“The term ‘flipper’ sounds so bad,” Paul H.* groans after I casually refer to him as such. As the midday sun streams in through his kitchen window, he leans back against a folding table that’s overflowing with whiskey-shipping supplies, running a hand through his bed-head hair. “I sell high-end whiskey as a middleman,” he clarifies. My eyes drift to ogle another table full of enviable whiskies—Hirsch Select 25, Sazerac 18, and Hibiki 21 year olds. Paul’s makeshift processing center is not what you’d call tidy. Children’s books, plastic bags, and crumpled cash fill the occasional voids between the rare bottles packed upon the stained table.
[*Several sources for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. They are indicated by abbreviated surnames.]
“But I never feel bad about selling whiskey,” Paul admits. “It’s like walking into a store, seeing 10 lotto tickets, one of which is a winner, and taking any of the nine losers. You don’t leave winners on the shelves. I’m not ruining whiskey. I’m not the reason people can’t get Van Winkle. I’m one f******* person. I don’t have that much power.”
I’m in Paul’s home, just outside New York City. We connected with each other via a Facebook bourbon group and I’ve come, as agreed, with cash to buy a store-pick Four Roses Single Barrel. Downstairs in his ramshackle basement, Paul’s bunker of 300-plus bottles is divided between two shelving units, one containing every coveted bourbon and rye you’ve dreamt of owning and the other containing rare scotch—holy grail whiskies like Brora 25 and 37 year olds—and Japanese whisky, including Yamazaki Mizunara Oak from 1984. These are the same whiskies that appear in glossy international auction catalogs. Paul yanks out various bottles he calls “fire,” including Willett 12 year old, 2007 Hirsch, and 2006 Van Winkle. “There used to be a lot more,” Paul gestures to his prized collection. “But a lot of it was sold to buy this house.”
For all his proclamations to the contrary, most whiskey lovers would call Paul a flipper. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t have another job. He sells and ships 30 bottles “in a good week.” He boasts that he can get you any bottle you want within 24 hours—any bottle. He claims he’s the first call most retailers make when their allotment of allocated whiskeys arrives. He has spent fifteen hours a day driving around, hitting up scores of liquor stores across multiple states. He’s braggadocious until pressed on the intimate details of his operation. “Man, you’re not the IRS, right?” he nervously chuckles in reply to my string of questions surrounding his sourcing of vintage whiskeys. His suspicion aroused, I tell him I’m both a whiskey lover and a journalist investigating the state of the bourbon secondary market. “I don’t know how I feel about being included,” replies Paul.
Up until the fall of 2019, the bourbon secondary market was a seemingly unstoppable wave. Some groups on Facebook dedicated to reselling bourbon had surpassed 50,000 members, turning the social network into a venerable bazaar, rife with unicorn bottles rarely glimpsed in the wild. Unfathomable pricing abounded, largely propagated by instaflippers: people who brazenly post snapshots of bottles for sale from the driver’s seat of their car, listing them at inflated prices before they’ve even left the store parking lot. Oftentimes the bottles were snapped up within minutes by eager buyers. Blame the taters (slang for a whiskey drinker with more money than taste); blame the allocation system of control states; blame the distillers for poor allotment of limited releases; blame the likes of the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets for declaring that bourbon was a winning investment that would only appreciate in value. One fact was crystalline: the bourbon secondary market had reached fever pitch.
Skirting the Rules
As I continued to uncover and gain acceptance in more Facebook groups, the bourbon secondary tsunami made landfall. All hell broke loose. eBay started yanking down “Blanton’s topper, sealed!” posts, knowing full well they were illicit sales of unopened bottles. Facebook began feverishly shutting down groups, especially those with obvious names, like Bourbon Secondary Market. I had just been accepted into one group and was smack in the middle of making my first purchase when the page simply disappeared as I typed, obliterated by Facebook’s watchdogs. Their assault on the secondary-market groups was met with equal parts ire and panic from the besieged denizens. Complaints and rebukes toward the social media platform and Mark Zuckerberg himself ran the gamut from witty GIFs to churlish name-calling.
