Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project: The Unceremonious End

Over the last year, I’ve been reviewing the rounds of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. While many have been skeptical of this project, I have defended it as I didn’t see it as any more or less crassly commercial than the rest of the industry’s various projects and exclusives. I still think it’s a long way from collections that are as vulgar as the Dalmore Constellation collection, for that matter.

However, over the last few months, my tasting group has had participants drop out. I didn’t think this was a problem at the time – I know tons and ton of whiskey aficionados, surely replacing the drop-outs wouldn’t be a huge effort. And yet it was. For every replacement seat secured, another participant dropped out. While most of it was covered, it ended up being one short on a rolling basis.

Unfortunately, that’s where I have to know when to fold my hand.

Even if I did secure every seat, that’s for one round. The most die-hard whiskey fans I know couldn’t sustain interest past four releases. The prospect of chasing down willing participants seemingly endlessly for three years on a quarterly basis doesn’t sound like a fun time to me.

So, I am forced to revisit the question of the Single Oak Project. Yes, it’s interesting. Yes, it’s audacious. But if it’s not possible to drum up sustained interest among the nerdiest and most passionate of bourbon lovers, how will the project sustain interest for the next three years? As a casual consumer, you’re picking blind. The only guy who seems to be continuing to have coverage is Christopher Null over at Drinkhacker - and that’s just one opinion out there. I know I will not be buying individual bottles blind; it misses the point of the project.

So the project adds one more unaccounted-for variable: inconsistency among palates. Maybe Buffalo Trace thought this through and there will be separate cohorts analyzed, but I doubt it. Maybe Buffalo Trace is happy to roll the dice based on near-random consumer input with very little control data, but a one in 192 shot is utterly awful odds at finding “The Perfect Bourbon”. It’s better than the lottery by a fair shot, but it’s about 6 times worse odds than roulette tables.

For me, this seems to be the end of the project. I would have been interested to follow it through, but the economics are prohibitive – $600 a case every four months? I’m not going to pay close to $2500 a year for bourbon I only need about 60mL of to understand in the context of SIngle Oak, and I don’t have the space to store such a huge amount of whiskey for such an ongoing time. 54 liters of bourbon remaining in 3 years is too tall an order – to say nothing of the $7500 buy-in it would require.

So, unfortunately, this is the end for the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project coverage here, as far as I can see it. Managing a group buy and filling minis, photographing bottles and so on – I’m not going to miss that one bit. I will miss the bit-by-bit experimentation, but $100 a quarter was as high as I would go on it.

Your best bet for future coverage is at Drinkhacker as linked above, and it seems like a few liquor store owners are quietly making their way through the flights.

Good luck, Buffalo Trace. If a release for the aficionados can’t generate and sustain aficionado interest, those three years of remaining inventory have to be looking slightly larger.

13 thoughts on “Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project: The Unceremonious End”

    1. Best of luck. I’d love to continue but the economics don’t work with less than a 6 person group for me. Too much work to keep that many people interested. With as many die-hards as I know, I’m surprised how difficult it ended up being to sustain interest.

  1. As a member of Tim’s original group, I thought I’d just weigh in on what BTSO represented, but ultimately failed to deliver, to me. For the record, I’m no expert on bourbon or any spirit for that matter. I happen to drink a solid amount of whiskey (both cheap and expensive) for taste and for sport, much in the same way that an avid amateur chef visits both the best local taqueria and Alinea. Additionally, I don’t really care about being a collector. As Tim has mentioned in previous posts, it’s probably best to just drink what you have instead of hoarding it.

    BTSO, to me, appeared to be a great opportunity to explore both the craft and the taste of bourbon. It’s Cartesian approach to the different variables also appealed immensely to my inner scientist. The price was a bit steep, but the chance to taste a dozen “different” bourbons on a regular basis for the price of a high quality Scotch compelled me, so I signed up.

    The short of the tasting experience was that I couldn’t muster the endurance nor the palate required for such a task. Tasting a dozen bourbons, some utterly awful, others well into the B-range, in a day proved impossible. I tried splitting it over two and then three sittings, hoping that the spacing would afford my palate the time to recover from the terrible bottles and to savor the memory of the good ones. No such luck. All it did was make it nearly impossible to draw correlations between bottles and variables, even with copious notes. Fatigue became the primary concern for rounds 1-3.

