John Hansen’s first encounter with Stranahan’s special Snowflake batch began with a promise.

It was April 2016, and the Roaring Fork Valley local was talking single malts with a few colleagues at a work conference in Indianapolis. “Both of the guys asked me if I liked Stranahan whiskey, and I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely. I’m a Colorado boy; I love it,’” the 53-year-old outdoor sales specialist recalls.

The trio gushed over Stranahan’s smooth taste and sherry cask finishes, prompting the two others to ask Colorado-based Hansen for a favor: Do you think you can get us a bottle of Snowflake?

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Hansen remembers telling them. He’d never heard of Snowflake before, but how hard could it be to find a bottle of local whiskey in his home state?

But when Hansen returned to Colorado, he quickly learned he couldn’t just pop into the nearest Total Wine and pick up a bottle of Snowflake. In fact, he couldn’t even find one at Stranahan’s Denver distillery.

“I find out that it’s a limited release—one time per year—and you literally have to go out and spend the night on the cold sidewalk to get a chance at two bottles of this,” Hansen says.

Snowflake Batch #25, Humboldt Peak. Photo courtesy of Stranahan’s

It’s a tradition that’s been around in some version for more than a decade. The distillers at Stranahan’s began releasing special-edition whiskeys in 2007, and by 2011, calling each one Snowflake because, like its namesake, no two batches are the same. Details about the finishing choices and flavor profile aren’t released to the public until the bottle is, when the prized handles are sold each year at the Baker distillery.

This year’s release falls on Saturday, December 2. As tradition dictates, the 2023 rendition, Batch #26, will bear the name of a fourteener, as a nod to Stranahan’s Centennial State roots. The distillery never reveals exactly how many bottles will be available, but if you want one, you’ll need to pack your tent. Diehards claim their place in line as early as 9 a.m. on the Thursday before the launch. “Most people just can’t relate to spending the night next to a whiskey manufacturer just to get a bottle of booze,” Hansen laughs, “and you know, I think that’s what’s so special about it.”

And while it’s not backcountry camping in the Rockies, this little overnight stay isn’t always easy. Last year’s release was so blustery that Hansen’s tent blew over 16 times. In 2018, there was a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground—just Mother Nature ringing in the new bottle. “That’s when you’re questioning, ‘Do I really need to be here for this stupid bottle of whiskey?’” Hansen says.

And yet, he keeps showing up. For the first few years, Hansen camped out alone. Then in 2018—just in time for that snowy special release—he convinced a few buddies to join. Now, it’s become an annual getaway for them, and they never forget their space heaters.

As the excitement around Snowflake has grown, so have the festivities. The Snowflake Village gives campers a place to socialize while they wait out the whiskey. This year’s village includes a cocktail bar, games, concerts, food trucks, a Q&A with head blender Justin Aden (it’s his first iteration of Snowflake), and even a whiskey sensory analysis class.

Photo by Nikki A. Rae

But Hansen insists it’s the people that keep Strana-fans returning year after year. In 2017, back when Hansen completed his Snowflake quest solo, he struck up a conversation with the woman camping beside him. It was her first year at the release, but her family had history with the whiskey. Her father, a Snowflake superfan, had been to every single release since its inception.

“Well, where is he? I’ve gotta meet this guy!” Hansen said to her.

But Hansen wouldn’t get the chance to meet him. Her father had been diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t spend a night on the sidewalk to snag the year’s rendition. So, she went in his place.

“And I’ll tell you what, every single year, I see her,” Hansen says. “She’ll be there this year, I can guarantee it.”

And while she might be gracious enough to sleep out in the cold to secure a bottle for someone else, Hansen has never felt quite so charitable. He may have promised his colleagues a bottle of Snowflake back in 2016 but did he deliver?

“Absolutely not. I got the two bottles, and I promptly called up both of my buddies and I said, ‘Listen, you’re not getting a bottle of this because I’m going to drink both of them,” Hansen says. “I’m just glad it wasn’t my boss.”

Snowflake release festivities will take place at Stranahan’s Distillery at 200 S. Kalamath St. from 9 a.m. Friday, December 1 through Saturday morning when the bottle is released. Exact time of release is not publicly announced.

Jessica Giles
Jessica Giles
Jessica is a senior associate editor on 5280's digital team.