However, even for sophisticated Facebook algorithms, eliminating bourbon buyers from the platform proved an endless game of Whac-A-Mole. One group fell; another emerged immediately. The names got more coy, like Brown Water Appreciation Society, and obvious keywords like “Pappy” or “for sale” were replaced by encoded acronyms in a bid to thwart further strafing by Facebook. Other groups migrated to MeWe, a social platform that purported to offer more shielding from governance than Facebook. All the groups posted rules, pinned to the tops of the pages. Rule number one? “You don’t talk about Fight Club.” Given that these rekindled groups proliferated to thousands of members within weeks, loose lips still flapped.
Some group administrators banned words altogether, permitting only emoji-filled code with images of bottles on offer. A post of two handles of Weller 12 year old is emblazoned with “ISO” (In Search Of) and three Christmas trees, indicating the seller required $300 for each bottle. Type “BIN” (Buy It Now) in the comments and you’re the new owner. Some groups use images of whiskey bottles for sale, loaded with coded items. Rather than purchase a bottle of Pappy, you ask to buy the rubber duck or red Sharpie positioned directly in front of it. The payment and shipping logistics are then worked out in private messages. Despite the crackdown, sales flourished. I counted 120 sales within a 24-hour period on one group that had reconstituted in less than a week after demolition.
“It never used to be like this,” says Chad Colwell, a buyer for Citarella Wine and Spirits in New York City. “Six or seven years ago the groups were smaller, comprised of the biggest bourbon collectors in the world. These guys were on a first-name basis with the distillers, and they were selling various barrel picks and vintage stuff you couldn’t find anywhere on shelves. Everyone knew each other and to enter a group, you had to personally know someone in it who vouched for you.” Many of the two dozen-plus sources contacted for this piece echo Colwell’s sentiments, citing groups like Phil’s Basement and Strong Water as the original online trading hubs, where even major deals were done as gentlemen’s agreements based on mutual trust.
But what if you couldn’t make it into those groups because you lacked the connections? Owen Powell was in that very predicament, so the Kentucky native woke up at 5:00 one morning and thought, “Screw it. I’ll start my own group and make it open to the public.” Powell launched the Bourbon Secondary Market when he was only “sort of into bourbon. I didn’t know the secondary-market values, and I didn’t have any bottles to sell,” he recalls.
At the time, Facebook’s policy allowed the sale of alcohol provided users were at least 18 years old. “I triple-checked that because I couldn’t believe it,” Powell laughs. (Later it would be amended to 21 years old, then prohibited completely.) His group blew up. Instantly. “All of the other admins of the secret groups were freaking out because I hit 5,000 members very quickly. They were concerned the whole market would explode and everyone would lose,” Powell says. At the time it was shuttered by Facebook last summer, his group exceeded 55,000 members.
The composition of Powell’s group was a mixed bag. Profiteers mingled alongside bourbon lovers. The big-money spenders shelled out top dollar for rarities like Twisted Spoke (made at Stitzel-Weller), red wax closure Van Winkle, 1970s Rebel Yell, and more. Nascent bourbon sellers were trying to offload anything from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, sometimes at ludicrous prices. Bottles of Weller Antique picked up for $30 were tossed out like chum for $299 just to see if anyone might bite. As the membership bourgeoned, the steady flow of available bottles became mesmerizing, like watching a stock market ticker. Wait a few minutes, hit refresh on your web browser, and there’d be a dozen new options.
The ease of selling, buying, and trading on a proven platform with an active and addicted fan base like Facebook was alluring to folks like Paul. “I got into whiskey for straight profit,” he says. “My dad and I read in Maxim that Pappy Van Winkle was the hardest bourbon to find. I started thinking that I’ve got time and the internet; I can turn a cat into a dog if I tried hard enough. So I went out to get all of the Van Winkle I could.” Back in 2011, Paul spent days hunting, coming up with several bottles of Van Winkle, all acquired for $50 a pop. “I put it up on Craigslist and within a few hours, some guy calls me and wants it all at $150 per bottle. I’ve now made $1,200, more money in one day than I’ve ever made in my life.” But Craigslist could be hit or miss, given the broad array of items for sale on the site. The efficacy of a dedicated, captive Facebook group like Powell’s would ensure Paul’s money spigot would never stop flowing.