    In the end, I barely got through round 4, as suited as it’s syrupy, sweet samples were to my palate. The fatigue wasn’t an issue since almost all of round 4 was palatable, but the value proposition was. In the 48 samples I had tried, only 7 made the B- cut for me, and only three of those would merit purchasing a 750. For the first time, I had to seriously weigh a new round against the rest of my wish list. Would I really want a dozen potentially undrinkable bourbons instead of a bottle of Kilchoman? Or bottles of High West’s Bourye and Campire? When I reviewed my notes and could find no “aha” moments, I knew the jig was up. The lack of didactic value with hit-or-miss taste just wasn’t going to work.

    Ultimately, I was ready to stick it out as long as Tim was willing to do the leg work of bottling and shipping the samples. (I’m terrible when it comes to sunk costs.) From a variance-of-experience perspective, I’m glad I can put that money to a more consistently-enjoyable use.

  2. Tim, your coverage on the SOP has been the best out there. You know my thoughts on this project since jumpstreet. I won’t beat a dead horse but I will say that if BT did the legwork, picked the 10-12 best, and released them over a period, I would have been a lot more into it. Its just too too much the way it was done.

    BT should send then to you and keep it going.

    1. Hey Jason, thanks for the note. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this project. I think I was isolated from the reality of the project because I had a solid tasting group running. Without that core driving things, the economics of this really fall apart for me. Since I’ve seen it be hit or miss in the extreme (though R4 was pretty across-the-board good, it’s nothing I’m interested in picking up a handful of bottles here or there on. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing project for me and my coverage, and the “all” costs are completely broken.

      I’ll be interested to see how it pans out. I’d love to continue covering it, but I doubt BT would decide to send samples since I’ve yet to give an A grade and have freely dispensed Cs to this point.

  3. You did great work on these. They should make you a Kentucky Colonel just for the reviews you’ve done so far.

    1. Thanks much, and thanks for being part of the group, it was fun to compare notes with you on this one.

      I couldn’t possibly be a Kentucky Colonel. Cowdery has that angle covered and I’d just be some dumb Johnny-come-latey blogger. ;)

  4. I am sorry to see your coverage end, but I can surely appreciate why. I’ve only tried two different casks myself, and trying to find them is problematic. Unless of course, I want to pay $99 plus $20 shipping for random bottles on eBay. One of the two I tried was frankly not worth the price (#56). After chasing around trying to find some, I went and bought a regular bottle of Buffalo Trace, which was better than 56, much cheaper, and easier to find.

    So to me the real problem now is that third parties are buying up the available stock and selling them for twice the price. Even if I knew I was buying a decent bottle, it’s still an expensive bourbon. And if I run into any more like #56, it is surely not worth the money (Canadian Mist would be better). The limited releases are not helping BT any, in fact I’d bet it hurts the project in the long run. They should just release the whole darn thing and be done with it, and let the chips fall where they may.

    1. Fortunately, availability and pricing were not a problem for me on this one (I seem to be in the minority, but I guess telling a dealer “I’d like to buy at the case level every quarter for the next four years” got some traction). However, as you note, the secondary market is off the mark on this one. With all due respect to Buffalo Trace, there’s nothing in here that even comes close to commanding pricing at the going rate for BTAC. Double that on the secondary market is insanity.

      I personally think this one is risky and uninteresting if you’re going it alone – I can’t think of any whisky release that demands group buys. And yet, as I noted, getting a coherent group together is like pulling teeth. Having 48 bourbons and none making a credible threat on excellence is also a problem.

      I don’t really know what Buffalo Trace’s plan is, and I think the answer has to be that there was a stacked deck and they have their picks. I could be wrong, but if I’m not – their sample size is going to be awfully small to base a bourbon release on, from what I can see on the site.

