The annual release of Snowflake whiskey from Denver distillery Stranahan’s draws hundreds of loyal fans.

By Sarah Kuta
Updated December 13, 2019
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It’s a chilly December evening in Denver, and mounds of now-dirty snow from the city’s latest snowstorm still line the streets. Every half hour or so, a train barrels by, the loud blast of its horn temporarily filling the crisp night air.

Even so, 30-year-old Alex Murray had no qualms about sleeping in a tent next to a distillery for the night. In the morning, he’ll pack up his camping gear and head home with his prize: two bottles of rare Stranahan’s whiskey.

“You can only get it here,” said Murray, 30, sitting on a bright yellow cot. “It’s the thrill of the hunt for sure.”

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey

Amid a colorful sea of tents, sleeping bags, cots, and camping chairs, hundreds of people milled about in stocking caps and puffy coats, warming themselves near outdoor heaters in what normally serves as the Stranahan’s employee parking lot. They’re here for the chance to snag some of this Denver distillery’s coveted Snowflake whiskey, a limited-release, small-batch spirit only available for purchase one day every year.

Once the distillery opens its doors in the morning, Snowflake sells out within an hour, so dedicated fans line up the night before—some more than a week in advance—to ensure they get their two-bottle allotment. Stranahan’s sells Snowflake for $99 a bottle, though it’s been known to show up on the black market after the release for three or four times that much.

Many say the special whiskey is exceptional, but they’re really here for the camaraderie, the all-night party, and the story they get to tell afterward.

Sarah Kuta

The Snowflake tradition dates back to 2007, but distillery staffers say the huge crowds and overnight camping didn’t really ramp up until a few years ago. Since then, the fanaticism has grown so much that the distillery made it an official event with wristbands, live music, food trucks, and an all-night bar.

Wearing a bright red down jacket, a thick black hat, and gloves, Joe Vollbracht sat in a camping chair, waiting for a few family members to arrive. Vollbracht, 64, flew in from Keller, Texas, for roughly 36 hours to get his whiskey.

“At the end of the day, each bottle costs about $500 when you figure in airfare, rental car and all that. But it’s not the whiskey, it’s the experience,” he said. “We’re going to know half the people in this alley by the end of the night.”

This year’s batch, the distillery’s 22nd release, is named Mount Bross after the 22nd tallest Colorado fourteener (for the uninitiated, that’s a mountain that stands more than 14,000 feet tall—Colorado has 58 of them).

Each iteration of Snowflake is different, which means head distiller Owen Martin and his team get to experiment with new approaches every year. They started sampling from different barrels at the end of June, and then spent the next five months marrying various whiskeys together to see what worked and what didn’t.

“We’re generally looking to identify barrels that balance each other while adding complexity, to create something that’s more than a sum of its parts,” Martin said.

The resulting Mount Bross is the oldest, most mature Snowflake the distillery has released, made with American single malt whiskey aged for eight years in American white oak barrels with a No. 3 char, then finished in wine and bourbon barrels.

“We identified an amazing eight-year-old Stranahan’s single barrel and built the release around it,” Martin said.

For balance, Martin also added several younger whiskeys, aged for two to five years then finished in maple syrup, port and Cognac casks.

If you couldn’t make it to Colorado for a bottle, prepare to start drooling now. Martin says the whiskey smells like heavy cream, tobacco, honeycomb and fruit preserves (and, afterward, leaves a whiff of gingersnap cookies dusted with powdered sugar in the empty glass).

Sarah Kuta

It tastes like baking spices, milk chocolate, tobacco and demerara sugar (a larger, crunchier sugar with a light brown color), with hints of raspberry caramels, cherry cola, vanilla bean and maple-roasted pecans.

“No previous Snowflake has had an oak profile as pronounced as this one,” Martin said. “The heavy tannins from the older whiskeys have married beautifully with the sweeter notes from the cask-finished ones.”

Though Colorado may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of good whiskey, Stranahan’s is trying to change that. It’s the oldest distillery in Colorado and was the state’s first since prohibition when it opened in 2004. Since then, dozens of craft distilleries have opened in Colorado, which Martin described as a “hotbed for whiskey innovation.”

“While we may not be an entrenched bourbon institution, I’d say that we are a rising star in the emerging American single malt category,” Martin said.

Waiting outside the distillery ahead of the release, Peter Kolby and Katherine Baker agreed, adding that Stranahan’s is leading the way forward for Colorado distillers.

“For me, Stranahan’s was the first thing that got me interested in local distilleries—beyond just bourbon Kentucky straight,” said Baker, 42, who lives in nearby Littleton. “They opened my eyes to everything else you can do that breaks the norms of what you’d expect from whiskey.”

When Kolby gets home to Seattle, he’ll stash his two bottles of Mount Bross somewhere safe, then bring one out during a special occasion or for the holidays. He’ll tell his incredulous friends and family members about the time he flew to Denver and slept outside to buy some whiskey.

The story alone is worth it, he said.

“The only way you can get this is to camp out all night,” said Kolby, 41. “You also get that experience, that camaraderie when it’s freezing... It’s kind of a commitment to the whiskey, if you will. You have to earn it.”