PARIS—La Maison du Whisky—the “house of whisky”—is a high-end shop on a back street. The French president’s palace and various government offices devoted to intelligence and law enforcement are nearby, and on a weekend the neighborhood is very, very quiet.
At 3:16 last Sunday morning, when it appears nobody was around but surveillance cameras were working, two people broke into the shop with relative ease to pull off a stunning heist.
In all, they reportedly took 69 bottles estimated by the French press to be worth €673,000, or $794,000. Clearly, they knew what they wanted as they stowed the loot in a couple of sports bags and took off: The big-ticket item they were after wasn’t Scotch, bourbon, Irish, rye, or Canadian whiskey. It was a super-rare Japanese whisky they wanted.
According to a press release from the Maison du Whisky there are only 41 bottles in the world of Karuizawa 1960, known as “The Squirrel,” which comes in a bottle with a little gold box hanging around its neck. Because of its rarity, it could be deemed priceless, but the mercenary French press calculated its value at about €195,000 ($230,000).
The Daily Beast’s Tokyo correspondent, Jake Adelstein, who is something of a connoisseur, reports that the distillery was founded in 1955 in the summer resort area of Karuizawa. It produced single malts aged 12, 15, and 17 years, but the distillery closed for good in November 2011—just before the Japanese whisky boom took off. All the stock was sold in 2012. Water from nearby mountains, and sherry barrels for aging, gave Karuizawa a distinctive taste according to Japan’s Whisky Magazine.
So, to recapitulate: Burglars stole some very pricey Japanese whisky from a store in Paris, France. Viewed from outside, that may sound very globalized, but a bit strange. After all, this is a nation famous for wine, cognac, and pastis, perhaps—for its Champagne tastes, if you will. Not whisky drinking.
But the truth is, many French love the stuff. The billboards in the Paris metro are plastered with ads for Four Roses and Jack Daniel’s. At dinner parties, single malt Scotch is not only common, it’s almost mandatory as an aperitif.
“It’s always been a niche market,” says Tim Johnston, a Scotsman who has spent 50 years in the wine and spirits business here, but he notes there are quite a few Gauls who obsess about it.
He draws a parallel between French connoisseurs of Scotch whisky and British connoisseurs of French wines. They study it, they compare it, they revere it as something quite extraordinary in their lives because they didn’t grow up with it as part of their lives.
On Wednesday, the staff of the Maison du Whisky were doing business as if nothing had happened on Sunday, but refused to talk about any aspect of the case. The public relations firm handling press inquiries would not speculate about who might have been behind the theft, and the police are mum.
But the Maison du Whisky is distributing a photograph of the Karuizawa 1960 bottle as if it were a missing person or a stolen masterpiece, hoping that will make it harder to fence.
One should note that wine theft is an old problem in France (usually from private cellars), and whiskey theft from an upscale shop is not that different, Johnston suggests.
“It’s like people who steal paintings: they already sold these bottles, they’ve already got the end user,” he told The Daily Beast at his little wine boutique and bistrot, Juveniles (where haggis is on the gourmet menu as a homage to his Scottish roots). “There’s someone who has been coveting this whisky, thinking, ‘How do I get it?’” And then, through some underworld connection, the opportunity arose.
As for the motives of the burglars themselves? They’re probably like most wine thieves, who have little expertise beyond the ability to read labels by flashlight.
As Johnston speculated, “They just went for the money.”