For Chris Cosentino, an Albuquerque-based whiskey collector, it’s all about the chase. He’s driven across the country to distilleries and even camped out overnight in freezing temperatures.
“It’s the adventure of hunting it down,” he says. “It’s about the exploration.”
He’s one of many who seek out cult spirits, or annual or semiannual small-batch releases with a devoted following.
“[They’re] cool for those in the know before they potentially reach a broader audience,” says Nima Ansari, spirits buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City. “They remain highly sought after because they always were and continue to be high quality and unlike anything else.”
Here are five bottles with cult appeal to add to your watchlist, plus more broadly available bottles from each distillery.
Letherbee Seasonal Gins
A bartending job at a farm-to-table restaurant inspired Brenton Engel, founder of Chicago’s Letherbee Distillers, to add two seasonal gins to his lineup each year: Vernal (spring/summer) and Autumnal (fall/winter).
“The excitement the staff had for the ingredients we’d get every week, that was probably the biggest influence for the idea,” he says.
Vernal 2020, a horseradish flavored gin, included 175 cases. The small batches often spotlight unusual flavorings that range from roasted rice and seaweed to incense-like palo santo wood smoke.
“Burning wood inside a distillery was probably not the best idea,” says Engel. “We turned our still into a giant bong.”
Other flavors have included strawberry, eucalyptus and vanilla. The breakout hit was a 2015 tiki-inspired gin with a sweet-savory mix of papaya, pineapple and toasted coconut. Engel says he still gets requests for it.
“The idea is to really try to incorporate ingredients into the world of gin that have never been considered to be used by anybody previously,” says Engel. Though juniper and coriander are always part of the mix, “the flexibility of the criteria of gin comes in handy.”
Letherbee Gin Original Label: It’s made with 11 botanicals that include cardamom, cubeb berries and orange peel, bottled at 48% alcohol by volume (abv).
Typically released during the first week of December, this Denver whiskey got its name because, like snowflakes, no two batches of are alike.
“The first few Snowflakes were released just as single-barrel experiments,” says Owen Martin, head distiller of Stranahan’s, and the third to curate the collection. The earliest editions were finished in ex-wine barrels that ranged from Port to Napa reds.
Experiments have included blending multiple barrels, as well as spirits and beer finishes, the latter of which draws upon Colorado’s craft brewery influence.
“Last year’s used nine different barrels, that was crazy,” says Martin. “It was also the first time we used a rum barrel.” For 2020, he’s hoping to streamline the number of barrels.
It’s available only at the distillery, and procuring a bottle has become an event. So-called “Stranafans” wait in line overnight. Some camp out for days. This behavior is encouraged by Stranahan’s, which hosts “Snowflake Village” with a big tent, live music, cocktails and giveaways.
“We turned it into a big party for the last 24 hours before the release actually happened,” says Martin. “It’s a ‘you have to earn it’ type thing.”
While Snowflake Village may be on pause for 2020, Stranahan’s release will continue as usual.
Stranahan’s Sherry Cask: A Sherry-finished single malt, or Stranahan’s Diamond Peak, a small-batch single malt selected by the distiller.
Privateer Rum Distiller’s Drawer
“The founder, Andrew Cabot, and I had talked about distillers who have bottles in their drawer as an example of something [they’re] proud of,” says Maggie Campbell, president/head distiller. Not long after, she sampled a rum that turned out to be extra special.
“It just had the stuff,” she says.
“That concentration, the finesse. I remember marking it as DD: Distiller’s Drawer… I said, this is something I’d be proud to have in my drawer.”
The first Distiller’s Drawer offerings were released in fall 2016. Each is a single barrel, 200 bottles in all.
Usually, it’s rum, but previous releases have also spanned American single-malt whiskey and a peach brandy. The latter was the fastest-ever sellout, gone in 45 minutes.
Typically, fans line up at sunrise, and a local coffee roaster provides java and doughnuts. This year, it’s all online presale and curbside pickup. Some bottles also are available via Washington, D.C., retailer Seelbach’s.
Over the years, people have traveled increasing distances to pick up releases, Campbell notes.
“People were flying in from San Francisco, and then from other countries,” she says, including Jamaica, a notable rum-producing region.
You came here for rum? she remembers thinking. “It blew my mind. I was touched by that.
Privateer Rum Queen’s Share: a rich, aromatic New England rum, named for the best barrels in a distillery
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
It was hard to miss the line of people outside the distiller’s Louisville facility on Repeal Day, December 5, 2019.
At 9 am, some were settled in lawn chairs, snuggled into fleece blankets against the mild morning chill. At 10 am, the doors opened. The Birthday Bourbon on sale didn’t last long. “It sold out in 10 minutes flat,” said a clerk that morning.
Each September 2, plus on the occasional Repeal Day, Old Forester releases a limited-edition, vintage dated Birthday Bourbon in honor of founder George Garvin Brown (as in Brown-Forman, parent company to Old Forester).
This year will celebrate two milestones: the 150th year of the company, and the 20th anniversary of the Birthday Bourbon series.
It’s not as scarce as some of the other cult spirits. The 2020 edition comprises 95 barrels of 10-year-old Bourbon, “representing one day’s production of Old Forester,” the producer says.
Those bottles are allocated to retailers across the country, although diehards line up at the distillery to score one. For the September 2020 release, that pivoted to online orders and curbside pickup.
Yet, one of the things that makes it so exciting is to sample a new “vintage” each year. Some ardent collectors and whiskey bars hoard bottles to set up side-by-side tastings to see how the nuances shift. Not many spirits can support a flight that spans two full decades.
Old Forester 1870 Original Batch: This bottling blends barrels from three warehouses. It layers lively citrus and clove atop a caramel base.
Uncle Nearest 1820 Premium Whiskey
The brand, named for Nathan (Nearest) Green, an enslaved Black man noted for teaching a young Jack Daniel the craft of distillation, has a devoted following. To be considered for 1820, whiskey must be aged at least 11 years, with a cask strength of 54% abv or higher. It then needs to pass an internal tasting panel. While each bottling is a bit different, Weaver characterizes the flavor profile as “caramel, butterscotch, oatmeal cookie,” with “an incredibly long finish.”
The last 1820 release was in September 2019. The producer notified fans on the mailing list and set up a countdown clock.
“When the clock struck zero, our online retailer completely crashed,” says Weaver. The site came back online. It crashed again. And again. And again.
A technician explained that 20,000 people had signed in as the clock hit zero. Another 1820 release is planned for December, “a thank you during the holiday season.” At press time, Weaver was considering whether to go through retailers, rather than break the internet again.
Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey: The distillery’s flagship bottle, made with a blend of eight- to 11-year-old Tennessee whiskies and bottled at 50% abv, yields toasty vanilla and spice.