Other sellers utilized the expanding market as a double means to an end. Texan Mark S. saw plenty of Weller on his local stores’ shelves and a demand for it on the secondary market. “Stores down here use a point system based on your annual spends,” he explains. “If I can buy enough to up my profile to be offered the big-dog bottles, and make a little money in the short-term, why shouldn’t I?” He works two full-time jobs, and considered selling whiskey to be a side hustle over a two-year period, earning him about $5,000 in profit the first year and $10,000 in profit the second year. It wasn’t exactly easy money: he sold and shipped around 700 bottles, laying out $23,000 to make his first $5,000. Many retailers now elect to maximize their own profit by marking up their rare bottles close to the secondary-market price.
Folks who’d obtained bottles at regular prices years ago found profits far easier. Louis D. had been collecting for 30 years when he came across a known big spender willing to shell out $35,000 for seven bottles he’d bought for around $100, including rare Willett 17 year old, Eagle Rare 17 year old, Black Maple Hill bourbon, and others. This enormous upside was too tempting. After checking on the buyer’s reputation within the resale community, Louis invited him to a face-to-face transaction. “This was my first sale and the guy FedExed a bunch of cash initially to prove this was legitimate, then he came down with the remainder of the cash in person,” he says.
For deals of this magnitude, people prefer to meet in person for obvious reasons. I spoke with one physician from Illinois who bought a bottle of Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year old (Lot B) for $400 off Craigslist and drove an hour to meet the seller at a gas station. His concern was that it was a fraudulent bottle, but after inspecting the laser code, the foil, and the fill level, the Van Winkle proved authentic and he completed the purchase.
Ferreting Out Fakes
Counterfeiting is trotted out by legislators and distillers alike as a chief reason the secondary market should be shuttered. At a public roundtable last September, Preston Van Winkle of the eponymous bourbon brand revealed to a gathered crowd that there were “a lot of dollars being thrown [by themselves and distiller Buffalo Trace] from a legal standpoint to getting Facebook groups shut down.” This came after his remark that “it’s the a******* in the retail shops and on Craigslist that are making all that money; not us. First, it’s illegal. Second, there are tons of counterfeiters. There are countless instances where people are selling empty bottles on eBay and then it reappears full.” Preston then tossed out a disturbing kicker when asked how he’d handle a counterfeiter: “I’d make him or her drink whatever rotgut they put in the bottle and hope it was poisonous.”
Kenny Coleman, host of the Bourbon Pursuit podcast, who was there recording the Van Winkles’ comments for an episode, was flabbergasted. “That put Preston in a negative light with the consumer market. I don’t see what they were trying to accomplish in taking down the secondary market. It’s hard to make a good counterfeit,” he says.
For a global brand that’s been built on the back of infamous secondary pricing, the Van Winkles’ stance seems somewhat incongruous. “Secondary groups are fantastic at detective work,” Colwell notes. “They keep databases of serial numbers and tax stamps and can find refill bottles from eBay and alert group admins.” No one has more incentive to ferret out fakes than the people spending big money on bourbon.
Of the nearly 150,000 bottles moved on Bourbon Secondary Market, Powell can’t estimate what percentage might have been illegitimate. “Potentially there are thousands of fakes out there, many due to the Buffalo Trace and [parent company] Sazerac employees,” he bellows, referring to “Pappygate,” a 2015 case involving nine individuals, including one Buffalo Trace employee, who stole more than $100,000 worth of Pappy, Weller, and Eagle Rare. “Last year, secondary-market policing found a refilled bottle of Pappy 23 and traced the serial number back to a guy in Elizabethtown, Kentucky who bought it off Craigslist from a Buffalo Trace employee stealing the Van Winkle shrink caps. If Buffalo Trace wants to say they’re the reason the secondary market got shut down, good for them. But they should look at how their own employees contributed more to counterfeiting measures than anyone else.” Buffalo Trace declined to answer questions or comment for this story.
