Interview: Cris Steller / Dry Diggings Distillery

I met Cris Steller briefly in the summer of 2018 when my folks and I stopped into Dry Diggings Distillery, in El Dorado Hills—situated off Highway 50 halfway between Sacramento and my hometown of Placerville, CA. His daughter, Erica Steller, runs the tasting room. But her father, the owner, flew in and stopped to chat with us while Erica was helping other visitors.

After a bit of conversation, Steller shared with us a taste of something called 31n50 Barrel #3. It was clear from the statuesque bottle and the care with which Steller presented it to us that this was no ordinary bottle of booze. Indeed, we were all taken aback by its almost atomic caramel power.

Steller told us Barrel #4 would be opened in a couple weeks and there’d be a barrel opening party, to which twenty-five people could sign up to attend. I bought a bottle of Engine 49 Barrel Strength Bourbon, bid Steller farewell and headed back to San Francisco.

Two weeks later my folks went to the Barrel #4 opening. Steller talked a bit about the distillery. Then the barrel was opened, everyone gathered around to smell it (“Like chocolate,” my mother told me) and the proof was measured—a smoldering 143.1!

Some weeks later my folks delivered to me a gorgeous bottle of 31n50 Barrel #4. A few months after that, for Christmas, they gave me a four-bottle set of Dry Diggings’ Rubicon Rye single barrels. And finally, one hot Friday this past July, I returned to Dry Diggings myself to sit down with Steller and ask him more about the distillery, 31n50, and why he makes whiskey.

MARK J: What got you started on your whiskey journey?

CRIS STELLER: Really, it was moving to Mexico and getting involved with friends who themselves had friends had families that owned agave fields. I’d been all over southern Baja to countless agave groves, met a couple of guys who had stills, and to keep busy when I wasn’t working I would hang out with them. I was never a big whiskey fan per se. My dad was, but I wasn’t. Tequila is what fueled my interest. Working around it and seeing the small family operations—that is what interested me, because I like traditions, I like history, and I like excuses for family to do stuff together that isn’t normal.

In my previous professional life—which was running trade associations in mainly industrial non-profit organizations—one of my clients was the California Retail Liquor Dealers Association. So I went to all the big famous wineries and brewing companies with them. And I was just a hanger on, there was never any intent to own a distillery. Suddenly though, after I met Lance Winters from St. George Spirits, then Arthur Hartunian from Napa Valley Distillery, then Melkon Khosrovian from Greenbar Distillery, I thought, I could do what they’re doing.

My own family thinks it’s hilarious. Because I don’t drink a lot. But I’m picky when I do, and there has to be more to it than it tastes good. I need the total package. And that is what shaped this place: I don’t just want to make bourbon, I want to make 31n50. Even with our Engine 49 brand, which is our more bar-friendly, price-point friendly, everyday product, there’s still a lot more going on inside it than a typical brand. There are lots of people who make good booze. We make good booze, with a good story, and with… sincerity, I guess.

You mentioned you don’t just want to make bourbon, you want to make 31n50. It does seem that 31n50 is the central feature of what you do. My memory from when we met here a year ago is that you said 31n50 was an experiment to see how the intense dry heat here in El Dorado County would impact things.

So 31n50 came about because I had already had an inkling—because of my background—that the whole sourced whiskey thing was going to get badmouthed in a big way. And I believe it’s probably a good thing that that happened, because we had to mature as an industry. And there are still people out there who aren’t being honest. I wanted from the beginning to always be honest with the consumer. So 31n50 was a way for us to say, We are buying this, yes, but here’s why.

So we bought twelve barrels from Indiana that we were involved in the making of, using a very middle of the road mash bill—it’s 70% corn, 21% rye, 9% barley—a good aging mash bill. This was twelve or fifteen years ago. Nobody was aging things a long time and selling them. I mean, there were orphan barrels sitting in warehouses. But back then a seven or eight-year bourbon was an outlier. Now you’re seeing more ten and twelve-year bourbons. But back then that wasn’t a thing. So I wanted to learn from an aging process.

Also, when you talked to bourbon people then, there was no talk of terroir because they were all in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, right next door to each other. But when you talked to wine people—even Amador County versus El Dorado County, versus Napa, versus Sonoma—the first thing they always said was there are big big differences.

So my thought was, okay, we need to figure out how to establish what, for us, is local—from the farmer, the yeast, the water, the process. And then the aging. So I needed to buy some barrels—industry ISC #3 char, nothing special. Get a good solid distillation and fermentation, but other than that unremarkable. Bring them out here. Put them in a corner of our small warehouse next to the stills. And just rotate them once in a while, let them age and basically cook in the weather we have here, which is dramatically different than Kentucky.

As it went along, I would monitor Barrel #1 and we learned that in six years the proof went from 125 down to 120.9 or so, and then it went back up to 122.5 in year seven, when we bottled it. Then you progress along to eight years, nine years, ten and a half. The current batch behind the bar, Barrel #5, is ten and a half years and 142.6 proof.