      My friend Timon (commented below) really hits this one for me. This was a huge time and effort commitment for a series of bourbons that in the first 25% didn’t reveal anything great. While I could try and chase down the remainders at shocking personal expense and time, I think I’m just going to enjoy some of the other great releases that come out regularly. It’s not like there’s a shortage of excellent whiskies out there…

      I’ll be interested to see what happens, but I’m somewhat relieved to not have to make a massive push to portion and distribute and photograph every 3 months.

      1. Epilog: A few weeks ago, after inquiring directly with BT, I went to the local distributor they recommended to pick up a few bottles of release #5. From DrinkHacker, we know release 5 is all from casks cut from the top of the tree. I picked the best 3 he recommended and drove them home for a test. Either release 5 really sucks, or this whole experiment is just a waste of time and money. I still think the standard buffalo trace whiskey at $20 a fifth is just as good as anything I’ve tasted from single oak. I even gave a couple 2 oz bottles to a friend to sample, and he couldn’t tell the difference. Worse, according to the guy who emailed me, they won’t sell any release #6 in California until they finish unloading release 5. So I’m done with this bourbon. Sad, sad, sad.

        1. That’s tough, and I’m sorry to hear it. I didn’t have any of release five, so I unfortunately can’t provide any additional insight as to the relative quality of it versus the others. As I said, I think the best way is to do a split, because as you’ve experienced firsthand, there’s a lot of these you don’t want 375ml of sitting around. Unfortunately for many (including me these days), that’s not much of an option.

          As to Drinkhacker, I’ve become aware that our palates differ fairly significantly. He seems to like most of these much more than I do; none of these have been knocking on A-level territory for me and I believe he’s handed out a few in the meantime. I later went back and looked at his other scores to get a sense of things and saw a fair difference in our respective palates – Rebel Yell a B+ on his and barely a straight C for me; Weller 2011 a flat B on his scale and an A- on mine, and so on.

          It’s for reasons like palate uniqueness that I wish BTSO could be covered by more people because the law of averages says there has to be something decent in there; but as he says in his review of round 6, he is apparently the only person still covering them. Best of luck to him.

          I agree that the distribution of these could become thorny. I’ve still seen release 3 on some shelves and you know those stores aren’t about to pony up and order several more cases of subsequent rounds.

          I have no idea what the future holds for the project but I hope it produces some worthwhile result. Sorry though that you got burned on it. I can’t say I’m missing these as the money is available for some really fun single malts and other releases now…

          1. Another Epilog? Fast forward 7 months. Strolling through my local beverage superstore, I glance into the locked glass case where they keep the high end whiskey, and what do I see? Two lone bottles of Single Oak.

            I made some kind of involuntary sound that I can’t quite describe, and nearly broke into laughter. The front bottle was marked #90, but I couldn’t see the back one. According to Drink Hacker, this was a member of release 7, back in December 2012.

            DrinkHacker graded #90 a B-, which by my palate would be in the C range.

            I note with some amusement that this is about the same time last year that I discovered some of release 3. That was the first, and had been the last time I had seen this whiskey in this store. I had to search far and wide to find release 5, and was told by BT that Calif wasn’t going to see release 6 until they sold out of 5. Wow.

            If I was a casual observer shopping in my local store, over the course of a year, I’d have seen 4 bottles from 2 releases, neither of which were highly rated. I guess BT only sells this whiskey in Calif when it can’t unload it anywhere else in the country. That’s pretty pathetic.

            I kept walking. I’m not going back to spend $55 bucks on 375ml of B- whiskey. I’ve found a much nicer rye of late, something called Templeton Rye. A whole fifth for $40 bucks, and better tasting. No competition there.

          2. Unsurprising. I’ve seen plenty of them littering shelves but usually at obscene prices. I have heard the sellout before next wave is a BT rule though, and not unique to CA for BTSO.

            That said, I wonder if this experiment will end on schedule or delayed due to the retail momentum.

            I’m not sure who’s buying these – seems to be bait for a few bourbon enthusiasts to buy a couple bottles and rate. Not really what I would consider a great way to get a solid read on “best”, but I guess that’s their own thing.

            I don’t know – it was something I was interested in and now I couldn’t care less. You can fool me with a couple B-grade bourbons, but I draw the line at 48…

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