Sealed bottles are the domain of collectors, but the secondary market also deals in samples for true whiskey lovers who simply want to try a fine whiskey without purchasing a full bottle. Sellers take a 750 ml bottle and divide it into 100 ml samples for resale, making their authenticity a matter of pure faith. “You lose the paper trail in the secondary market,” says Josh Hafer, senior manager of corporate communications and community affairs at Heaven Hill Brands. “I would be heartbroken for someone to think they’re getting a Parker’s Heritage Collection, either a full bottle or a sample, and have it not be what they were expecting it to be.”
The Long Arm of the Law
Regardless of the authenticity of the liquid, selling alcohol without a license is illegal in all states. (Kentucky permits resale of vintage bottles under certain circumstances.) Getting caught is of little concern to most sellers. The serious ones have adroitly ascertained how to circumvent the system.
Louis only ships via USPS, because the “feds can’t open a shipment without a warrant, and there aren’t any alcohol dogs so the odds of interception are low.” Several flippers, including Louis, knowingly sold directly to police officers. “Cops don’t get allocated bottles any easier. They’re in all the groups, buying along with the rest of us,” he says. “Come after me, and I’d just say, ‘Do you want these 20 cops I’ve sold to?’” Powell got panicked messages about police officers and judges in his groups, but nothing came of it. Coleman states that he knows of several Louisville officers who buy, sell, and trade on the gray market.
“Investigating secondary sales is not a priority issue, but it’s not uncommon,” says Captain Jamie Jones of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. Jones oversees the Operations Division for the Bureau, a force of 171 officers, one of the largest battalions of liquor cops in the country. Pennsylvania, a control state, offers allocated bottles to residents using an online lottery system. Despite warnings directed at the lucky winners, rare bottles sometimes appear on secondary markets, where Jones’s officers are anonymously lurking, trying to identify individuals engaged in reselling.
Once confiscated, the bottles meet a certain end. “It gives me great pain to know these bottles are being poured down the drain,” says Jones, himself a bourbon fan. “We’d prefer to educate the public that this is illegal so it stops altogether.” A while ago, Jones’s team sent out emails to people who’d posted bottles for sale, informing them it is illegal and asking them to remove the posts. “All but one individual complied, so we purchased a bottle from him and he was charged.” Jones notes that his crew primarily focuses on blatant personal sales, not trafficking by mail, but emphasizes that all sales of this type are illegal in Pennsylvania.
Other states have taken a more hardline stance. Wiping out the secondary market seems to be a point of pride for Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Liquor Control superintendent Jim Canepa. He’s in a unique position of regulating liquor sales within his control state, but also buying and selling on its behalf. This requires ingratiation with the distillers, like Buffalo Trace, in order for Ohio to receive the maximum volume of allocated products. “Health and human safety is a key concern of mine because of the counterfeit products that are going on in Mexico, India, or other U.S. places,” Canepa says, reiterating that the distillers care deeply about brand integrity. “And I want to demonstrate I’m protecting their brands.”
Beyond fakes, Canepa brings up “poisoned” bottles a few times during our chat, once referencing the Tylenol tampering issue from 1982 that resulted in numerous deaths—a somewhat flawed analogy since the toxins were inserted into legitimate pill bottles and snuck back onto store shelves. Canepa concedes no poisoned bourbon bottles have been uncovered in his state and doesn’t have any data on poisoned bourbon nationally. “We’ve been lucky so far,” he notes. “We’re in prevention mode.”
Then Canepa drops a bombshell. “Mark Brown [CEO of Buffalo Trace] himself is sending me screenshots of secondary sellers in Ohio. They’ve got brand people doing nothing but trolling the secondary markets. When that seller is in my state, I send it right to the liquor cops.” Buffalo Trace declined to comment.
Directly helping Brown helps Ohio, Canepa argues, given that he’s competing for bottles with other control states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia. “If I make Ohio a fertile marketplace for offerings, I’m going to get more juice than anyone else,” he says. “I need to practice legal and fair distribution of the supply I have; I’m running a business, not a club.” In a bid to more fairly distribute rare whiskeys, Canepa began raffles and lotteries and claims that as a result “regular people thank me all the time, saying they’ve never been able to get a Kentucky Owl or a Weller C.Y.P.B. before.”