A proof slightly down from Barrel #4.

Yes, and that’s the thing: with every barrel the color and proof are different. Everybody thinks all this stuff is linear. It’s not. So we have a barrel that’s bottled back there at 148.8, some at 146, some at 144, and not in the twelve barrels’ numeric order. I built a little display on top of my office bar where I’ve lined up individual bottles of the first ten barrels, and it’s interesting to see the colors—sometimes it’s nuanced and not a huge difference, and others are dramatically different. And you can compare the color to the proof.

We keep the first and last cases of each batch—so bottles 1 through 6, then whatever numbers the final case ends up being—and that gives us 12 bottles per batch to donate to different charities. So, 144 bottles will eventually go to charities. That’s what’s going to be fun, that hopefully we raise a ton of money for somebody. Because the reputation of 31n50 has grown in a kind of underground way. We don’t advertise it. We don’t submit it to any competitions. We don’t even talk about it in the tasting room, unless someone asks about it. So while it’s the core of what we’ve done, we’re far better known for the Rubicon Rye.

What does the 31n50 represent to you?

It starts with the name. California was the thirty-first state accepted into the union, in 1850. So we’re thirty-first out of fifty states—31n50. It’s my way of saying California without really saying it.

Then if you look at the design of the label itself, there’s more. I’m an off-road guy. And if you ride off-road through the California Sierra Nevadas there are vertical wooden paddle markers that mark all the trails. That’s why the name is stacked vertically. And the shape of the label is that of the decorative piece that goes on the door handle of Victorian doors.

And then if you look at the fonts, there are several different fonts on the label because that’s how they did it back in the Gold Rush. People think it was a style, but it wasn’t. It was because they had only so many letters and numbers on hand in each type-set of each font. So when they made those big signs, the reason there were so many crazy fonts and font sizes was because that’s what they had for type-setting.

They were working with what they had.

Yes. And this history is also where we got other names like Rubicon Rye and Bodie Whiskey. There are a number of historical references that go back to the Gold Rush.

So beyond taste, what is important to you in a whiskey?

What was important to me with 31n50 was to be pure to the mash bill, to the yeast, and then to accentuate whatever we got from the process. So it’s untouched. We run it through what some people might think is a cheese cloth, into a steel-grated separator, cover it up and let it rest for five to seven days, and then it goes straight into a bottle. It does not get proofed, it does not get altered, no chill filtering, nothing. It’s as pure an expression as you can get. 

You see, in Kentucky the master distillers are like rock stars. In Scotland it’s the blender. In Japan it’s the whole process, and no one person is the rock star. We wanted the local weather to be the rock star. That’s what 31n50 is supposed to be. We don’t really sell it. We present it and say, It is what it is.

And people have asked, Well, if you knew it was going to be so good, why did you only do twelve barrels? I didn’t know it was going to be so good. But I knew it was going to be pure. My gut just told me: our temperature here is going to extract everything the wood has to give, and that’s going to be enough in and of itself.

So in addition to being an experiment, which is part of its identity, 31n50 is there to shape your overall brand identity by saying: We’re not here just to churn whiskey out, but to make something special to this area that draws on what is particular about the region.

That’s right. And there’s something very personal to it as well. You’ll notice the age of my two younger kids. My daughter Erica has been here from the very early days, running events, the tasting room, so many aspects of the business. She has literally grown up in the distillery. And my son Kendric is now the assistant distiller and does a tremendous amount of work. They were in high school when all this started, and I missed a lot my son’s football games and other social events. So a lot of sacrifice went into 31n50, not just in terms of the money it cost to lay the barrels up that long, but a lot of time spent away physically, here, on hot nights running fans and hoses to cool the barrels down—because there would have been nothing left had we not cared for them, it would all have evaporated.

One of your Instagram posts said that “interviews” were starting for Batch #5.

Yes, people think it’s a joke or a marketing gimmick. It’s really not. Although my daughters say that asking for a bottle of 31n50 is harder than getting a date with one of them. I don’t know if that’s true. But it is funny.

It’s super personal. I have turned down people. We have a lot of people making a lot of money in this area. A young guy comes in, driving a really expensive car, and obviously he can afford a $200 bottle of bourbon. But the moment we start talking and he says his favorite cocktail on a Friday night is a bourbon and coke, he’s just talked himself out of buying a bottle. 

I don’t even like it when people who have a bottle say they’ve never tried it without ice. After you’ve tried it all on its own, then if you need to put it on ice, that’s fine. But if you tell me you’re just going to add a bunch of water to it, why are you buying it? The whole purpose of 31n50 is purity. The only way to keep that intent is to leave it at the proof that it was bottled.

