By Tim Ghianni
(Reuters) - The theft of dozens of cases of rare, high-quality bourbon worth more than $25,000 from a local distillery appears to be an inside job, a Kentucky sheriff investigating the case, said on Saturday.
Police in Frankfort, Kentucky, who learned on Tuesday of the robbery, said it was unlikely someone outside the Buffalo Trace Distillery operation could take 65 cases totaling 195 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.
"Someone's not going to grab 65 cases, load it up and go out the door," said Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton, noting the theft took place since the last inventory two months ago.
"We think they took out two or three or four cases at a time," he added.
Mark Brown, Buffalo Trace Distillery president and chief executive, said in an email he would not comment because the investigation was ongoing.
The theft came as the U.S. bourbon industry and high-end makers of the distilled spirit in Kentucky and Tennessee have seen a rise in the whiskey's popularity in recent years.
Melton said the theft of the high-quality whiskey had put a spotlight on the city of Frankfort, which is the state capital and has a population of about 28,000.
"I've worked a lot of things, but as far as something going viral like this ... the whole town is buzzing," the sheriff said.
The bourbon sells for $130 a bottle, "if you can get it" before the popular commodity sells out, Melton said.
"On secondary and other markets, it's as much as $300, $400, even $2,000 a bottle," he said of the bourbon that makes its way around the world through online auctions.
In addition to the prized bourbon, the thieves' thirst for the big score was rounded out with 27 bottles of 13-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Rye, according to the sheriff. A bottle of the rye whiskey retails for about $25.
The value of the 20-year-old bourbon comes from its rarity. The entire Van Winkle line, including Pappy, is about 6,000 to 7,000 cases a year, according to Chuck Cowdery, an authority on American whiskeys and author of "Bourbon, Straight."
'REALLY GOOD BOURBON'
"There are just a certain number of barrels that are bottled," added Melton, who does not drink the bourbon. "All your premier bourbon drinkers say it's as smooth as it can be, and it's a really good bourbon."
Pappy Van Winkle is produced in a partnership between the Van Winkle family and Buffalo Trace Distillery.
According to the Old Rip Van Winkle website, the 20-year-old, 90.4-proof bourbon is the top-rated bourbon whiskey in the world and was rated 99 out of 100 by the World Spirits Championship.
"It has been put in the class of a fine after-dinner cognac," the site said.
"It's a very good bourbon," Cowdery said. "I don't know that it necessarily deserves the sort of legendary ... reputation."
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Tenn; Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Peter Cooney)