A Group Buy In Action (or: Behind The Scenes of a BTSO Blog Post)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak 3 landed a week ago, and in my original plan, I would have had a blog post up tonight discussing the ins and outs of release 3. Unfortunately, things transpired differently and I spent the better part of the last week with a cold that required acetaminophen (a terrible mixer with alcohol) and also killed my palate.

However, in my downtime I prepared the Buffalo Trace Single Oaks to split among our group buy. I thought since I’ve written about group buys before, I’d take the opportunity to show you what goes into one like this. I should also say this is, in my opinion, the very best way to do the Single Oak Project, given that there are 192 375mL bottles being released over a four year span.

Last fall I got a lead on a full case of the first release of the Single Oak Project. I contacted some of my friends – former coworkers who had some cash to burn and an adventurous spirit, as well as a couple guys in LAWS including (as always) Sku, who has been writing about this project as well over at Recent Eats. We did the math and figured that splitting a case 6 ways gave everybody just over 2 ounces per bottle, just enough to fit in the usual 2oz bottle you can get from Specialty.

From that point on it’s become a quarterly routine which should continue through until summer 2015 if my math is right. Twelve bottles become 72 sample bottles which are boxed up and handed out.

One of these boxes arrives every quarter and it’s hard to keep it closed for long. There’s something about the process of preparation that, while time-consuming, is an enjoyable ritual.

The bottles are numbered on the exterior and accompanied by a release number sticker. It seems that they planned to release them quicker initially than they have been doing. All of these have had release dates that are much earlier than they’ve actually been coming out.

Twelve bottles just waiting to be opened... the anticipation is overwhelming.

The bottles, unsurprisingly, come in standard Buffalo Trace fancy-bourbon-bottle tissue paper, which seems to only serve the purpose of obscuring barrel number (on BTSOs) or hiding valuable proof/release info (on BTACs).

Each bottle, as you’ve likely seen by now, is screened with the Single Oak Project logo and has a sticker with the barrel number.

The back label is the same for all bottles and has some information about the project. It’s worth noting that none of the Single Oak Project bottles contain any reference to the variables present on any given bottle. The intent is for you to taste them blind and learn about them on the Single Oak Project website.

Once they’re all removed from the package and paper, I then move onto the next step – photographing the bottles. I like doing this so I can have my own photographs of the bottles. Product photography is something I’ve never worked with (I studied photojournalism) so it’s an interesting challenge. Every time I set up, I tweak something different.

By real standards my approach is hopelessly low-fi. A few 200w balanced fluorescent lights, an off-camera flash, and some posterboard to provide a backdrop. I’m tolerant of some flaws in the photograph given that I also worked as a production artist for a while, so I have plenty of tricks to get the photos where I want in a matter of minutes.

A small piece of paper acts as a reflector to help pick up color.

It’s not much but there’s satisfaction in having the ability to shoot without taking up much space storing the gear in our apartment, and without having spent much money. (I think the bulbs were the single most expensive cost in the shooting setup).

I usually take the opportunity to shoot a couple other bottles that I may have soon so I can include them in posts. All in all it’s a fun diversion but it moves quickly. For the technically minded, I’ve been shooting on a Nikon D40 (due to the fact that it’s small and light) with an older 85mm f/1.4 lens which has been one of my favorites for a long time.

After the fun of photography comes the part that is both exciting and nerve-wracking: filling 72 small bottles. Making sure there are enough bottles, caps and labels on hand is important. I usually do a quick inventory beforehand. One thing that some guys are doing in our group buy is recycling their bottles. It helps, especially if they return them as I sent them, as there’s less prep work. Plus, less bottles equal less wasted cash and space – at least to my mind. I’m also not one to keep these lingering around for a long time.

The filling station, where the next two hours will be spent.

Filling is an interesting balancing act. You need to quiet the part of your mind that says “what if I spill this?” – a voice that is very loud when you know every drop is accounted for and finding these bottles is not exactly easy. If you don’t spill something with a missed pour, maybe you’ll knock over a sample bottle – or worse yet – THE bottle. I’ve found the best thing for me is to just breathe slowly and evenly, move very deliberately and not let go until I know things are stable and flat on a surface. Moving without hesitation on a pour also helps.

