode to victory.
Since 1992, Democratic politicians have almost uniformly aped the Clinton model. They have heavily emphasized their superficial economic differences with Republicans, mostly outflanked them in attracting the support of Wall Street and the entertainment and technology sectors and have done whatever they could to avoid taking bold or controversial stances on cultural matters unless or until public opinion led them to do so first (in which case they're, by definition, no longer bold or controversial stances).
The Democrats have found a lot more success with this tactical focus than they had back when they ran on progressive principles in the 1980s, but it has come at a huge price. For one thing, once you start playing the triangulation game, you have to keep finding new, seemingly fresh ways in which to contrast yourself with your opponents in the service of triangulation. Some of them -- like positioning the party as the best and only advocate for women, minorities and people of color -- are laudable. Others, like positioning the party as something akin to a consumer product -- the choice of celebrities and cool kids! -- are embarrassing and counterproductive. At the end of the day politics is about advancing a policy agenda and you gotta stand for something. Preferably something bold and visionary, not just something that can win you an election if everything breaks just right.
For their part, Republicans, generally speaking, have tracked further and further to the right economically and culturally, increasingly dependent on religious conservatives and, beginning in 2016, a quite small but newly bold and unapologetic contingent of white supremacists. People playing Ronald Reagan's game of castigating progressivism and trying to turn the word "liberal" into an epithet while still trying to fight those 1960s culture wars.
That has left us, politically, in more or less the same place we've been for decades: Republicans trying to paint Democrats as irresponsible hippies and moonbats and Democrats desperately trying to change the subject because they fear that such charges might stick. It's a matter of inertia. It's also madness.
It's certainly something which extends into our leaders' absurd views about marijuana legalization, with people like Jeff Sessions thinking that they can smoke out some hippies on the issue and use their support of pot legalization against them politically, playing up to the Silent Majority back home. Meanwhile, people like Hillary Clinton have taken a cautious, even calculated approach to the issue, seemingly more worried about protecting themselves from attack by cultural conservatives than in having a coherent set of principles on the matter.
It shouldn't be this way. Pretty soon it won't be.
As I wrote recently in reference to the tax bill, we're in the midst of a major political realignment in this country. Whereas, for decades, we had conservatives vs. liberals, right vs. left, Republicans vs. Democrats, those political fault lines are shifting. The policies of the current Republican government overwhelmingly benefit the rich, leaving the poor -- including poor people who call themselves Republicans -- in the dust. Likewise, many who call themselves Democrats -- including those in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street -- are doing just fine under Trump and a Republican Congress and are not likely to support Democratic candidates who would upset their lucrative apple carts, even if it would help most Americans.
Soon, if it has not happened already, these labels and these party affiliations are going to change to reflect the true political fault lines in this country, which primarily fall along lines of class, race, age and opportunity. On one side will be those who are interested in making the lives of most Americans, the poor and the middle class, people of color as well as white people, women as well as men, better. On the other side are those whose primary interest is in supporting business or the wealthy or those already in power or place of privilege.
Legalized marijuana may not, historically, be a needle-moving issue, but politicians who either dismiss it or auto-pilot the debate about it into that old culture war territory do so at their peril, for the electorate is quickly realigning itself with respect to marijuana as well.
All of which is to say that, when it comes to the matter of marijuana legalization, our politicians are hopelessly out of step with what the people want. Just as they are increasingly out of step with what they want with respect to all manner of cultural and economic issues. Out of step due to their devotion to a political arrangement that, however well it served them for several decades, is approaching obsolescence.
Those politicians who understand this will be our future leaders. Those who prefer to fight old wars will be left in the dust of history.
I’m doing some research in old Detroit newspapers. This ad from April 1911 shows you that the Tigers used to have WAY better sponsors.
Some people take vacations to see the sights. This week my fiancee Allison and I saw some sights during our four-day trip to New York but the most important part was the food.
