Not long ago, when bourbon was out of style, distillery workers helped themselves to the product and took it home in plastic jugs. Bourbon was just another drink — not very profitable but pretty good for sipping on a Friday night.

Then Americans rediscovered their native spirit, and connoisseurs around the world fixated on a bourbon called Pappy Van Winkle. Demand skyrocketed, and Pappy turned to liquid gold, worth as much as $2,259 a bottle on the online resale market, or $132 per shot.

That spike in value awakened inglorious traditions in Kentucky’s bourbon industry, where crime and market capitalism have long walked hand in hand. A veteran distillery worker stands accused of pulling off a high-dollar heist and distributing the booze, like some old-time bootlegger, through a syndicate that included members of his recreational softball team.

Nine people have been indicted in connection with the syndicate; two pleaded guilty last week. And the sprawling investigation known as “Pappygate” seemed to usher in a new era on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, one with more security, less trust and a lot less free whiskey.

“When you have a valuable product, like bourbon has become, you will find, from time to time, that folks want to make money off it illegally,” said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

Evidence tags mark recovered bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon at the Franklin County sheriff’s office. Nine people have been indicted in connection with a syndicate that stole the booze. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

At the heart of the case is the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a national historic landmark that dates to 1858 and calls itself America’s oldest continuously operating distillery. In 2002, Buffalo Trace joined forces with the Old Rip Van Winkle distillery, which makes Pappy Van Winkle. Since then, the famous wheated bourbon has been produced at the historic distillery just north of downtown Frankfort.

Pappy is championed by famous chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and Sean Brock, and if it absorbs too much charred-oak flavor from the barrel, most consumers aren’t experienced enough to notice.

“People don’t want to do the work to find what’s the best whiskey on their palate. They want to be told,” said Lew Bryson, author of the book “Tasting Whiskey.” “Here’s somebody saying this one is the best, and everyone tries to get it. And prices just go up and up.”

In October 2012, according to the Web site Wine-Searcher, you could buy a bottle of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve for $152. Two months later, the price had tripled. By the following August, it was approaching $1,000.

Two months after that, Buffalo Trace management called the sheriff.

Nearly 200 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy had disappeared.

Kentucky Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker, left, and Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton respond to questions during the news conference about the theft and distribution of bourbon. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)
The investigation

The Franklin County sheriff’s office stands across the street from the disputed grave of Daniel Boone, which stands near a limestone cliff above the green Kentucky River, which leads north and west to Buffalo Trace. The fermenting liquor gives off the scent of old cornflakes.

Deputies interviewed more than 100 employees at the distillery, but the investigation dragged on for 17 months without an arrest. Then, in March, someone sent an anonymous tip to the sheriff’s Text-A-Tip line about an entirely different bourbon theft.

The informant reported seeing whiskey barrels at the home of Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, 44, a hometown boy who worked at Buffalo Trace for about 25 years. Once a fearsome slugger on an elite competitive softball team, Curtsinger was well known around Frankfort and well liked: Teammates said he gave them rides to the ballpark and whiskey in plastic jugs.

When deputies raided Curtsinger’s property, they found five barrels of bourbon near an outbuilding, according to the search warrant affidavit. Investigators later determined that the barrels had come from the Wild Turkey distillery down the river in Lawrenceburg. According to the tipster, they had been dropped off by a man who drove a Wild Turkey truck.

Inside Curtsinger’s house, deputies made another discovery, according to the affidavit: 18 guns, about $3,000 in cash and a safe full of anabolic steroids. There was also a bag of crushed blue pills — more steroids — in a silver heart-shaped box that belonged to Curtsinger’s wife, Julie, who ran a gym called Julie’s Fitness and Training Center.

Curtsinger was arrested that night and charged with receiving stolen property and possessing a controlled substance. He pleaded not guilty and went free on bond. He and his attorney, Whitney Lawson, declined to comment for this article. When approached by a reporter, Curtsinger threatened to call police.

Since then, prosecutors have filed nearly 400 pages of documents in Franklin County Circuit Court about the case, including a voluminous report by sheriff’s investigators, phone and text message logs, witness affidavits and the results of search warrants. This article is based on those documents, as well as interviews with half a dozen people with direct knowledge of the investigation, including the sheriff and the prosecutor.

The search of Curtsinger’s property turned up no stolen Pappy. But when sheriff’s deputies seized Curtsinger’s cellphone, “Mr. Curtsinger volunteered that they would think he stole the Pappy Van Winkle because he had several texts on his phone about selling it,” the sheriff’s report said. Curtsinger assured investigators “that those texts were just him joking about it.”

In addition to those text messages, sheriff’s deputies also found a brief exchange with a senior contact in the Frankfort Police Department. Investigators looking into the renegade Wild Turkey driver also found themselves circling back to the Frankfort police.

A co-worker at the Lawrenceburg distillery told them the driver had recently “sold some whiskey to some cops in Frankfort and that they were ‘running around together and they’re all supposed to be steroid freaks,’” according to a report filed by sheriff’s deputies. One of the officers, the report said, was a “Wells boy,” whom the co-worker described as a “big muscular guy.”

