What makes these hard-to-find whiskeys so special? And why should you add one to your spirits list?
It’s human nature: we always want what we can’t have. Whiskey aficionados who come across rare expressions on a drinks menu will be thrilled at the chance to sip the obscure and unattainable.
You’ll see from this list that that doesn’t always translate to the most expensive; yet for dram fans these bottles are priceless.
Trust us when we say they are worth endless calls to distributors or retailers, online searches and maybe even a cross-country field trip.
Bottles produced: 1,600 per year (maximum 2 sold per person)
Retail price: $100
Where available: One day a year at the Colorado distillery
Tasting note: “For the latest batch, Snowflake Quandary Peak, there are tasting notes of creamy bread pudding, honeyed almonds, briny maple syrup, luscious notes of mulled black cherries, and a lingering amaretto cheesecake finish that leaves you longing for the next sip,” touts master distiller Rob Dietrich.
What makes it special: It’s rare and just about impossible to find, unless you camp out for days ahead of time at the distillery.
It was before dawn on a December Saturday at Stranahan’s Distillery in Denver, and I was bundled up in a Patagonia layering jacket, fuzzy boots and newly procured Bailey felt hat. (Admittedly, I’m not a “hat person,” but when in Colorado...) The atmosphere was not unlike a festival, as people buzzed around, a live band performed under a heated tent, and food trucks doled out whiskey-spiked coffee and donuts poked with whiskey-filled syringes.
As the sun started to rise, the other members of the media and I were invited to “walk to line,” i.e. meet and chat with some of the hundreds of Strana-fans who had been camping out—some since early Wednesday afternoon—all for the chance to snag one or two bottles of Snowflake. The Colorado craft distillery’s rarest whiskey, released yearly, is always aged no less than two years in new white oak American barrels with a #3 char, then transferred to used wine, sherry, Cognac, rum or tequila barrels where the spirit absorbs uniquely rich (and always different, hence the poetic name) aromas and flavors.
Despite the frigid temps, the energy was palpable, and those who weren’t still curled up in their tents and sleeping bags were amenable, affably chatting with their neighbors in line, sharing coffee from Thermoses (augmented no doubt with a liberal splash of whiskey) and grilling up hot dogs and burgers for breakfast.
I headed to the front of the line, the spot for the most seriously dedicated Strana-fans, where tents were replaced by pop-up trailers and RVs. I found out that Russell, who had been first in line every year since 2011, was beat out this year by two guys who arrived in a camper from Wisconsin. This year Russell would have to settle for second place—which meant he wouldn’t be adding hand-numbered bottles #1 and #2 to his shelf. He was pretty bummed about it yet not at all mad at the Wisconsin duo, with whom he and his wife had struck up a friendship over the past three-and-a-half days (and nights). I walked around the block, eventually finding myself next to the “Sold Out” sign no Stranafan wants to find themselves standing behind.
Master distiller Rob Dietrich always makes himself accessible the entire weekend of Snowflake’s release, walking the line himself, meeting fans and inviting them into the distillery to warm up, sip some whiskey, and learn just what makes them stand out in the freezing cold to snatch up these coveted 1,600 bottles. “It is always a treat to meet the hearty folks who have taken precious time out of their lives to spend hours in line waiting for our whiskey,” he told me. “I love seeing people helping each other out, sharing food, whiskey and stories, [and] I have seen a lot of people become lifelong friends from waiting in the Snowflake line and connecting over their adventures.”
He was inspired to create Snowflake back in 2007 when founder Jess Graber launched a cask-finishing project. The first three expressions were actually released at the same time, each one an individual barrel of 280 bottles each: one finished in Port, another in Hungarian white oak and a third in Cabernet Franc. They sold them at the distillery, then began cask-finishing spirits in unique barrels and releasing only one at a time. In 2011, Dietrich began marrying in-house cask-finished barrels, and as he puts it, it took off like a prairie fire. “People were lining up the day of the release and, over time, people started lining up earlier and earlier, as more and more people wanted to get their hands on these unique whiskeys,” he recalls.
Stranahan’s goal, Dietrich says, has always been to make a high-quality whiskey that celebrates the Rockies. “To me, Snowflake represents experimentation, innovation and the ability to have a little fun with our whiskey; it’s where I get to make unique whiskey art.” I asked him what defines a “cult whiskey”—and if Snowflake qualifies.
“A cult whiskey is where folks are uber-fans going to great lengths to get their hands on our specialty releases,” he told me. “The amount of passion that I see in our Strana-fans is inspiring, and keeps me always endeavoring to ‘out-Snowflake’ the last Snowflake release that I made.”
While it used to be disheartening for him to learn that bottles were ending up on eBay selling for three to four times their retail price, Dietrich has learned to accept that just as no two releases of Snowflake are alike, there is no one way to enjoy it either, whether that means cracking it open around the holidays, holding onto it for a special occasion, collecting it—or selling it. “‘Live large and take chances’ has been my motto for some time now, and that absolutely applies to enjoying your whiskey the way you want to.”
Wanting to put that mantra into action, I decided to pay it forward. As everyone else in line ahead of that sold out sign, I had been given two tickets which entitled me to purchase another bottle in addition to the one I would be given as media on assignment. (Which obviously after meeting these fans, I already felt guilty enough about.) I definitely wanted a bottle—but did I really need two? As a spirits writer, I am fortunate to have amassed a well-stocked home bar of spirits from all over the world.
