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Most distilleries these days seem to have a product or product line that has captivated a growing number of fans. These releases are especially enticing when the product is actually released at the distillery instead of shipped out to distributors for them to do with as they please.
This results in a phenomenon that has resulted in a new trend for bourbon hunters: camping out.
When it comes to the concept of camping out, you’ll find that this is becoming more rampant at smaller distilleries who have products that are made in too small of quantities to release nationwide.
Examples of this include the Abraham Bowman release at Bowman Distillery, the Snowflake release at Stranahan’s, the Cowboy Bourbon release at Garrison Brothers and the Belle Meade Craftsman Series releases at Nelson’s Green Brier.
I recently attended the Belle Meade release of their much anticipated “Honey Cask Finished Bourbon” that continues to draw a larger crowd every year.
Four times a year, Belle Meade releases a special bottling as a part of their “Craftsman Collection.” These releases are meant to showcase unique barrel finishes of MGP bourbon.
The steps that they’ve taken to achieve this unique finish is that they select older stocks of their MGP bourbon (typically around 11 years old) and dump the contents inside to a holding tank.
From there, the barrels are given to local bee farm, TruBee Honey where they are filled with honey and aged for a few months. When the honey has been dumped out and bottled, the casks are then given back to the distillery, who rectifies the barrels before filling them back up with bourbon.
Make no mistake about it, this Honey Cask release is not just some honeyed whiskey like Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey or Jim Beam puts out.
This is barrel strength and only Belle Meade seems to have learned the proper way to rectify a barrel after the honey has been inside. What is rectifying a barrel?
Well, from how I gather this works is that honey (which is hygroscopic, meaning attracts water) will dry out the wooden barrel staves.
That becomes a problem when a producer tries to put whiskey back into the barrel because they could have a tendency to leak. Although I have not found any literature on how to rectify barrels, I believe I spotted a key step in how they do this when I took a look in the back warehouse room that stores a large number of Belle Meade’s barrels: Saran Wrap.
I saw a few very old barrels that had been saran wrapped head to toe.
If I were a betting man, I would say that these are for an upcoming batch of Honey Cask (or maybe they were the ones that were just dumped).
I also witness how notably darker the wood of these barrels looked compared to the others in their warehouses and I believe that is because they have soaked them with water somehow (using rags, steam or a hose) and then quickly wrapped them with saran wrap to trap as much water to the surface as possible, which swells the wood.
This is probably done a few times before the barrels are declared fit to put bourbon into them.
The Art of Camping out for that Special Bottle
But back to the real purpose of this article, which is to tell you about the art of camping out for that special bottle. I assume that most of you reading this have already figured out when a release is coming out.
Usually the distiller’s social media accounts will drop hints or outright tell the public of the date and time and what to do on that day. But here are some other things to consider after you’ve decided that you’re going to camp out to get one:
I continually heard the same line of “I was here a little before they opened the doors last year and still got a bottle. But the lines this year are ridiculous!”
If we are to be real with ourselves, limited releases are still on an upward trend. Did that special release double in crowd size over the last few years? Take that as a hint that even more people are going to come this year.
That means you need to arrive even earlier to guarantee a spot in line that will guarantee you a bottle. For the Honey Cask release this year, if you weren’t in line by 7:00 AM, you had a very high chance of not getting a bottle.
A group of friends arrived this year at 5:30AM and were very close to being number 400 in line. Belle Meade reps later told us that they only had 550 bottles.
Generally speaking, there are no rules that are ever put out for people standing in line. Yes, there were signs not to use open flames near the building or not to set up tents on the sidewalk, but generally people set up tables and chairs the moment they arrived and stayed put.
A very smart person started a “sign up sheet” of sorts that they passed down the line. This was very helpful because it made everyone in line feel a little more at ease that there was some method of order and a placeholder for them.
It would have been even smarter if Belle Meade had a representative handing out numbered tickets in line. And surely some of those tickets would later be re-sold to a desperate person, but the bottom line is, if you have a numbered ticket, it’s not like a larger number of people will jump ahead of you.
The same number of bottles will be sold regardless of where you are in line.
For crowds this large in size, there’s a thin line between orderly and chaotic. One of the first steps you should take is to introduce yourself to the people before and after you in the line.
This will help secure your spot if you need to use the restroom, get a snack from your car or just walk around to avoid boredom and sore legs.
Since it was very cold the morning of the honey cask release, it was common to see people walk back and forth to their vehicles to warm up for 20-30 minutes.
The key was to not just set up your chairs in line and then not come back until the doors opened up, it was to make a constant attempt to show your face around your spot in the line at least every hour.
Also, if you are truly a drinker, bring some bottles to pass around! Nothing helps spread the good times and camaraderie than sharing bottles.
This is the easiest way to make you more personable to the people around you and ensure a good time is had. You are going to be spending a decent amount of your day with them, after all.
My friend and I arrived at 3AM to get our spot in the line. With the doors not opening until 11AM, that’s a decent amount of time to just stay in one spot.
Luckily we stocked up on plenty of snack foods and bottled water. This was especially helpful as the day heated up and layers of clothes were shed.
We witnessed one man collapse on the sidewalk and the ambulance had to come to patch him up. He was clearly dehydrated, which happens when you don’t prepare.
There were also plenty of shivering cold people in line who failed to bring enough layers. I brought enough clothing to have 4 top layers and 2 bottom layers. You can never be too prepared. Another must-have: sunscreen.
