Whiskey gets a lot of mystique from its aging. That’s why there’s often a number on the bottle.
That number lets you know you have to be patient.
When it comes to Snowflake, the once-a-year release from Stranahan’s, in Colorado, it’s not how much they’ve aged the spirit — it’s how much you age waiting for it.
As in, some people line up for a week to buy a bottle.
We flew out to Denver to meet these “Stranafans” and see why this year’s Snowflake might be the most unique whiskey ever released.
Plus, a tip or two on how you can grab a bottle of your own. But first, let’s answer some questions:
What is Stranahan’s? It’s an American Single Malt whisky from Colorado’s first (legal) whiskey distillery since Prohibition, founded in 2004. It’s a loose offshoot of Flying Dog and named after that brewery’s founder, George Stranahan (and originally crafted with help from FD’s head brewer).
All of Stranahan's whiskey expressions use 100% malted barley (most sourced from Colorado) and cut with Rocky Mountain spring water. They also utilize a proprietary yeast during the distilling process. The juice is then aged for a minimum of two years in new white American oak barrels with a #3 char. Because they don’t chill filter, there’s a nice buttery mouthfeel to each expression; as well, there’s a sweetness that comes not from corn (like bourbon) but from the malting of the barley
The whiskey is 94 proof, a bit higher than you would see most American whiskies, to maintain flavor. There are four current expressions available: Stranahan’s Original, Diamond Peak, Sherry Cask and, if you are very, very persistent and patient, the limited-edition Snowflake.
Wait, what is American Single Malt? Not technically its own category yet, but something Stranahan’s — and a number of like-minded, craft U.S. distilleries (like Westward, Westland and Balcones) — would like the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to classify as its own category. There are currently 41 whiskey types — American single malt would be the 42nd.
A good definition of the process can be found here — made from 100% malted barley, distilled at one distillery, crafted in the USA, etc.
The good news is that Stranahan’s, sans any restricting label, can cherry pick the processes they like best for their whiskey. The char of their barrels and aging process? Inspired by bourbon. The idea of a single malt? Scotch. Even the whiskey’s solera aging/blending process comes from wine.
Who is Rob Dietrich? Our host for the release of this year’s Snowflake was Stranahan’s Master Distiller and the third person hired by the brand, coming onboard in 2006. Dietrich actually quit a fairly lucrative job in the music business to start making whiskey.
Talk with Rob, and you’ll hear stories about meeting Hunter S. Thompson, converting his Czech motorcycle to run on vegetable oil, being on stage with the Allman Brothers and working from 1-9 a.m. at Stranahan’s almost every morning for four years straight while helping to run a horse ranch.
He’s a character.
OK, why exactly is Stranahan’s such a cult? A bit of backstory: In its decade-plus of existence, Stranahan’s grew so fast that they actually had to retreat back to the Colorado market for a few years just to satisfy local orders. That, says Dietrich, created the initial mystique about the brand. (“It’s like when you couldn’t get Coors beer in most states, and people would travel to bring it back — which is also kind of the plot of Smokey and the Bandit.”)
Snowflake, Dietrich’s idea of experimenting with different cask finishes, used to be a twice-a-year limited-edition release. The company mentioned these releases on Facebook but never really advertised them. “It’s hard to put a finger on this,” says Dietrich, looking out at the makeshift campsite growing around Stranahan’s distillery the night before the one-day Snowflake release. “The popularity seems to double every year.”
The limited availability is certainly a big reason. Only 2100 bottles are created every year — down from twice a year — and only 1500 are for sale to the public.
What sets Snowflake apart? For this year’s Snowflake, Dietrich took Stranahan’s Original and hand-selected nine different wine, beer and spirit casks to finish them in for various amounts of time. He then “married” them together to get Batch 21 of their Snowflake release; it’s nicknamed Mount Elbert, after the highest summit in Colorado (14,440 feet).
The nine casks in this year’s release include a Syrah and a muscat cask from the Denver-based Balistreri Vineyards, a Port cask, a merlot and an old vine zin cask from Spero Winery, a chocolate stout cask, two madeira casks and a rum cask. It’s the most barrels they’ve ever married together in a whiskey.
“It’s all about the barrels and cask finishing, that’s where we can get creative,” says Dietrich.
Who are these people waiting a week in line for this? Russell Cowdin, 44, from Grand Junction, Colorado, has been waiting for just under seven days when we first talk to him. He’s first in line and has been among the first ten in line during the last several years of release parties. “For me, it’s not about the whiskey — which is interesting and fantastic and in a league of its own. But it’s more like a camping trip and being around these other guys … plus, there’s a little competition to see who gets here first.”
To stay warm, Cowdin wears a cloak, utilizes a propane heater, has a camper nearby and also puts up three tents, two of which he turns into a communal hangout/bar. He also hangs out with Mike Kirchhoff, 55, who was the number one guy in line last year and number two this time out.
Derek Haydn, 45, came from Wisconsin and brought his 26-year old son. They showed up on Tuesday (the whiskey release is on a Saturday). “I came out a few years before and I was 12th in line, but you only get free swag if you’re in the top ten, so I decided I’d always be in the top ten.”
Haydn credits the camaraderie of Stranahan campers for keeping him coming back each year, even as the line grows exponentially. “It’s about the experience, and it’s about meeting people from different walks of life,” he says. “We visit other tents, and people bring stuff to share. It could be Pappy Van Winkle, or like us, we brought these beers you can only get in Wisconsin.” Haydn, who also got his beard cut like Stranahan’s master distiller, also notes his wife is “very accommodating” and that he does use vacation time from work.
What’s the scene like in the rest of the line? Kind of like waiting for concert tickets in the pre-Internet age, but a lot cooler
There’s about a thousand people lined up, most for at least a day and some for a week.
There are food trucks and a communal tent (with games, live bands and a bar), with grills, sleeping bags, lawn chairs and personal tents poking out everywhere. This year, people actually had to move from the surrounding streets when the glut of whiskey-lovers caught the eyes of the police. “They thought we were homeless,” said one Stranahan’s fan.
But true to the spirit of the event, everyone pitched in and broke down the makeshift camp sites, putting them up again within the distillery’s parking lot.
There’s also a pot dispensary across the street called Green Dragon, which probably helped a few people pass the time.
Once the camp breaks down, at around 5 a.m., it’ll take about 2-3 hours to snake through the distillery and buy a bottle. We got two.
All well and good, but what does Snowflake taste like? Since we had our two bottles shipped after waiting in line, we only had a very limited chance to actually experience Snowflake. We can say this: Every sip seemed to bring out a different characteristic from the cask-finished barrels. You’ll get brown sugar and apple pie (and a bit of wood) on the nose, and everything from butterscotch to fig on the palate. It’s sweet but not cloying, and certainly something you’ll want neat or with a tiny splash of water to really open it up. But we’ll say one thing: It’s different with every sip, in a good way..
How do I get this without the weeklong wait? You can find bottles of Snowflake on the secondary whiskey markets. A few people in line, including some at the very front, mentioned they were going to sell one of their bottles to pay for the trip.
The Sherry Cask release by Stranahan’s is good primer on whiskies that have gone through different cask finishes, and is available nationally.
Or be a sport and visit Stranahan’s next year in late November/early December. Get there at least 24 hours in advance. And yes, getting there is half the fun.
“Everyone wants Snowflake to go national,” says Dietrich. “I’m like, ‘You have to come to Colorado for this.’ We gotta keep it unique. It’s the adventure of buying Snowflake that makes it special.”