Not everyone appreciates Canepa’s efforts. Neil S. is an Ohio resident who “can’t get anything rare here. Even Stagg Jr. is hard to come by. I have to go into a lottery with 70,000 people and be lucky enough to get picked,” he says with the sting of a guy on a 20-year losing streak. Accordingly, Neil believes he should be able to buy from anyone and pay whatever he wishes, even if that’s $4,000 for a bottle of Pappy. “People may think I’m stupid, but that’s no one’s business but mine.”
The Van Winkles’ answer to desperate buyers like Neil is they should seek out the whiskeys at a bar. This misses the point that many bars also acquire rare whiskeys through illegal back channels. Michael V. owns a Baltimore restaurant and has been collecting bourbon for years. The bulk of the rare offerings on his menu were purchased from secondary-market groups because “my distributor is garbage,” says Michael. “Instead of Mr. Van Winkle mouthing off about the market, how about he fixes the distributor issues and talks to whoever in his distillery is allocating those bottles? Distilleries have a responsibility to help if they want to complain,” he suggests. “One of my groups shared that there are ten cases of Weller 12 down in a Texas liquor store. I’ve never seen that in the wild up here. I have to beg and cajole just to get Blanton’s, which rarely comes.” Admittedly, distillers and other producers have limited influence on where their products end up at retail due to the well-entrenched U.S. three-tier system.
Even for fortunate bars that do get rare bottles directly, it’s sometimes questionable whether the bottle will ever reach the backbar. There’s too much risk: staff might over-pour, drink it themselves, or steal it. So the bar owner might decide to get rid of it at the point of sale. “Sales reps from the distributor would call me saying they’d convinced a bar owner that didn’t normally get Pappy to sell them back a Pappy 23 for $800,” says Powell. “The sales reps would then sell it to me for $1,500 and I’d put it on the secondary market and take a cut.”
If you’re wondering how a bar ends up with an unexpected bottle of Pappy, the answer may again lie with distributors. “In Kentucky, Republic National [Distributing Co.] distributes Sazerac products,” says Powell. “They were allocating Van Winkle products as rewards for selling cases of wine. Sazerac found out and got upset, demanding that Republic base allocations on sales of Sazerac products, like its popular Fireball cinnamon whisky,” Powell goes on to explain, “Now you have a drive-through liquor store moving tons of Fireball whisky minis which can net them a bottle of Pappy. If a bar had a Fireball machine, they’d have more Sazerac sales than another bar moving the right products. These places didn’t have a need for it, so out the back door it went and the owners and sales reps got a huge profit.” When contacted about these allegations, Buffalo Trace and Sazerac declined to comment. Republic National declined to answer direct questions, but stated, “The demand for bourbon has reached all-time highs in the United States and around the world. Unfortunately Kentucky, as well as other markets, has not been able to keep up with demand for these products.”
Retailers who practice fair pricing and selling are clamoring for a change in the distribution model. Colwell, whose store is inside the new billion-dollar Hudson Yards complex, hides the good stuff to avoid what he calls “Blanton’s zombies” from meandering in and snapping it up for the reasonable $65 that he charges.
His most important call of the year is in the fall when he’s trying to get allocated products. “Everyone in the city dials up Empire Distributors and we’re all trying to get through. I spent an hour on hold last year and when someone picked up, they claimed they couldn’t hear me and told me to call back and hung up,” Colwell says. “I’m one guy trying to place my order and I couldn’t get anything. Other stores in the city are using relatives in other countries, armed with their account code, to have 40 chances to get through and get it ordered. That’s not how it should be.”
Other retailers play the hand they’re dealt and attempt to reap the market price. “If you’re willing to pay $700 for a Weller Full Proof, why not have that money come to me?” posits Mark B., owner of an East Coast liquor store. “It’s a no-brainer to go after bottles that are resold on the secondary market because I know I’ll have buyers no matter what.”
