Whisky Advocate Exclusive: Kentucky Retailer Justins' House Of Bourbon Responds After TTB's Counterfeit Claims Are Dropped
May 17, 2023 –––––– Laura Pelner
After months of awaiting government clearance in an investigation that involved multiple state and federal agencies, Kentucky-based specialty whiskey retailer Justins’ House of Bourbon has been cleared for commerce in the nation’s capital. Justins’ is known in Kentucky—where it has stores in both Lexington and Louisville, which remain open—as a destination for rare and allocated bourbons. Outside the Bluegrass State, Justins’ owns a large space in Washington, D.C, where it manages bourbonoutfitter.com, an online retailer of rare whiskeys that can ship spirits nationwide. Justins’ came under fire a few months ago following allegations of selling counterfeit bourbon and improperly transporting and warehousing whiskeys.
Investigators from the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and the Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Control conducted investigations into Justins’ over the last several months, and officials from beverage control departments in Pennsylvania and Texas were also involved, as whiskeys were allegedly shipped to those states illegally. Kentucky news outlets initially reported that federal raids were conducted in both the Justins’ Kentucky stores and Washington, D.C. facility and that hundreds of bottles of Blanton’s and Weller bourbons were cited as being potentially counterfeit and transported illegally. Those claims have since been proven false, according to the owners of Justins’, who spoke publicly for the first time about the probe this week.
In an exclusive interview with Whisky Advocate, Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson, co-owners of Justins’ House of Bourbon with Philip Greer, say all previous reports about counterfeiting and illegal importing in Washington, D.C. are not true. “The case report alleged the possibility of counterfeit bottles and a counterfeit operation because of the quantities of allocated items we had,” Sloan explains. “That has come out to be not true. The bottles passed federal inspection and are cleared for commerce. All the channels we used were proper and in accordance with federal and Washington, D.C. regulations. We purchased the bottles from a reputable company overseas and we brought them in through the TTB COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) process and through customs. That’s completely legal.”
Thompson adds that the company complied with the investigation and was stunned by the way the entire ordeal played out. “We are experts and we have our pulse on the bourbon culture,” Thompson says. “It struck us as odd that folks would suggest that bottles of Blanton’s were being counterfeited. We haven’t seen any evidence that has proven there are organized counterfeiting efforts on a mass scale. These bottles have been scrutinized more than possibly any bottles in the history of bourbon retail and they’ve been cleared for commerce.”
Counterfeiting Blanton’s would be especially difficult, Thompson argues, because of the brand’s unusual bottle shape and closure. And he adds that there’s a lower return on investment for selling Blanton’s over other prestige bourbon labels, which makes the counterfeiting claims difficult to fathom. “We appreciate the folks involved in the investigation and we appreciate the laws in D.C., because they’re great for the consumer and great for the industry,” Thompson says. “We pay taxes when we bring in items like this. The process works well. We take a risk going into this type of business to be under scrutiny.”
The initial investigation looked at hundreds of bottles of Blanton’s and Weller that Justins’ reportedly obtained from a European company. Because the investigation has been ongoing since January, the Justins’ owners have been unable to comment until now, as Sloan says part of the deal in cooperating with authorities was not speaking about an open investigation. He adds that the silence came at a price, and definitely has affected business. Thompson adds the rush to judgement has been detrimental, too. “We hope that we are being vindicated with what the outcome has been in Washington, D.C.,” Thompson adds. “The process in D.C. has been thorough and fair, and we have the utmost reverence for the rule of law and will continue to provide necessary information and support to the investigation as we look forward to a resolution across the board.” The investigation in Kentucky is ongoing and neither Sloan nor Thompson can yet comment on that.
While the D.C. investigation has mostly wrapped up, Justins’ House of Bourbon is being hit with two $1,500 fines in Washington, D.C.—one for failure to maintain its books and records on-site in Washington, D.C. (they were kept in Kentucky, according to reports) and the other for failing to produce requested documents for the investigation within 48 hours. Sloan and Thompson have agreed to pay both fines as part of their settlement in the nation’s capital. In return, charges have been dismissed for misuse of an off-premise storage facility and for illegally transporting alcoholic beverages within the District of Columbia. State authorities involved in the probe have not issued any statements as of yet.
Justins’ House of Bourbon opened its first store in Kentucky in 2018 following the passage of Kentucky’s Vintage Distilled Spirits law, which grants private citizens the right to sell old spirits directly to licensed retailers—both liquor store owners and restaurant and bar owners. The law was created to allow people who inherit old spirits collections a recourse in selling them, but it has also created challenges in authenticating antique labels.