I walked behind that sold out sign, past a few small groups of people, and came upon a guy standing by himself. He was moving out of Colorado soon he told me, and this was going to be his last chance to buy a bottle of Snowflake. He was still hanging around on the off chance that a few people in front of him would decide not to purchase both bottles and there would be a few remaining when he made his way to the cashier, but wasn’t feeling especially hopeful. When I asked him if he wanted one of my tickets, he looked at me incredulously, and I felt warm and fuzzy inside, kind of like Santa Claus and a Fairy Godmother. (Though on retrospect maybe it just was all that whiskey I consumed before dawn along with one too many boozy donuts.)
After I snaked through the barrels in line, accepted a few pours of other Stranahan’s expressions from friendly tasting room staff, and had an eye-opening whiskey cocktail, it was finally my turn to get my hands on my bottle (#714 to be exact), capped with a stainless steel jigger and then immediately signed by Dietrich himself.
As I made my way outside in the mid-morning sunshine, I saw that the Strana-fan who held my other ticket was almost at the front of the line, and we snapped a selfie. I also heard that those two guys from Wisconsin ended up trading with Russell so he could once again have bottle #1.
Whiskey, it seems, brings out the best in people.
What is it: A bourbon made and aged at the iconic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, by a brand that pays homage to the legendary place where some of the world’s best whiskey was crafted. The name is an homage to the parts of a key, as it’s said there are five keys to making bourbon: grains, yeast, fermentation, distillation and aging.
Bottles produced: Undisclosed
Retail price: $250
Where available: Kentucky, New York, Illinois, California, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Oregon and the distillery. Check Reserve Bar for online availability.
Tasting note: Aromas of toasted oak, vanilla bean figs and dark caramel are joined on the palate by a smooth and smoky palate with good oak structure and notes of torched sugar, sweet vanilla and spicy dry rye on the finish.
What is it: To celebrate Eddie Russell’s 35th anniversary at Wild Turkey, the master distiller created this bourbon to celebrate the next chapter of his family’s legacy. It’s made from a blend of whiskies aged 10 to 20 years to produce a whiskey “with the finesse and deep character of older bourbon, anchored by the bold, balanced and vibrant backbone of younger bourbon,” he says.
Bottles produced: Undisclosed
Retail price: $150
Where available: Available nationally and at the Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Tasting note: “This 104-proof Kentucky straight bourbon has a nose of oak and caramel,” Russell says. “It delivers intricate notes of butterscotch, dried fruit, chocolate, and smoke and lingers with a smooth, sweet, and spicy finish.”
What makes it special: “This release represents my career not only as master distiller, but back when I was mastering the menial jobs at the distillery,” Russell muses. “It was during these thirty-five years that my father taught me the values of integrity, craftsmanship and never compromising on quality, [and] my career has led up to this moment.”
What is it: A limited edition Bourbon to commemorate the 50 years that Al Young has been with the distillery. As distillery manager during recent years, he turned things around at the company and has been influential in Four Roses being viewed as a world-class whiskey. It’s a blend of different age statements: 23, 15, 13 and 12 years old.
Bottles produced: 11,076
Retail price: $150
Where available: In the U.S. market, but highly allocated and sought after.
Tasting note: “It’s balanced with a lot of spice and delicate fruits and coats the palate with mellow hints of vanilla and spearmint,” notes master distiller Brent Elliott. “All of the complex flavors have a nice undercurrent of gentle, aged oak that starts mid-palate and continues through the long, rich finish.”
What makes it special: Young asked for something older to be included, which is why a portion of the blend includes the 23 year old. (Prior to this bottling, the oldest spirit they had used in a limited edition was a 19 year old.) It’s packaged in the same bottle design in which Four Roses was sold in 1967, the year Young began his career with Seagram’s, with a similar label and a cork finish instead of the original plastic cap.
What is it: A yearly limited-edition bourbon first introduced in 2002 which serves as a celebratory release commemorating the birthday of George Garvin Brown, founder of Old Forester and Brown-Forman. It’s always 12 years old and is the most mature expression that Old Forester offers.
Bottles produced: Varies each year depending on the final proof decision.
Retail price: $79.99
Where available: Released each September and allocated across the country by their distributor partners.
Tasting note: “Each year is completely different, some years are incredibly spice driven, some more malty, some sweet,” says Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan. “Part of the anticipation of each year's release is to see a one-of-a-kind vintage of Old Forester.”
What makes it special: “The product is the result of one day’s production of Old Forester, proofed to showcase its best balance and quality,” explains Zykan. “After maturing in a heat-cycled warehouse, we are left with 10 to 15 percent volume in the barrels, which makes for a very limited product.”
What is it: “This expression is really about [Maker’s Mark chairman emeritus] Bill’s desire to build a version of Maker’s Mark that’s deeper, richer, and longer lasting than the original, with the same flavor-forward finish in mind,” says master distiller Greg Davis. “It’s an enhancement of all the great elements Maker’s Mark already boasts.” It’s finished on the same type of seared French oak staves used for Maker’s 46.
Bottles produced: Undisclosed
Retail price: $80
Where available: In select Kentucky retailers and at the Kentucky distillery
Tasting note: “The mouthfeel still holds that flavor-forward taste profile that Maker’s Mark fans have come to know and love, but with a deeper palate with a long-lasting finish,” explains Davis.
What makes it special: Maker’s Mark is known for its Private Select program, where individuals or groups can create a proprietary recipe of bourbon finished in any combination of five different kinds of staves. This is basically Samuels’ own personal Private Select expression.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.