Counter to the Van Winkle response, some whiskey makers embrace the secondary market. “You can’t fight the marketplace,” says Ken Lewis, owner and founder of New Riff Distilling. His staff follows the secondary market for research. “For a five year old brand, it’s flattering to see who we’re alongside.” Plus, Lewis believes there’s marketing data to be found there. “We look at what appears—almost exclusively single barrels—and note we’ll need to make some more single barrels and not all bottled in bond when we launch a new product in a few years’ time. However, it would be anathema to price New Riff at what the secondary market will bear.”
The real question is if you’ve got a $300 bottle that can easily command $2,000, who should be making that money? The distiller? The distributor? The retailer? Flippers? And should they be required to do it legally?
When PM Spirits launched Mic Drop, owner Nicolas Palazzi, who’d cut his teeth in brandy and cognac, was blown away by how fast the $100 bourbon sourced from Indiana’s MGP Distillery sold out. After the second edition—several years older and priced at $450—was released, “I got screenshots of crazy prices on Facebook,” Palazzi says. “I found it funny. We just needed to add a bourbon to the lineup and here we are.” The inclusion of Mic Drop in the secondary circles makes Palazzi wonder how successful the product really is. “Am I selling 1,000 bottles to 100 guys who are waiting to flip it? Or is it five bottles to 2,000 people who are opening it? I don’t know which, and I don’t know if the brand is successful as a result.” Palazzi isn’t at all opposed to buyers flipping Mic Drop. “We work hard to sell it and after we do, I don’t care what happens next.” His pricing is based on his cost—Mic Drop’s most recent release was $60 for a 4 year old bourbon—and he intends for it to remain that way.
A Broken System Still Works
“Bourbon has become a commodity,” Paul surmises. “Some of us choose to use it, whereas other people stockpile 900 bottles in their basement, like that’s a normal thing to do. Everyone started getting upset like it wasn’t a commodity.” The real question is if you’ve got a $300 bottle that can easily command $2,000, who should be making that money? The distiller? The distributor? The retailer? Flippers? And should they be required to do it legally?
“When I look at the Buffalo Trace and Sazerac portfolio, they’re not doing anything to create crazy prices or bump up MSRP because they look at this as the long game,” says Coleman. “The short game of trying to make a quick buck never really works. To stay in business a decade from now, you can’t justify increasing the price of a $100 bottle to $500 because you need customer loyalty. The Van Winkles and the other manufacturers should work with distributors to find the bad actors out there.” To their credit, the Van Winkles and Sazerac have resisted any temptation to inflate prices, taking only modest increases for themselves despite the secondary-market escalation. Some of the rarest Buffalo Trace bottles, including 1980, 1982, and 1983 vintages under the O.F.C. label, went straight to auctions when released in 2016, raising $1.2 million for a host of charities including cancer services, animal rights, and military veterans. In April 2018, bourbon bottled from Buffalo Trace’s six millionth barrel only went to nonprofits to help with fundraising efforts.
It’s impossible to separate the secondary market from the maelstrom of negativity that hovers over it, but redeeming tales of camaraderie, benevolence, and sacrifice are also omnipresent. Many whiskey lovers have forged lasting friendships with secondary-market strangers from other states, some of whom began traveling to meet in person for bottle shares. Others have established symbiotic “cost plus shipping” relationships where allocated bottles common in one region are swapped, without profit. “There are plenty of good folks in these groups,” says Michael V. “People in it are just trying to help each other find great whiskey.”
Whether we’re talking weapons or bourbon, black markets are adept at survival, and the secondary market will evolve to meet the times. With eBay and Facebook cooperating with law enforcement, established whiskey sellers will resort to email newsletters, privately hosted websites, or WhatsApp chats—far harder to dismantle. Some move on; Powell recently launched Fern Creek, his own whiskey brand. Others are lifers. Guys like Paul will always exist, living for the thrill of the hunt and the resulting profit.
I snagged that Four Roses bottle from Paul to gift to a friend, a big Four Roses fan, to celebrate his engagement. This single barrel recipe (OESQ) was the only one he hadn’t been able to sample yet. Upon presentation, his eyes widened with excitement. “I’ve been hunting in stores for a while and never found this,” he beamed as we poured a dram. Eyes closed, as he savored the first sip, a broad grin crept across his face. “This is better than I imagined. I can’t believe you found a bottle.” The system may be broken, but the system still works.