NC official: No go on Pappy Van Winkle auction was ‘learning experience’

Mark Solomon, wine and rare spirits director of Leland Little Auction House, stands in wine cellar at Hillsborough auction house.
Mark Solomon, wine and rare spirits director of Leland Little Auction House, stands in wine cellar at Hillsborough auction house. Courtesy of Leland Little Auctions

The state’s head alcohol control official said Thursday that putting the brakes on what was claimed to be the world’s largest auction of Pappy Van Winkle liquor was a learning experience.

In a phone interview Thursday, Robert Hamilton, administrator of the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, said, “I think this is part of a learning experience for everybody.”

A Hillsborough auction house pulled all but one bottle of the much sought-after Kentucky bourbon from its March 10 auction after state officials warned that the other bottles may not be legal to sell.

If you are just coming to this story, here’s the background:

On Feb. 23, Leland Little Auctions of Hillsborough received a special one-time permit from the state to hold a wine and whiskey auction on March 10. Their cover letter with the application only mentioned wine. A spreadsheet with the application listed all the wine and liquor bottles for sale by name, the vintage when applicable and the total number of bottles. The application did not include a description of each item or photos.

The next day, the auction house sent out a news release claiming it would be “the world’s largest auction” of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey to date. For those who don’t know, the Kentucky bourbon is coveted among whiskey drinkers. The heist and later recovery of $100,000 worth of Pappy Van Winkle made national headlines last year. (Here and Here).

The Leland Little Auctions’ sale was set to include about 100 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, which were assembled from collectors across the United States. The lots include 13-, 15-, 20- and 23-year Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve whiskey. The majority of those bottles came from another business, Wine-Liquidators, based in High Point, according to public records.

After news accounts about the auction came out on Feb. 29, state officials looked more closely at what was for sale. It turned out many of those bottles didn’t meet the requirements for when a collector is selling liquor under a special one-time permit. The law only allows the sale of “decorative decanters of spirituous liquor.”

So what does that mean? Hamilton explained: “They are not the traditional bottles that you would normally see in a liquor store unless it was a special edition.”

That doesn’t mean that the bottles you see at the liquor store cannot be sold under these special one-time permits, but Hamilton explained it is only allowed under specific circumstances: by a nonprofit at a fundraising event, by someone who acquires it via a court proceeding or by a permitted business liquidating its assets. The only items the state law allowed a collector to sell – in this case via an auctioneer – is wine or liquor in decorative bottles, Hamilton said.

The state agency has primarily one employee who reviews the special one-time permits, which average about 3,200 a year, according to Hamilton and the agency’s spokesperson, Agnes Stevens.

Once state officials realized there were items that should not be sold, Hamilton contacted the auction house owner, Leland Little. “He was very gracious and decided not to sell the questionable items,” Hamilton said.

Going forward, he added, “The permit specialist will be a little more cognizant of what actually is on those lists and try to keep it from getting to the point that occurred in this place.”

Mark Solomon, the auction house’s rare spirits and fine wine director, said Thursday: “We respect the difficult work Mr. Hamilton does and we will continue to provide the information that ABC requests to receive a permit.”

What is unclear is why state officials permitted earlier auctions by the Hillsborough business that included what appear to be non-decorative bottles of liquor. In early December, the auction house sold three bottles of Pappy Van Winkle: two 20-year bottles and one 15-year bottle for between $1,200 and $1,700 each. An auction in June included dozens of bottles of vodka, cognac, bourbon, gin, tequila and more; some without presentation boxes or decorative bottles.

Asked if those sales violated the law, Hamilton said, “I’m not going to answer that without doing more research.”

Hamilton said he didn’t expect this incident to prevent Little from being able to get special one-time permits in the future.

The auction starts at 6 p.m. March 10. The sale includes more than a dozen bottles of cognac, whiskey and other liquors – most with decorative boxes – and dozens of bottles of wine. The sale’s only remaining Winkle product is an Old Rip Van Winkle 23-year bourbon with a Glencairn crystal decanter, glasses and leather-lined presentation box, estimated to sell for $6,500.

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl