There exists, on Facebook, a black market for expensive and rare whiskeys. It’s been around a while, but I learned about it a few months back, when I started hunting Pappy Van Winkle, one of the rarest bottles of bourbon out there, and someone told me about a group where bottles were bought and sold like hotcakes. I didn’t join the group until later, but now I wish I had right away. It would have helped find Pappy Van Winkle. It is a very interesting place. It might not be around much longer.

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The group I joined has more than 10,000 members. It is one of the largest of the current crop of secret Facebook black market bourbon groups, or as people online call them, “secondary markets,” of which there are quite a few. These are splinters of the previous largest group, BSM, or Bourbon Secondary Market, which was shut down by Facebook in June of 2019, just before 46 state attorneys general signed letters urging Facebook, eBay and Craigslist to crack down on illegal alcohol sales.

BSM had run for a handful of years and had upwards of 55,000 members when it was removed. It wasn’t the first secondary whiskey market. Before that, there was BX, which succeeded Bourbon Exchange, the first major Facebook whiskey buy/sell/trade group, which was created in 2013 and shut down in 2016. Before that, most whiskey buying, trading and selling was done on Craigslist, or eBay, before those markets were shut down, too. Before that, collectors posted classified ads in newspapers.

Plenty of scotch and Japanese whisky is bought and sold, too.

The factors behind today’s Facebook black market are basically the same as those that drove classifieds, but amplified. Massive FB groups were co-created by the rabid fans of the Bourbon Boom of the 2000s and early 2010s, who wanted more interesting or rare whiskeys than they could find at their local liquor stores; and by brands who build their prestige and profits by keeping production insanely low on their more intriguing releases; and by state and federal governments, who want to control the sale of such dangerous things as bottles of bourbon.

In this market, brands can serve as both enablers and narcs. In 2019, Buffalo Trace, whose Antique Collection, Pappy Van Winkle line and Weller series have extremely high demand and extremely low supply, and which therefore represent a sizeable percentage of the bottles bought and sold on these black market groups, released a statement alongside the release of its Pappy Van Winkle bottles. To paraphrase it: They asked retailers not to mark its price up (they still did), and threatened to sue the enthusiasts who bought and sold it illegally online (they still did it).

Yes, selling alcohol online is illegal. But I can’t find one example of someone being arrested for a crime in connection with the shutting down of a black market group.

The group I joined is private, but its moderators let me join even though my Facebook page identifies me as a freelance writer and a former editor at Gear Patrol. This lack of stringency isn’t surprising. Yes, selling alcohol online is illegal. But I can’t find one example of someone being arrested for a crime in connection with the shutting down of a black market group. Facebook simply deletes the group, and its members scurry to newer, more fragmented, still-operating groups. People do get arrested for illegal alcohol sales — for instance, a man who was caught by a STING operation in 2017 in my home state of Pennsylvania while trying to sell bottles on Craigslist. On Facebook, though, the general feeling among people I talked to was that participating in these groups was illicit enough to feel a little fun, but not to warrant time in the Big House. What were the feds gonna do — throw 10,000 blue-collar dads in jail?

Still, secrecy reigns. “The first rule of fight club is don’t talk about fight club,” said Fred Minnick, whiskey writer, community member and editor-in-chief of Bourbon+ magazine. “There’s still a lot of mystery in this world. A lot of it should probably stay that way.”

But many people who are in these groups talked to me, albeit anonymously. Almost everyone I spoke to imagined that, like the large groups before them, the current Facebook groups would probably soon be shut down. Against a pressure campaign from states, the federal government and Facebook, the remaining slices of the black market seem to be sitting ducks. Shortly after I joined the group, an excellent writer named Aaron Goldfarb published a piece in Esquire titled “You Can Thank Facebook for Bourbon. You Can Thank It For Ruining Bourbon, Too.” In it, Goldfarb lays out the history of secret online groups, and their important role in the Bourbon Boom of the 2000s and 2010s. The jig feels up.

Makeshift code obfuscates transactions between buyers and sellers.

There was an extensive set of rules regarding how business could be done in the group I joined, including the first and most apocryphal: NO ALCOHOL SALES! Users practiced some paper-thin jiggery-pokery to work around this golden rule; sometimes, for posts advertising the most exciting and expensive whiskeys, people ignored this rule and post about selling them directly. The group was extremely active — I counted upwards of 15 posts every day. People sold whiskeys, or they traded them, or they posted bottles they were looking to buy or trade for. These deals were done in a mixture of code and clever wordplay that was easy to parse after a few tries.

Members told me stories of someone trading a Corvette for 23 bottles of Pappy’s 23 Year Old, and of a group raising over $100,000 for the family of a beloved member who passed away from cancer.

Because the group is private, and because I don’t want to dime them out, and for my own safety — Goldfarb has received death threats for writing basic facts about certain groups’ methods — I won’t say too many specifics about the comings and goings there. It’s a shame, because the group had all the fascinating community drama of any blackmarketplace. People haggled over $5 or $10 in an $800 purchase, and wouldn’t budge an inch either way. Entire cases of bottles like Weller 12 posted at a reasonable price (say, $110 each) were snapped up in two minutes flat. I saw bottles listed for as cheap as $45 and as much as $12,000. Long debates and minor squabbles broke out over whose auction bid technically won a bottle, requiring CSI-like inspection of timestamps and a close reading of the group’s bylaws. Overpriced bottles elicited shaming in the form of crying laughing emojis, or worse, no comments at all — e-crickets.

There was almost none of the snark and sneering that goes on in the public bourbon groups, where selling is not allowed. The tone was professionally straightforward — most comments focused on haggling, clarifying or bidding. A bit like drunk antiques roadshow.

