Why People Camp Out in Freezing Temperatures for This Whiskey
I waited with hundreds of people for a chance to pick up a bottle Stranahan’s Snowflake, a one-of-a-kind whiskey released just once a year.
All photos by the author.
I've had way too much whiskey and coffee and not enough water and food. While I blame myself, I also blame the occasion. It seemed appropriate to drink heartily on this chilly Denver morning—a 19-degrees-at-5 AM kind of chilly Denver morning.
I'm not the only one drinking outside the Stranahan's whiskey distillery. There are hundreds of other people here too, and they've been here all night. These patient people are called Stranafans, and they might be the most passionate whiskey enthusiasts in America.
They're here for Stranahan's Snowflake, a rare expression created by master distiller Rob Dietrich—also known as Whiskey Rob—released just once a year that must be picked up in-person from the Denver distillery. Dietrich ages Stranahan's Original whiskey in a unique variety of barrels for two years. No two Snowflake releases are the same (you know, like a literal snowflake).
About 11 hours earlier, I met Dietrich inside the distillery to get a tour of the place. He's the kind of quintessential man's man you'd expect to be in charge of a Denver whiskey operation. He served in the military, fixes up old cars, takes motorcycle trips around the world. He also has these Wolverine-esque mutton chops that only he could pull off.
We go through the distillery and Dietrich breaks down the whiskey-making process. He calls the stills his "babies," waxes poetic on the viscosity and vanilla notes of Stranahan's Original. The brand means a lot to him. When Dietrich started working for the distillery's founder, Jess Graber, his "whiskey hero," he didn't even get paid in cash. He was paid in whiskey while he lived and worked on a horse ranch until he convinced them to carve out a night shift for him.
Snowflake was born from a desire to experiment with different styles of barrel aging. "I always try to out Snowflake Snowflake every year," Dietrich said. He tinkers with techniques, weeding out what works and what doesn't until he finds a batch he likes. This year's expression, named Crestone Peak, is the first he aged in rum barrels, resulting in more fruit notes than before. He also used casks from Syrah Amador, Old Vine Zinfandel, and Madeira wines and a few different Stranahan expressions.
"That's what we do as Americans—we break traditions and make traditions," Dietrich said.
After the tour of the distillery, we go to Buckhorn Exchange, the oldest restaurant in Denver. The taxidermy-cluttered restaurant obtained the first liquor license in Colorado back in 1935. Trap doors still exist that allegedly once hid booze during prohibition.
Over a meal of rattlesnake queso, Rocky Mountain oysters, elk, and cornish game hen, we taste Snowflake and Stranahan's Original while Dietrich runs through the tasting notes. I've completely ruined my palate with a garlicky Caesar salad, but I can still appreciate the rich flavors Dietrich's talking about.
Two bars and a few hours of sleep later, I'm back at the distillery in the morning darkness. Dietrich has been here since 3 AM and will walk the line to connect with the Stranafans about their shared whiskey passion. At our own Stranacamp, there's whiskey and coffee to be had, elk sausages to eat. I set out, metal mug in hand, to go and talk to the Stranafans about the line, the whiskey, and the cold.
Eric Spery and his friend Greg Daughtry are near the front of the line, they got there before 6 PM the night before. I ask them about their packing essentials for the long haul wait.
"Whiskey. It's a sweater for your insides, right? We brought a propane heater and two tanks of propane," Spery says of their gear. "We got a tent and sleeping bags—and we have lots of whiskey."
They give me a taste of last year's Snowflake, which is a moving gesture considering how precious this stuff is. They save it for special friends and special occasions.
"When the whiskey comes out, good stuff happens," Daughtry says.
A few spots up in the line is Jenny Baucum. She's been into Stranahan's for about five years, but it's her first time for this occasion.
"I usually drink all of the other Stranahan's and I wanted to try the Snowflake," she said.
I check in with off-duty cop Randy Kring who helps keep the peace year after year, not that it's much of an effort.
"It's actually more pleasant than groups of this size," Kring, a friend of Dietrich's, says. "They're just happy to be here, they're happy to celebrate Snowflake's release. We've never really had any problems."
The sun is coming up, we're getting closer to the 8 AM showtime. Brothers Will and Jacob Krouse are posted up in line with their dad. They drove more than 600 miles from Kansas City, Missouri, to be here.
"It's one of those things where it's once in a lifetime," Jacob says. "This batch is one of a kind."
"The distilleries that bottle these kinds of whiskeys take a lot of time to do it—they put a lot of effort and manpower into it," Will says. "They do it for us, really."
The hours seem to melt away. One minute I'm worried about my cold ankles, and the next we're getting our bottles, which are limited to two per person. I guess that's what happens when you drink heavily at high altitude.
Dietrich stands near the end of the procession to sign the hard-earned prizes. Despite the rarity of the product, Stranahan's prices Snowflake at $100 per bottle to keep it an accessible treasure. "We're very much about the Colorado community," Dietrich says.
I leave the distillery in a daze. I need sleep, and water, and feel insane. I also feel like a true Stranafan.