By this time last year, the party had already begun. Competitive whiskey fanatics and professional tailgaters from far and wide had already started lining up outside the Stranahan’s distillery on South Santa Fe in order to be the first through the door for the annual release of Snowflake — master distiller Rob Dietrich’s sublime limited-edition release that appears but once each winter only to be swept up in a matter of hours. While waiting outside for the better part of the week in what can be the freezing cold may seem absurd to the vast majority of casual drinkers, each year brings out more emboldened whiskey lovers for what may be one of the most unorthodox liquor events of the year.  This Saturday, the distillery will open its doors at 8 a.m. serving up bottles of the 21st edition — entitled Mount Elbert — on a first come first serve basis for $100 a pop.

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The product itself is undeniably good and getting better but the peculiar cult following and boisterous event that precedes the release have become an inextricable piece of why the bottle is so highly valued. Long-lasting friendships and good-natured rivalries have sprung up between the devotees, some of whom have been setting up shop on Santa Fe in RVs for multiple years. Starting at around 5 a.m. the courtyard outside the distillery turns into a predawn jamboree complete with numerous bands, coffee and of course plenty of whiskey. Inside the building, there is more music and more cocktails, which makes the long line not so much of a wait as an increasingly depraved bacchanal.

Each batch is named after one of Colorado’s many fourteeners. Mount Elbert — the tallest of all 58 — provided the inspiration for this year’s, particularly ambitious impression. Dietrich has served as master distiller since 2011 and has arguably transformed the American single malt whiskey house into what it is today.

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Each year Dietrich invents the latest iteration through a freestyle process in the comfort of his own home. He likens the process to making chili — the end result comes from a lot of experimentation from one of the state’s more refined whiskey palettes. This year’s version features Stranahan’s aged in a Syrah and Muscat cask both from Balisteri, a port cask, a California Merlot cask and Old Vine Zin cask from Spero, a Chocolate Stout cask finish, two Madeira casks and a rum cask. While this may sound like a lot, Dietrich carefully balances the flavors creating a remarkably nuanced drink unlike any other whiskey and decidedly different from their popular flagship product.

While you don’t necessarily have to show up days in advance to get a bottle, getting there before the crack of dawn is crucial if you want a shot. Even if you don’t get through the doors, the event is an awe-inspiring look at a distinctly American whiskey culture that Colorado should be proud of.

Stranahan’s is located at 200 South Kalamath St., Denver. For more information on this Saturday’s event, go here.

All photography by Alden Bonecutter from the 2017 release with the exception of the featured image, courtesy of Stranahan’s.

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