It is 6 a.m. and I am on my second whiskey of the day. This does not include the two donuts I ate an hour ago, each infused with a pipette of whiskey. I have been in Denver for 16 hours, and I have been sober for roughly two of them.
The man to blame for my level of inebriation at this ungodly hour is Rob Dietrich, the master distiller at Stranahan’s, Colorado’s first legal whiskey distillery, founded in 2004. I have come to Denver for the annual release of Stranahan’s Snowflake, a limited-edition whiskey that is a blend of Stranahan’s Original finished in casks that formerly housed other booze, from rum to Sangiovese to port. Each year’s batch of Snowflake is different from the last, with Dietrich spending months nosing and tasting in order to find the right balance of flavors. His job, he offers, is the best in the world.
At the moment, mine is running a close second as I finish my pre-dawn cocktail—a Stranhattan—and head outside to talk to the people waiting in line for the chance to purchase one of the 1,400 bottles of Snowflake. If Stranahan’s, which was not available outside Colorado until 2014, is something of a cult whiskey, then Snowflake is the Scientology Celebrity Centre of single malts. Hardcore fanboys and girls line up for days in advance of the Saturday morning release, traveling from as far away as Seattle and Florida. This year the weather is a downright balmy 32 degrees at 4 a.m., but December temperatures in Denver usually drop far below freezing. The Stranafans, as they’re known, come prepared with set-ups ranging from sleeping bags and folding chairs to full tailgate stations with RVs and generators.
Mike and Lynn Kirchhoff and Derek Heydn fall into that latter camp. They drove for 16 hours from Wisconsin, arriving in Denver on Wednesday morning to claim the first spots in line. Is there a glory that comes with being first? “There’s a lack of dignity,” quips Mike Kirchhoff, a whiskey lover with a personal collection of more than 100 bottles. This is his third year camping outside the distillery, and the exclusivity appeals. “For Snowflake, you’ve got to be here on this day, and that’s just all there is to it.” This year, the Wisconsin camp usurped Coloradan Russell Cowdin, who has been at the head of the line three times. “My first release,” says Cowdin, “we got here at barely 6 o’clock on Saturday morning—like, two hours before doors opened—and I was maybe 80th in line. Every year you have to get here earlier or be further back in line. Now, if you don’t get in line by 2:30 the morning of release, you’re probably out of luck.”
Val, a Denver local who joined the whiskey line on Friday night, is here solo because her boyfriend is off elk hunting, which is the most Colorado sentence I am ever likely to write. She’s made friends with her neighbors—Nicole, who drove in from Nebraska, and Scott, from New Mexico. There’s a sense of camaraderie among the Stranafans, an acknowledgment of a shared, whiskey-fueled insanity. Bottles are passed back and forth, and spots are held for coffee and bathroom runs. A surprising number of the assembled are ex-military. “We’re used to waiting in line,” explains Scott. I ask him if he’ll be popping open his hard-earned bottle of Snowflake immediately or if he’ll save it for a special occasion. “Every day is a special occasion. Use the fine china. You never know if you’ll be around tomorrow.”
By 8 a.m. the sun is well up, casting a rosy glow over the Stranafans playing cornhole and huddled around propane heaters. I’ve only been in line three hours, but despite the whiskey I feel chilled and a little delirious. I can’t feel my Stranahands. The mood starts to shift as two peppy distillery employees make their way down the line, handing out Snowflake tickets to the patient hoard. Each ticket guarantees the holder a bottle, priced at $99, and each person in line is allowed a maximum of two. The ticket distributors are escorted by a Denver police officer—just in case. “They’ve got a fun job,” I remark. “Sure,” the officer replies. “Until they run out of tickets.”
The line compresses as the ticket holders roll up their sleeping bags and pack up their tents. By 9:00 I’m inside the distillery, and the vibe is celebratory, with a band playing classic rock covers and a man in a Broncos jacket yelling “Dilly dilly!” and dancing by himself. I exchange my silver ticket for a bottle of Snowflake and join a second line where distiller Dietrich is signing bottles like the rugged Santa of whiskey, all twinkly eyes and muttonchops that make other facial hair I’ve encountered look deeply uncommitted. “All these people are waiting outside in the cold,” says Dietrich. “I want to make sure that it’s something worth waiting for.”
And so, is Snowflake worth it? While it’s hard to tell how much the anticipation impacts perception, I find it admittedly delicious. It is smoother than Stranahan’s Original, more complex. To me, it tastes of breakfast—brown sugar Pop Tarts, toast and almond milk, sultanas and custard—which is fortuitous since it is, in fact, my breakfast. If you’re going to be drinking whiskey before noon with several hundred new friends, you could do a hell of a lot worse.