Allison was diagnosed with Celiac disease a couple of years ago. Living gluten free is doable but it certainly limits one’s options when dining out. And even the places that do have options – and there are more and more each day, thankfully – tend to ghettoize them in tiny, specialized menus which are often stashed away someplace in the host’s stand. “They’re in here someplace,” they’ll say, as they rifle through the children’s menus, the happy hour inserts, the cab vouchers and all of the other items most restaurants are happy to provide but which aren’t used quite as often and, unfortunately, aren’t always afforded the same level of respect.
That can be a little annoying, but at least they’re trying and, increasingly, succeeding in accommodating those with Celiac. Lots of people, unfortunately, including even some people in the bar and restaurant business, continue to be downright hostile to folks with Celiac, acting as if they chose their disease out of a desire to be trendy as opposed to suffering from an autoimmune disorder.
In light of all of that, our time dining in New York was fantastic. It’s a city with an embarrassment of culinary riches as it is, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to gluten free dining our options were abundant, the experience was inclusive and welcoming, the food was delicious and, at times, bordered on the transcendent.
Thanks, New York for having so many options. Thanks Don Antonio, Colors, Senza Gluten, Egg Shop, By The Way Bakery, Taquetoria, Friedman’s and Le Bernardin for having such fantastic food. And thanks to all of the other places we couldn’t make it to but will the next time.
I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?
Someone snagged some alcohol and took it, quite illegally, to where it shouldn’t have been taken. It wasn’t an impulsive crime of opportunity, however. It wasn’t someone knocking over the corner liquor store. This was planned. Planned by professionals who knew exactly what they were taking and exactly who would be drinking the illegally-obtained booze. And the people who would be drinking it would be paying top dollar for the privilege. Far more than the retail price.
Why? Because the alcohol in question was scarce. Not the sort of thing you could find just anywhere. Its scarcity is what made it valuable. Its scarcity likely even made it taste better to the folks who would eventually drink it. Better to them than it would taste to someone who drank from the same bottles obtained through legal means. Better than stuff that, objectively speaking, was not much different and may have in fact tasted better than the illegal stuff before its qualities were enhanced by the air of danger and intrigue which infused it with … greater complexities.
The booze in question: Coors beer. Obtained illegally by Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit.” It was illegal to ship Coors east of Texas in 1977 and that illegality made it a highly sought-after commodity to Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette, who bankrolled the racket in order to get the stuff to serve, quite appropriately, at a banquet in honor of the winner of the Southern Classic truck rodeo in Georgia.
It seems preposterous now that the plot to the second highest-grossing movie of 1977 was set in motion by someone coveting Coors beer. Because, with all apologies to the good folks at the MillerCoors Brewing Company, Coors is kind of crappy. A mass-produced light lager that your dad probably drank because that’s about as good as he could do for the price and which you probably drank when you were in college because, Jesus, you didn’t know any better.
But drive the plot it did. Its believability as a McGuffin supported by its scarcity east of Texas. Its value supported by a small handful of wealthy men who used its scarcity and their ability to overcome it as a means of showing off to their friends. When the Bandit and the Snowman smashed their way through that last police blockade with that truck full of Coors and handed their haul over to Big and Little Enos, the retail price of their load didn’t matter a bit.
The same goes for another bunch of booze illegally swiped: 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, stolen from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky back in October 2013. Those bottles go for anywhere between $40 and $250 at retail but, because of their scarcity, can fetch over $1,000 in private sales. Some sales have netted as high as $5,000. And those are just the sales between friends and acquaintances on the so-called “gray market.” There’s no telling what they’d go for on the truly black market.
It’s not that Pappy is so much better than any other bourbon. Oh, it’s good. Thanks to a good friend with family near Lexington I was lucky enough to have some back before the bourbon bubble truly inflated. I enjoyed it a great deal. But it’s not hundreds of times better than the next best thing. It really can’t be.
All bourbon, in order to be bourbon, has to have a mash bill (i.e. the proportion of grains used in the fermentation process) of 51% corn. Up to that point, the stuff is all identical. It’s what makes up the other 49% that gives different bourbons their different tastes.
