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Court order let troubled Kentucky bourbon retailer sell bottles without vintage license

Tips on what to look for on the label when you are buying Kentucky bourbon and what to avoid. If you are a beginner, this guide will help you pick the best bourbon bottle for your money. By Janet Patton

 

 

 

 

In our In the Spotlight stories, Herald-Leader journalists bring you continuing coverage of news and events important to our Central Kentucky community. Read more. Story idea? hlcityregion@herald-leader.com.

 

 

 

 

A judge on Friday issued an emergency restraining order that allowed a troubled bourbon retailer to sell vintage spirits over the crucial Kentucky Derby weekend despite not having a newly required license.

Justins’ House of Bourbon, which is fighting a Kentucky Alcohol Beverage Control action to take away its licenses for alleged illegal alcohol sales and shipping, said without the restraining order they retailer would go under.

Thousands of tourists flocked to Kentucky during the run-up to the 150th Kentucky Derby in Louisville on May 4, and businesses such as bourbon retailers hoped to take advantage of their thirst for souvenirs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The order, issued on May 3 by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Wingate, blocked the Kentucky ABC regulators from “taking any adverse action against (Justins’ House of Bourbon) for failure to have a Vintage Distilled Spirits license,” which the stores apparently do not have at the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The order also required Justins’ to post a $1,000 bond.

Justins’ House of Bourbon case on-going

A closed sign on the front door of Justins’ House of Bourbon at 601 West Main St. in downtown Lexington, photographed Jan. 19, 2023. The vintage liquor was raided by the ABC after “complaints alleging several violations associated with Justin’s House of Bourbon for the improper acquisition, possession, transport, and sale of bourbon, including Vintage Distilled Spirits.”
A closed sign on the front door of Justins’ House of Bourbon at 601 West Main St. in downtown Lexington, photographed Jan. 19, 2023. The vintage liquor was raided by the ABC after “complaints alleging several violations associated with Justin’s House of Bourbon for the improper acquisition, possession, transport, and sale of bourbon, including Vintage Distilled Spirits.” Janet Patton jpatton1@herald-leader.com

The restraining order came in a lawsuit filed last summer by two of the owners of Justins’ House of Bourbon, Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson, over seizure in January 2023 of more than 600 bottles of vintage spirits from their stores in Lexington and Louisville.

They are suing Kentucky ABC, which is seeking to take away their alcohol licenses based on nine alleged violations of Kentucky beverage laws. A third JHOB owner, Lexington developer Lee Greer, is not party to the lawsuit.

New Kentucky regulations on vintage, rare bourbons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In April, Gov. Andy Beshear signed into a law an amendment to Kentucky’s Vintage Distilled Spirits act that are designed to tighten regulations on vintage sales and curtail large-scale rare bourbon purchases.

This came after a Herald-Leader investigation found that some retailers were purchasing hundreds of hard-to-find but not rare or old Buffalo Trace bourbon bottles including Weller, Blanton’s and Pappy Van Winkle from the same individuals over and over.

One of the law’s new requirements: All vintage sellers had to apply by for a supplementary $300 vintage distilled spirits license.

Justins’ House of Bourbon vintage license in limbo

According to the motion for temporary injunction filed on May 3 in Franklin Circuit Court by Justins’ House of Bourbon, they applied for their new license on April 22 but heard nothing back before the May 1 deadline.

On May 2, they were told that ABC’s administrator “is awaiting the resolution of your administrative case (to take away Justins’ license) before taking action on your pending application.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justins’ immediately sought the restraining order to stop the ABC from taking punitive action against them for not having the license, arguing that the “non-decision” is “not only arbitrary, but entirely retaliatory” since Kentucky ABC had approved in October 2023 the annual retailers’ license for Justins’ House of Bourbon. At the time, that was the only license needed at the time to buy and sell vintage bottles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is unclear if Justins’ stopped selling vintage spirits until they received the emergency temporary restraining order.

Tom Bullock, attorney for Justins’ House of Bourbon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Justins’ argued in its motion that ABC has the power to approve or deny a license, which could be challenged, but not the power to hold a decision in abeyance.

Without a vintage license, Justins’ House of Bourbon would close, the owners said.

Kentucky Derby weekend big for bourbon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“JHOB will be unable to operate its business. This upcoming weekend, May 3-6, 2024, is the Kentucky Derby, which is JHOB’s busiest and biggest-revenue time of the year. If JHOB is unable to perform its Vintage Distilled Spirits business operations — the vast majority of JHOB’s business — it will suffer immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage,” co-owner Justin Sloan said in an affidavit accompanying the motion. “Without its Vintage Distilled Spirits business operations, JHOB will not be able to stay in business.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wingate granted the emergency restraining order, which allowed Justins’ House of Bourbon to sell vintage bottles over the Kentucky Derby weekend.

Justin Thompson, left and Justin Sloan, right, opened Justins’ House of Bourbon at the corner of Jefferson and West Main streets in 2018.
Justin Thompson, left and Justin Sloan, right, opened Justins’ House of Bourbon at the corner of Jefferson and West Main streets in 2018. Charles Bertram 2018 staff file photo

What happens next in Justins’ House of Bourbon case

The order stops the ABC from taking any action until either their administrative case is finalized or until there are further orders from Wingate’s court.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 22 in Franklin Circuit Court.

The Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet, which is the parent of the ABC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

 

 

 

 

According to the filing, Kentucky ABC agents have visited the stores on “a near-bi-weekly basis since September 7, 2023,” which was approximately when Wingate ordered ABC to return the 640 bottles of rare bourbons and other spirits that were seized. But Justins’ is still barred from selling any of the bottles, which are considered evidence in the on-going administrative case.

More than 600 bottles of bourbon seized by Kentucky Alcohol Beverage Control in January 2023 from Justins’ House of Bourbon’s stores in Lexington and Louisville have been returned. But the vintage retailer still can’t sell them.
More than 600 bottles of bourbon seized by Kentucky Alcohol Beverage Control in January 2023 from Justins’ House of Bourbon’s stores in Lexington and Louisville have been returned. But the vintage retailer still can’t sell them. Court filings
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