The first person arrived 11 days early. Spots behind him filled up quickly as other whiskey fans set up campsites around Stranahan’s distillery in Denver. Hundreds of people slept overnight in this bustling tent village, while hundreds more joined them well before sunrise.
What has people lining up in the cold Denver nights? That would be Stranahan’s annual release of Snowflake American Single Malt Whiskey. Now a 12-year tradition, released only one day in December, the earlier versions actually came out multiple times annually. This was back before Snowflake attracted throngs like Black Friday shoppers.
Released Dec. 7, the 2019 iteration is Snowflake #22. It’s named Mount Bross after the 22nd tallest mountain among the snowcapped peaks that border Denver. So what’s so good about this particular whiskey, among the broader brown spirits boom, that has fans going gaga?
Appropriate to its name, each Snowflake is a different blend. Whiskeys in the 2019 bottle are two to eight years old. They finished in a variety of barrels, which changes every year. It’s that latter distinction that gives Snowflake a remarkable complexity, different with each release, that has people queuing for days.
The 2019 blend includes whiskey finished in bourbon, sangiovese, port, maple syrup and cognac casks. Unlike some barrel-finished spirits, one wood flavor does not overpower the others. Snowflake is a testament to the incredible balance through depths of flavors that the best blenders can achieve.
After oaky, bourbon notes upfront, Snowflake 2019 expands into a dessert-like palate of wine and cognac. It’s a remarkably smooth sipper with the complexity to match any whiskey.
No wonder people fly in from other states and line up for days around the distillery. This year, Stranahan’s opened its doors at 8 a.m. But if you showed up too far past midnight that morning, chances are you missed out. Only those present well before dawn got the opportunity to buy bottles, $99.99 each, max two per customer. Everybody received numbers as they arrived, ensuring their spot in the orderly line that formed when it was time to purchase.
Who are these next-level whiskey-lovers? Throughout the line you find a mix of long-time fans, plus their friends and families who are newer to the tradition. In this way, the “Snowflake Village” that temporarily surrounds Stranahan’s reflects the broader demographic for American whiskey.
One consumer catches on, explores deeply, and then eventually brings in their closer associates. Going from bottle to bottle, they improve their palates. Eventually, many of these fans graduate to wanting a whiskey like Snowflake.
“It’s a unique product that you cannot get on the retail shelf,” explains Bob Mohon of Colorado. He was among the thousand or so people in line this year. Having caught the whiskey bug in recent time, Mohon’s considerable bottle collection now includes an array of white whales, with multiple Snowflakes.
Tyler Maybe of Colorado has lined up or camped out for the past seven years. “What keeps me coming back is the tradition,” he says. This year, for the first time, he was joined by his father in Snowflake Village, where a live band played as food trucks served the waiting crowd.
“It’s been so interesting to see it grow and evolve over the years,” Maybe says. “Used to be I would show up at 4 a.m. on the day of and be near the front of the line. Now I get here at 9 p.m. the night before and I’m only halfway in.”
Of course, there were people in line with an eye towards the secondary market. In fact, that seemed to be the savvy way to handle the process: buy two Snowflakes, and keep one.
Many people reported a plan to sell their extra Snowflake for around $250, covering the cost of both. “You will see bottles of this later today pop up all over Craigslist and Facebook,” says Ryan Clem of Colorado. He and others were confident they could move their extra bottles easily. Customers who did not want to line up were willing to pay a premium price for the white whale of Snowflake.
Which again speaks to the current state of American whiskey.
“Whiskey is a passion industry,” says Owen Martin, Stranahan’s head distiller. “People are very passionate about it. They want to collect it.”
Stranahan’s At a Glance
Stranahan’s is an American craft distilling pioneer. The brand was founded in 2004 by Jess Graber, a volunteer firefighter, and George Stranahan, owner of Flying Dog Brewery, after the two bonded while fighting a fire at Stranahan’s barn.
The initial batch of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey launched in 2006. This success was among the first American craft whiskeys to grab consumer attention. Stranahan’s was Colorado’s first microdistillery, the company claims, and the first to operate legally in the state since Prohibition.
Proximo Spirits purchased Stranahan’s in 2010. Nowadays the distillery has the production capacity to run 24/7, Martin says, but does not, because of a barrel shortage. Space inside the distillery has filled up with racks of aging stock. To accommodate, Stranahan’s recently opened its first offsite barrel warehouse.
Aging occurs differently in the thin, elevated air of Colorado. The angel’s share here is greater than in Kentucky, thanks to the mountain-high pressure and dryness. It’s so dry that water evaporates faster than alcohol, so that barreled whiskey increases in proof over time. To avoid escalating ABVs, Stranahan’s places some barrels in climate-controlled environments.
The distillery only makes American single malt. This category, still undefined by the TTB, can be confusing for many consumers. Martin has simple advice:
“For Scotch fans, I recommend our Rocky Mountain Single Malt,” he says. “For bourbon fans, I point towards our Diamond Peak or Sherry Cask, which are sweeter and smoother, more like bourbon. No matter what kind of whiskey you prefer, we have a single malt for you.”
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Interview: Jim Murray on the Evolution of American Whiskey.