Also—and especially with these latest batches—there’s usually only less than sixty or so bottles available to sell. So when we do the interview, I look for people’s attitudes about how they drink. With good seafood, for example, are you going to plaster it with tartar sauce and ketchup, or are you going to first give it a shot the way it was meant to be eaten? That’s my biggest request. This is your special opportunity bottle. It’s not famous, so you’re drinking it because there’s a connection there. Drink it the way the chef intended. I don’t at all see myself as being in the same league of some other brands. But with 31n50 I hope what people will get out of it is the kind of involvement and care that went into it.

Whiskey has played such a big role in our American culture and history. But I was surprised by my own interest in it. But then I started to notice parallels between whiskey and theater, which has always been at the center of my life. They’re both hand-made processes, very personal, and also very social and political. And whiskey has an even deeper relationship to our American culture—it’s a contentious subject, people denounce it, others hold it up, it ruins people’s lives and opens up others. 

Just like all art.

Yes. And so what are the ethics of it? And I don’t mean To drink or not to drink. There are a set of values embedded in whiskey-making, and in the whiskey itself. 

Yes.

31n50 seems like a good example. From the bottle to the bourbon inside, it embodies a set of values. What are your thoughts about that?

I love reading Chuck Cowdery’s writing on whiskey. I don’t always agree with him. Some of what he writes makes me angry, some of it makes me so happy I could jump up and down. That’s good writing. And I think good theater is that way, and good painting. 

So when people ask what my true inspiration for doing this was—well, it’s very ironic. I found out late in life that I was adopted. I grew up with a German last name. Turns out I’m nearly 100% Scottish, and from a very narrow subset of DNA in Scotland. And when we traced things back, we found I’m a blood relative to John S. Drummond, who started the very first licensed distillery in Scotland in the 1700’s. Not the first distillery, the first licensed distillery—a very key distinction!

So people say, Oh, so that’s why you did it. No, I had no idea. My son’s name is Kendric, a very ethnically Scottish name. The horses we own are the Shire breed, traditionally the war horses of Scotland. And yet I had no idea I had Scottish blood in me. Some things are meant to be.

What drew me to it is—I can’t draw, I can’t sing, I can’t act, I can’t do anything artistic. I have lots of friends that are involved in the crafts and trades, friends who are artists at welding, brick layers, concrete guys, architects. I can’t do any of those things. I’m not a patient guy by nature. But the aging process of whiskey, that’s the only thing I have patience for. I love the pay off when you do wait. My original partners in this were more technical. But in this area I considered myself artistic, because I can look at the barrels and guess where they might go, when to give them more time, when to move them around in the warehouse. I don’t know if it’s a natural talent or if I’m just lucky. I suspect it’s luck.

Our products have gone through an aging process here that’s made them different and unique. And with whiskey making, what’s the most important thing? Is where it was distilled important? Sure. Is the grain important? Sure. The fermentation? Sure. But what’s most important? Personally, what 31n50 has taught me is that the distillate itself can be black and white, it’s good or it’s bad. Same with fermentation, the grain, and the rest. But if everything is good and consistent up to barreling, then it’s the barrel and the aging process that bring out the character and define it. That’s where the art is.

So if theater is the art of storytelling, what is whiskey the art of?

It’s the expression of the intensity of passion, mixed with the science and the art of the location. There’s a layering there that goes back and forth. I don’t think any one particular aspect gets to take credit, except perhaps the intensity of that passion in the people involved in making it. This passion is just as significant and important in big distilleries like Jim Beam or Buffalo Trace as it is in my little spec of a place here in California. All you have to do is look in Jimmy Russell’s eye, he’s every bit as into what he does as I am. I’ve had lots of advice and help from the big guys. I hope in whatever I do as a small guy, I’m giving back up the food chain.

Acting on stage—if that’s what I did—would to me be very difficult because of the months it takes to get good at playing a particular part, and then the payoff is so fleeting. With bourbon, there are bottles that have been around for a hundred years. It’s a lasting thing.

Last question. A favorite whiskey moment? Whether in the making, drinking, or the sharing?

…I would say, any of the times that I heard my dad talk about what we were doing here and how proud he was of it. He was always very supportive. But this was something special, because it was a kind of connection—he’d always enjoyed whiskey. And then also having all three kids be involved and interested, that they’ve picked up that this is kind of a neat gig.

I don’t feel a need to be famous or wealthy from doing this. But nothing snaps me out of a bad mood like getting into a conversation like this, when someone comes into the tasting room and says, Can I just ask you a question? That’s what all this is about. I chose to be a tasting room, and to not worry about distribution and not let distributors push me around, in order to pursue the purity of how I want this to be. Am I lucky that I’m still here after ten years? Absolutely. Because very few last. 

We’re very fortunate, and have a lot of supporters and people who get that this is not an act. I hope people get there is nothing made up here. And I won’t say everybody loves me. They don’t. But those who get what we’re doing are as tight as family.

And what we’ve done in the first ten years is just the beginning. We’re experimenting with barrels. And it costs a lot of money to do these kinds of experiments, and to experiment with the process. But what taught us to go ahead and just go for it? 31n50. That’s why 31n50 is at the center of things. It taught us not to be scared.

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