Deputies recognized the name. The Frankfort Police Department had a muscular officer named Mike Wells, who happened to be the department’s D.A.R.E. officer, assigned to teach children about the dangers of drug abuse.

Investigators found numerous calls to Wells on Curtsinger’s phone, including three from around the time deputies were raiding Curtsinger’s house. There were also text messages arranging a steroids transaction.

“Give me a total and I’ll hook up with ya,” Curtsinger wrote, according to the sheriff’s report.

“K will do,” Wells replied.

Sheriff’s deputies interviewed Wells, who admitted “going in on bulk orders of steroids” with Curtsinger, according to the sheriff’s report. So did Steve Oliver of the Kentucky State Police, last year’s Region 3 Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officer of the Year, the report said.

After an internal investigation, Wells resigned from the force. It was not clear whether Oliver kept his job; a state police spokesman said he would look into the matter. Neither Wells, his attorney nor Oliver responded to messages seeking comment.

A daring heist

Sheriff’s investigators offered no evidence that Wells or Oliver received any stolen bourbon. But they soon concluded that Curtsinger had not been joking about the stolen Pappy. In interviews with sheriff’s investigators, his co-workers at Buffalo Trace painted him as an exceptionally brazen thief who allegedly made off with huge quantities of the coveted liquor.

One former co-worker told investigators that Curtsinger lent money to colleagues and made them repay him with stolen Pappy. Another said Curtsinger paid him in Percocet and Adderall pills for assisting in a daring heist from Buffalo Trace that involved a forklift, a pallet of Eagle Rare whiskey and a tarp covering the loot in the bed of Curtsinger’s pickup.

Others said Curtsinger bragged about stealing bottles of Pappy that had been on display at the distillery. And Curtsinger’s former supervisor told investigators that she had long harbored suspicions.

After noticing that the Pappy Van Winkle inventory was short, the former supervisor told sheriff’s deputies that she found several cases behind a guardrail in the warehouse. She moved them, and Curtsinger accosted her, she said, according to the sheriff’s report: “He was demanding to know where the pallet had been moved and demanded access to it, despite not needing any for orders he was working to fill.”

Investigators also found evidence of multiple Pappy thieves at Buffalo Trace. One former employee admitted to conspiring a few years ago with a woman who controlled inventory numbers to conceal the theft of as many as 180 bottles of Pappy. Like the police officers, he avoided prosecution by agreeing to serve as a witness for the state.

Authorities gave no such deal to Curtsinger’s wife and father-in-law, who were indicted on charges of engaging in organized crime. Likewise, his softball buddy Dusty Adkins was charged with selling at least four barrels of bourbon to friends for $1,600 each.

In a tearful interview, Adkins said he had lost 20 pounds from the stress and had to borrow $7,000 from his mother to hire a lawyer. Customers of his flooring business had canceled jobs after seeing his name in the news.

“Do I have involvement in it? To a certain extent, I do,” Adkins said. “I’m just a small-town Kentucky boy, I promise you. When you got to borrow money off your mom to pay for a lawyer, you think I’m in a crime syndicate?”

Meanwhile, people who had seen news reports about the raid at Curtsinger’s place began coming out of the woodwork to turn in bottles of Pappy and other high-end bourbons they said they had purchased from Curtsinger.

The alleged customers came from all over Kentucky, according to court documents: There was a craft brewer in Lexington and a woman who bought a discounted barrel of bourbon as a Christmas present for her husband. Two brothers with a farm in Harrison County returned a barrel of Eagle Rare they had purchased for $1,500. An official at Buffalo Trace said that barrel was worth more than $11,000.

The evidence room at the Franklin County sheriff’s office quickly filled up with ill-gotten booze, including 26 bottles of Van Winkle family bourbons. They now lie, tenderly packed in bubble wrap, in plastic bins.

When the case is done, prosecutor Zachary Becker said they may all have to be destroyed. “It will pain me,” he said.

The number of recovered bottles falls far short of the 200 originally reported missing. The investigation is still ongoing, but Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton said most of the stolen Pappy will probably never be found.

“We think what we recovered is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

What happened to the rest? Wells, the former Frankfort police officer, told sheriff’s deputies an intriguing story: A few years ago, the Kentucky Tactical Officers Association was seeking donations for a charity raffle. Wells asked Curtsinger if he could get a bottle of Pappy. Curtsinger obliged, and Wells told sheriff’s deputies that he gave the whiskey to one of the association’s board members, a major in the Frankfort Police Department, for the raffle.

“This is pretty nice,” Wells claimed the major told him at the time. “I think I will keep it for my collection.”

Wells told investigators he doesn’t know what became of the bottle. Frankfort Police Chief Jeff Abrams said he investigated the claim and that the major denied it.

“Nobody remembers anything about it,” Abrams said.

If it ever existed, that bottle of Pappy was long gone.

Lake is a freelance writer. Alice Crites contributed to this report.