This is probably the most nerve wracking process and the best thing to do, at least for me, is to try and remain present and focused strictly on the mechanics of what’s going on. Tracking your progress on the bottle or the set of bottles can cause you to lose focus and make mistakes. It’s this exercise in grounding yourself and being present that is the most difficult part but simultaneously one of the most rewarding.

This would be a hell of a time to get the yips.

After two ounces have been poured in, the remainder of the bottle is poured in in small measures using a plastic 5mL pipette that came with some whisky glass order. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for the intended purpose of painstakingly measuring artisan waters flown in from the north of Scotland, but it’s useful here to get everybody full and even.

After filling, bottles are capped and labeled.

After about six bottles I need to stop and clear my head and get a breath. I take the opportunity to clean up the counter where I’m working and wash out the bottles so the bourbon smell isn’t too overpowering in the kitchen. Sometimes I get clear notes off of the bourbons (release 2), sometimes I don’t get much unique from bourbon to bourbon (release 3 didn’t have an overwhelming character aside from one bottle that smelled great). I usually will take a break at this point because it’s been about an hour – each bottle takes roughly 10 minutes to fill, counting cleanup time after each bottle.

Using the whole buffalo: Box parts are used as dividers.

After pouring and cleaning up, the next step is to parcel each set of 12 bottles into a box that will be given to each of the six guys. To protect the bottles, I cut up pieces of the box that the bottles shipped in to act as dividers among the smaller bottles.

Heat shrink wraps are used to further protect the contents as well. After all of that, it’s basically done aside from the delivery of bottles to their recipients.

I hope you enjoyed the opportunity to see a bit of an unboxing and some of what goes into these BTSO releases. It’s a few hours of work but it’s a really enjoyable process and heightens my anticipation as I go through it. I’m sure in a year or two I’ll be singing a different tune, but for now it’s a very exciting point on my calendar.

I’ll be back soon with reviews of Round 3 as well as other whiskies. Until then, after all this work (and now getting over the cold) – it’s time for a drink.

Don't forget to recycle!

9 thoughts on “A Group Buy In Action (or: Behind The Scenes of a BTSO Blog Post)”

  1. Wow!  I knew your were doing this but laying it all out this way really demonstrates how painstaking the whole process is.  Thanks!

    1. Of course. Truly not a “hey guys, pay attention to what I’m doing” thing, more of a deeper look.. Given the skepticism BTSO has been met with of late, I thought I’d at least document some of the ins and outs of the product, and it happened to dovetail nicely with a process post. As with everything it’s half for my own enjoyment to document it but I thought it might be interesting to others. 

  2. Great post, quite the arduous process! I can relate to the satisfaction this kind of activity can result in; still very impressive. You have to be listening to music while you’re doing this…?

    1. Funny you should mention that as I almost noted that in the blog post. Yes, absolutely. During shooting it was Neil Young’s Harvest, filling was a doubleheader of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE and then the recently-released Beach Boys SMiLE Sessions. Aside from “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”/”Fire” it was a pretty decent choice. 

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing.  Splitting the case was a great call on this BTSO project.  I wish I had thought of that and had more bourbonite friends who would be into it.  Your process is meticulous and probably stressful but in other ways I bet it’s very enjoyable and a good way to take your mind off of everything else in life. 

    1. I’m fortunate in that I had enough people on hand who were willing to join up. I think there was a lot of curiosity but no one was willing to fork over the cash and take the risk on that many bottles. (Release one would have probably been the end for me). 

      It’s really interesting to observe how the mind and body work when you do something like this – I wonder if it’s like being a golfer and having a putt that’s sinkable but requires concentration. Probably like shooting free throws as well: you can do it, you’ve done it many times before, but your brain just starts saying “what if I miss?” 

      For me it’s all about getting in the moment and trying to shut that down, focusing strictly on the act of pouring and moving things, paying attention and listening. It’s relaxing but it also can be a brain-melter after an hour. The halfway-point break is pretty key. 

  4. Very helpful.  If you ever need a person to join in to fill the spot of someone who has to leave, let me know!

Leave a Reply