Buying multiple bottles of Yamazaki 18 at $550 a piece.

But keeping an eye on things for a couple weeks brought surprises. One post, about acquiring a specific special edition bottle to honor a premature baby’s birthday — eventually that tiny little girl will be 21 — turned into a minor charity cause, then a support group for the father, with parents of premature kids and far worse tragedies chiming in to say simply that it gets better.

“I’ve seen some wild drama, both good and bad,” said Goldfarb. Members told me stories of someone trading a Corvette for 23 bottles of Pappy’s 23 Year Old, and of a group raising over $100,000 for the family of a beloved member who passed away from cancer.

The commonest argument against the groups, though, is more broad and comes from within the world of whiskey fandom: that the Facebook groups have “ruined” whiskey by inspiring hordes of collectors to chase after the same rare bottles, and therefore have driven up price and sucked up all the good juice.

Then there is the bad stuff. At the top of most collectors’ minds are the cases of counterfeit or refilled bottles that were sold in the past, causing major controversy within the groups. “Every so often a fraud gets found — counterfeiting bottles, setting up a fake charity, lying about his premature daughter to get free bottles,” Goldfarb told me. The government’s case against such groups is that they could allow the sale of liquor that’s been tampered with, or that expensive bottles of rare whiskeys could be bought by minors.

(Notable: the self-policing that happens with these groups. After counterfeit and refilled bottles started showing up in recent years, a small crew started tracking all empty bottle sales on Craigslist and eBay, cross-checking those bottle numbers against “new” bottles being sold on the group, and subsequently outed at least one counterfeiter. Bans happen all the time for people who comment inappropriately or refuse to follow posting rules. Groups that do not allow sales and only focus on the value of bottles for reference have sprung up. “I noticed the prices were vastly different among groups,” wrote Pete Koma, the founder of one group, BSM — Value Reference Only. “The group is strictly meant to stand the test of time. When all the buy/sell/trade groups are shut down, the data will remain.”)

Users often post bottles without providing references or names of the bottle they’re selling, meaning buyers must be able to identify specific expressions at a glance.

The commonest argument against the groups, though, is more broad and comes from within the world of whiskey fandom: that the Facebook groups have “ruined” whiskey by inspiring hordes of collectors to chase after the same rare bottles, and therefore have driven up price and sucked up all the good juice.

That is a double-edged sword. Yes, the Bourbon Boom has increased the price of bottles drastically. Prices of George T. Stagg, for instance, used to sell for around $150 in the first Bourbon Exchange Facebook group. In my group, they went for $400. But the same people collecting at more expensive rates are the heart and soul of the culture and passion that makes up whiskey-drinking and collecting culture today. Without them and their thirst for the good stuff, there would be far fewer whiskey bars, whiskey publications and blogs, or new rare and interesting releases (some of which are overpriced hype machinations, some of which are fantastic) today. Some people claim they miss the “good old days,” when the culture was smaller. There’s no going back now.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten emails about hipsters in flannel shirts stealing up Pappy,” Blake Riber, who created and runs the whiskey blog Bourbonr, told me. “I know the demographics. It’s not that.”

Where will things go from here? If Facebook continues to close the largest groups, the slow fragmentation and disintegration of the marketplace will continue. The power of the Facebook groups is drawn from the fact that everyone and their mother is on Facebook these days, all day. If Facebook shuts down whiskey-trading groups entirely, it’s reasonable the base that makes its way over to dedicated non-social-media websites will slim to a fraction of its former self. But illicit whiskey trading, like life, finds a way. Maybe it’s into even smaller micro-communities, living in group text messages, slack, or hipchat. Maybe this won’t change the culture much. Or maybe it will have a chilling effect on the bacchanal of bourbon and rare whiskey we live in today. Maybe it will be the beginning pop of the Bourbon Boom bubble.


New buyers and sellers are asked in the comments section to provide references from other users to ensure they’re good for shipping or paying on time.

Or maybe, just maybe, the community could glom onto new legislation to go legit. In 2017, Kentucky passed a Vintage Spirits Law, which allows private collectors to circumvent the “three-tier system” (whiskey sold from distillers, to distributors, to retailers) and sell “vintage” spirits directly to a retailer, bar or another private collector. This seems to open up a legal secondary market for unopened “vintage” spirits, which simply must be something that is no longer for sale on the three-tier market. (This type of qausi-market already exists for selling beer.) At least one dedicated off-Facebook marketplace based in Kentucky seems to be in the works. It’s unclear what it will look like, and what kind of whiskey culture it will create.

Fred Minnick already talks about the Facebook secondary markets in past tense. They’re not the same as they once were, he says. When he looks back on them, he says, “they showed a passion, a side of people in American whiskey that the distillers could never, ever understand. Whiskey is much bigger than the brands, than Facebook. It’s big. It’s not about the bottles. It’s about the culture, the people gathering. These groups — they were our community where we huddled.”

In the meantime, the fascinating cultural heart of rare whiskey will continue to beat on in their thinly veiled illicit Facebook pages, where people like me can learn about little-known bottles like Cream of Kentucky, I.W. Harper 15 Year, or “dusty” vintage bottles of A.H. Hirsch, and can build their own collections, make online friends who share their passion or just watch with fascination as it all goes down.

I wish I could keep lurking until the very end. After I reached out over Facebook chat to the admins of the secret group I’d joined, I received a polite response. “Hi Chris not exactly sure what you mean,” they wrote. “It’s against FB policy to sell alcohol and we don’t allow that on our page.” Then I was banned.