Most of us don’t realize how long we’ll be baking in the sun before the doors open. I certainly didn’t and when I got home, my head told the tale of how long I had been outside.
I couldn’t escape the sun either once the line collapsed and people started the slow waddle to the entrance. It was over 2 hours after the doors opened until I took my first step inside. Don’t forget to bring an external battery for your cell phone.
I heard plenty of people complain that after waiting over 10 hours in line, that their phones were dead. If you’re not social, you’ll be spending a lot of time on your phone, so plan accordingly.
And one more hugely important thing to remember: bring your driver’s license! I’m sure at least one or two people got turned around because they got to the front of their line and forgot it.
The Secondary Market
Most people didn’t realize this, but these events are a great way to trade or sell bottles, especially with the precarious nature of the secondary market getting shut down online.
I personally tried to trade a bottle by walking up to groups of strangers in line and offering it up for a trade. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to trade at these events.
You’d also be surprised how many people were kicking themselves for forgetting bottles because they didn’t think people traded at these events.
Just don’t forget to have a list of bottles that you’re wanting to trade for because you won’t get a lot of bites unless you readily know what you are looking for.
Many people will not open up that they have bottles to trade until they hear of a bottle that they have or one that is close. Know your bottle value and have a good understanding of the bottles you’re looking for as well.
If there is a less than desirable trade dangled in front of you, you can always say you’ll pass for now and swing on back if you don’t get any more bites.
Ensuring you’re going to get a bottle
The thing about the Honey Cask release is that nobody knew how many bottles were going to be for sale. Belle Meade released that they had 4 barrels, but the age of these barrels was also a mystery.
I continued to hear people claim that these were 8 year old barrels (which would have really surprised me) but a Belle Meade representative came down the line to relay instructions and answer questions and told us that each barrel was at least 11 years old.
The average difference between an 8 year old barrel and an 11 year old barrel could easily be about 25-40 bottles worth, so everyone’s guesses were all over the place that morning.
Some were saying that 4 barrels would produce 800 bottles, while others were saying that there’d only be 400 due to bottles being distributed to stores (which wasn’t true).
My guess was 600 tops and 400 minimum because I knew that these barrels could have the tendency to leak. The point is, plan for the worst and make sure that you’re going to get there early enough to be in a spot in line that you’re “safe.”
Communication is Key!
As the line finally started to move and the first people came out with their bottles in hand, try to ask them what’s going on in there.
There were quite a few informative people that encouraged everyone to stop signing up for the Belle Meade newsletter (although you could get a cool pin) because it was easily adding another 1-2 minutes per person in line for them to have their information entered.
They could’ve just as easily signed up online if they wanted that newsletter. I declined the newsletter and was through the ID check in under 20 seconds.
This step probably added hours onto the average wait time for the people towards the end of the line and should’ve been done at the exit instead of the entrance (ID Checking though, yes, I get it).
There were also gaps in information as to how the sample tasting would go while still maintaining your spot in line as well as what was for sale at the Honey Cask line and what was for sale at the gift shop.
I hate to write this section, but it is the reality of these times. There were many people in line that were there to solely flip bottles.
Long-time Belle Meade fanatics were even calling out the homeless people in line that get paid to stand in line to get extra bottles for people that can afford this tactic.
This flipping idea won’t change in the future just because Facebook groups get shut down or Liquor-Control States decide to prosecute a few small-timers.
But one thing I noticed was that the secondary prices for these bottles were selling for $900 immediately after the first 20 people purchased their bottles.
This number went down to the mid $700’s by the end of the day and are now somewhere in the low $600’s five days later.
While this is still an easy way to make a buck for some, the reality is that if you want to make maximum coin, sell your bottle immediately.
If you don’t know how to sell your bottle, ask people in line. Granted, some may give you a hard time, but some may also help you out. On the flipside, Belle Meade and other distilleries could curtail flippers by offering a discount to people that remove the bottle seal at time of purchase.
Or charging more to people that don’t. The point is that there are things that could be done, but it’s just a reality for high-visibility bottles and events like this.
What can be done to improve the camping out process?
Overall, the camping out process responsibilities should be split between the distillery and the attendee. I was somewhat surprised that Belle Meade had the foresight to keep social media updated that people had already started to camp out before they even closed on Friday.
They also put up a sign that clearly stated that the Honey Release started right here and even told attendees on social media that a portable toilet trailer would be across the street from the entrance.
But a couple things that really caught people off guard was that around 8AM, paid parking lot signs suddenly appeared and people were chased off with the threat of towing or a wheel boot.
What seemed like plenty of free parking was eventually reduced to “find a spot a mile away.” Your best bet for an event is to scope out spots that will stay free even if it involves a little bit of legwork.
Because it’s guaranteed that when you need to re-park your car, you won’t find anything remotely close. Also, assume that the portable toilets will eventually get clogged, run out of water or have very long lines.
This also happened. I don’t know what other plans to tell you, especially if you’re a woman, but to be prepared for that reality could help you find some sort of backup plan.
And finally, about an hour before the doors open, try to clean up your line area and take your tables and chairs back to your car.
When the line eventually collapses, it’ll be a mad rush to make sure that you don’t lose your spot, and you don’t want that to be the time that you’re scrambling to your car and back.
Distilleries probably won’t solve every issue with the ever-growing popularity of limited releases and distillery-only specials, but if they continue to help customers by providing essential services and creating order for those that elect to camp out, then this will go a long way in helping the customer prepare for a fun and efficient method to obtaining the bottles they came there to get.
Now go out there and get that bottle you’ve been waiting for!
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