But here’s bourbon’s little secret: there are generally only three different taste profiles once you get past the corn:
Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon. It’s a good one, usually aged longer – 10, 15 or 23 years compared to the 3-7 years of most bourbons – but it’s still a wheated bourbon. Unless you’re in the bourbon industry and have tasted multiple different bourbons hundreds of different times as a point of professional purpose, you’re not going to be able to identify a great many bourbons by taste alone. it’s safe to say that the occasional bourbon drinker couldn’t tell the difference between Pappy and, say, Willett Pot Still Reserve, W.L. Weller or a Maker’s 46. After they’ve already had a couple, a novice bourbon drinker could probably be fooled with a bit of Old Fitz. Maybe even some of those occasional drinkers.
Yet there Old Pappy sits at the top of the bourbon pyramid, coveted, sought after and, yes, even stolen. Not because it’s so great but because the folks at Buffalo Trace produce only 1% of the amount of it as the folks at Jim Beam 70 miles to the southwest make of their white label bourbon each year. Because celebrity chefs like David Chang, Sean Brock, and Anthony Bourdain have conspicuously endorsed it. Because its annual release has been well-marketed as “Pappy-Day,” creating a land rush effect.
Of course, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is not unique in this respect. Simple economics suggest that the low supply of any product combined with its high demand will beget a higher price. But there’s something else going on with Pappy Van Winkle. There the low supply and great demand is baked into the price. It comes before the price is set. But then an after-effect of exclusivity washes over it where either the price or the overall scarcity of the product works to make people think it actually tastes better than it really does. Ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to drink some Pappy recently. They’ll tell you it’s the best they’ve ever had. Mostly because they’ve been fortunate enough to have it.
It’s not simple snobbery at work here, however.
Back in 2008 some Caltech economics professors conducted a study which found that changes in the stated price of a given wine influenced how good volunteers thought it tasted. But it wasn’t just an instance in which vanity and exclusivity entered into things. The lead researcher, Antonio Rangel, concluded that "prices, by themselves, affect activity in an area of the brain that is thought to encode the experienced pleasantness of an experience.” Put differently: the price tag on the wine bottle literally made the person drinking it think it tasted better.
Another product which, I suspect anyway, affects brain chemistry is In-N-Out Burger. Here it’s not about price. In-N-Out Burger’s menu prices are pretty low, actually. It’s really about exclusivity. As a result of the company’s obsession with quality control and its refusal to franchise, In-N-Out’s reach has been limited to five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.
My brother worked at an In-N-Out burger in San Diego for several years. He can vouch for the quality of their food. But the taste? It’s good. Quite good! But are the burgers better than Shake Shack? Five Guys? Any number of other burger joints across the country which use fresh, high-quality ingredients? Maybe a bit. Maybe a good bit if your palette is simply more amenable to the extra Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties, and extra pickles of an animal style burger. But it’s not so much better than the next chain down to justify the frenzy and the hype, is it? My brother grew positively sick of the stuff after six months and started taking his lunch breaks at the Del Taco across the street.
I’m a baseball writer, and an annual tradition among baseball writers is for the ones sent to Arizona for spring training to gloat about the availability of In-N-Out Burger to the sad, unfortunate baseball writers who have to cover spring training in Florida. Whenever I travel from Ohio to California to visit my brother, I’m always asked by friends if I plan to stop at In-N-Out before or after I go to his house. And there those celebrity chefs again – among them Thomas Keller and our old friend Anthony Bourdain – singing In-N-Out’s praises, stoking that perception of quality and feeding that demand.
I’ll leave it to Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at Caltech to parse all of that. But for now I will try to find “Smokey and the Bandit” streaming online and giggle anew at the fact that the whole damn thing was set off by Coors beer. And wonder whether, if and when there is a reboot of the franchise, Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette will send the Bandit after Pappy Van Winkle, In-N-Out Burger or something else entirely.