Distillery Focus Issue 22

Distillery Focus: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey

Strana-fans from across the US descend upon this Denver-based distillery in hopes of capturing a Snowflake

Written by Gabrielle Nicole Pharms

Typically, with tailgating, you’re surrounded by highly charged sports lovers eager to engage in pre-game festivities. It’s a classic American pastime rooted specifically within football fandom. However, every December, a type of tailgating takes place at the Denver-based Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Distillery that caters to whiskey enthusiasts from all over the country: the annual release of Snowflake.

Photo Credit: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

As Colorado’s first legal whiskey distillery since Prohibition, Stranahan’s has been a trendsetter within the world of American single malt whiskey since arriving on the scene in 2004. The grain-to-glass single malt comprises 100 per cent malted barley and Rocky Mountain water, aged in new American white oak barrels. Signature Stranahan’s expressions include Original, Blue Peak, Sherry Cask, Diamond Peak, Mountain Angel 10 Years Old, and the limited-edition yearly release, Snowflake. 

As with prior tailgates, last December’s Snowflake bash served perfectly as a whiskey lover’s paradise.

Though Snowflake wasn’t available for purchase until Saturday December 3 2022, “Strana-fans” – the moniker given to Stranahan’s followers – began arriving at the distillery as soon as Wednesday morning of that week. Braving chilly temperatures and brisk wind, some of the devoted Strana-fans opted to camp within an allocated area on the distillery’s premises, part of the Snowflake Village.

Photo Credit: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

Those not willing to brave the cold in a tent stayed in local hotels after traveling long distances, such as Minnesota native (and Strana-fan) Brandon Budde. He took the 13-plus-hour drive from Saint Cloud, Minnesota to Denver just to get a taste of the ultra-rare whiskey and bask in the buzzy atmosphere. The biggest draw outside of Snowflake is the people, Budde mentions. He adds, “If you’re a whiskey nerd surrounded by whiskey people, there’s never a shortage of things you can talk about. So, you’re always on common ground.”

Sharing Budde’s sentiments, you can’t contain your joy and contagious anticipation within the Snowflake Village as you explore the distillery grounds. It’s the one place where you can soak in live music from Stranahan’s co-founder’s musical act, Jess Graber & the Highway 82 Band, munch on tasty eats (hello, crepes) from local food trucks, and imbibe different Stranahan’s-based cocktails at pairing stations.  

Although Snowflake may seem new as rare and premium American single malt, it was conceptualized in 2006 by Stranahan’s co-founder and founder of TINCUP Whiskey, Jess Graber. The project was inspired by Graber and his team’s observation of Scotch distilleries experimenting with different casks. So, determined to mimic the cask-finishing process with a Stranahan’s twist, the distillery used Cabernet Sauvignon and port among the first cask finishes
for Snowflake.

Graber says, “We thought, ‘Well, this whiskey is going to be different than any other, just like no two snowflakes are alike.’” From playing on downtime at the distillery to the Snowflake release becoming a cultural event, Graber mentions this phenomenon was the result of mere happenstance – without traditional marketing – and whiskey lovers’ craving for exclusivity.

Colorado is recognized for its elevation and mountains, and those regional characteristics have a distinct impact on the overall whiskey character as it matures. The state’s high altitude leads to a unique angel’s share loss. Stranahan’s loses more out of its casks than if it were aging at sea level, resulting in a higher-proof whiskey with a robust and complex palate. So, in addition to working in harmony with Mother Nature, Snowflake’s remarkable flavors shine through thanks to the various cask finishes.  

Photo Credit: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

Per custom, each Snowflake is an American single malt aged between five and 10 years in new American white oak barrels with a #3 char before transferring to a variety of wine, sherry, and rum casks from around the world. As a result, each year’s batch spends a variable amount of time in different barrels, resulting in a unique flavor profile each year.

The 2022 Snowflake, batch 25, a.k.a. Humboldt Peak, is named per Stranahan’s tradition for a “14er” or Colorado mountain peaking at more than 14,000 feet. The 2022 Snowflake expression was finished in former Cabernet Sauvignon, Oloroso sherry, and Barbados rum casks. The result? A fruit-forward pour with a touch of toasted marshmallow nose, and savory orange marmalade on the palate, culminating in a long, spicy crescendo.

Snowflake’s alluring appeal intrigued Jason Levinson, the Colorado whiskey educator for Proximo Spirits. Levinson, who’s been with Stranahan’s for nearly
two years, experienced his first Snowflake release in 2021 at Denver’s outdoors Red Rocks Amphitheatre. As a result of the surge in Covid-19 cases in 2021, the distillery hosted its first-ever offsite unveiling of Snowflake. Strana-fans began lining up at 3am, with all the Snowflake bottles sold in just three hours.

Outside of the delicious nuances of Snowflake, it’s the Stranahan’s culture that keeps both Strana-fans and staff enthusiastic about the single malt. For example, Levinson was introduced to Stranahan’s in 2020 when he and his friend hit the distillery for a whiskey tasting. Unfortunately, Levinson’s seven-year background in real estate didn’t lend much time to tap into his true passion, the spirits industry. So, in 2020, after growing weary of real estate, he applied for an open part-time tour guide role at Stranahan’s. He then progressed into working alongside Owen Martin, Stranahan’s former master distiller, to help part-time on the distilling team. He hasn’t looked back since.

“I feel really fortunate that Colorado had embraced us because we were the first whiskey distillery in Colorado when I first started,” Graber says. “Now there are over 90 distilleries in Colorado making different things, but my philosophy is, John Wayne didn’t walk into a bar and say, ‘How about a mango-infused vodka? Make it a double!’ So, we stay true to whiskey, and Colorado embraces that.”

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