31n50 Bourbon Barrel #5

Barrel #5, bottle 60 (2019)

MASH BILL – 70% corn, 21% rye, 9% barley

PROOF – 142.6

AGE – 10 years 6 months

DISTILLERY – Dry Diggings Distillery

PRICE – $206

BUY AGAIN – Can’t! But I have Barrel #6 ready to go…!

My journey with Dry Diggings Distillery’s 31n50 Bourbon began in the summer of 2018, when my folks and I first stopped in to visit the distillery, nestled off the beaten track in El Dorado Hills, CA. Owner Cris Steller shared with us a taste of something called 31n50 Barrel #3. The bourbon’s statuesque bottle, and the care with which Steller presented it to us, were immediate indications this was no ordinary whiskey. We each took one sip and all agreed it was a very special caramel atomic bomb of a bourbon!

Cris Steller

A few weeks later, I was back in San Francisco when my parents attended a barrel opening party at Dry Diggings for what would be 31n50 Barrel #4. Some weeks later that barrel was bottled, and my folks delivered a bottle to me. When I uncorked it, that pungent caramel aroma hit my nose immediately. At a full 143.1 proof it was powerful indeed.

Then, right around this time last year, I shared what remained of my Barrel #4 bottle with a group of friends who’d gathered for an annual holiday crab feast. I quite enjoyed their reactions. There were many a raised eyebrow upon first sip. One friend cupped his glass with both hands, said “ooooh” as he closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, slipping into what appeared to be a quiet trance. Another friend similarly seemed to go into slow motion, turning to me to say, with measured diction, “This is the best bourbon I’ve ever tasted…”

That bottle of Barrel #4 is now long gone. But the impression it made on my friends at our holiday gathering added another lasting association to 31n50 for me. It had already been the bourbon of my hometown, expressing all the rich and intense seasonal weather—particularly the dry Summer heat, but also the Fall harvest season with its caramel apples and fresh baked pies. Having shared it with my friends, I now also associate 31n50 with Winter holidays when we’re cozy and warm together indoors and the night outside is chilly and biting.

This year, unable to gather with friends during the pandemic, I must settle for fond memories. So here I am sitting down again with 31n50. The night outside is indeed chilly and biting. But inside it’s warm, and the glass of whiskey before me is providing a good deal of that heat!

Tasted in a simple brandy glass, about a handful of months after uncorking and a third of the way into the bottle, here are some brief notes:

COLOR – dark, rich burnt orange, with russet tones to it

NOSE – bright fiery cinnamons, thick dry-cut caramel, charred cedar, oak, grilled orange peel, something vaguely like a spiced rooibos tea, eventually some chocolate

TASTE – a bright cinnamony caramel sauce right up front before a burst of fiery heat that’s surprisingly smooth given the proof, then peanut and almond butter, chocolate, the grilled orange peel with a bit of the juicy orange fruit on it

FINISH – a biting but not painful heat on the tongue that quickly fades, leaving burnt caramel, toasted orange zest, a bit of the nut butters and chocolate notes

OVERALL – a sweet, smoldering monster well worth going up against

Wow. Of the 31n50 barrels I’ve tried (1, 3, 4 and 5) this is easily the most complex so far. Of course, I declare that without having the others to compare to it side by side. I will for certain not make the mistake of finishing this bottle prior to uncorking #6. (Note to self!)

As with any really intense, really specific bourbon, I can absolutely understand 31n50 not being to someone’s taste. The proof is a scorcher, and yet surprisingly easy to sip. I had more trouble getting past the proof of a recent cask strength Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon, and it was “only” 130 proof. Here the fire comes on strong and fast but fades away just as quickly. The flavors have a sharpness to them, with a core of sweet gooey notes that emerges after the initial explosion.

I can see again the image of my friend who cupped his glass with both hands and slipped into a slow motion reverie. I could do the same right now…

It’s odd, though—and I remember writing this about 31n50 before—I can’t say it’s the best bourbon I’ve had. (Not that I actually know what that would be!) But it is easily, easily among the most interesting and provocative. I’m kind of obsessed with it. It’s so unique! Ten and a half years of intense El Dorado County weather took this very common MGP distillate and transformed it into a sparking bonfire of pungent Northern California Autumn flavors. I used some 100-proof Remus Repeal Reserve IV to warm up my palate. It’s also from MGP and features a good percentage of the same mash bill, aged 12 years. The DNA of the Remus is recognizable in 31n50. Yet the distinction is clear. 31n50 makes an excellent argument for Cris Steller’s belief in the power of terroir to impact a whiskey.

Each release of 31n50 is a single barrel yielding fewer than 100 bottles. Though all twelve barrels have now been bottled, each next batch is only released once the previous has sold out, which can take awhile. Dry Diggings does not promote 31n50 in any significant way and only sells it in person at the distillery. And even then one must ask about it. It’s not sitting out on display among their many other offerings.

This is because 31n50 is a very personal project of Cris Steller’s. As he put it during my 2019 interview with him, “It’s not famous, so you’re drinking it because there’s a connection there.” He doesn’t want to sell it as a trophy item, or something to mix into cocktails. It is the spirit that most embodies the spirit in which Steller founded Dry Diggings Distillery—a local, family business that honors its region. It was an experiment in terroir, taking a very common mash bill from Indiana’s MGP, used by innumerable secondary bottlers across the country, putting it in similarly common charred oak barrels, but aging it entirely in the extreme weather of El Dorado Hills, CA, to discover what is particular to the region.

Every detail of the packaging has likewise been carefully considered to reflect California history—specifically the key region of the 19th Century Gold Rush, which resulted in, among other things, California becoming the 31st of the eventually 50 American states.

So why post about a bottle that is unavailable to most people who will read this? Because, really, this post is no more about encouraging anyone to get a bottle of 31n50 than Dry Diggings made it to sell. It’s more about celebrating the things inside any whiskey that aren’t always so apparent, yet are as decisive in our experience with it as the mash bill, barrel, years and location aged, etcetera. It’s the people we share it with. The memories we make with them when we’re gathered around the bottle. The stories we share and raise a glass to.

Also, for me, the intensity and specificity of 31n50, that it was an elaborate one-time experiment in twelve variations that happened to work out exceptionally well, reminds me of certain work I’ve done in theater. In theater we work in concentrated, intensive bursts of time, sometimes spread out over years, to create a performance that typically plays for only a few weeks and then is gone forever. The experience of any single performance is as varied as the number of people who see it. And once it’s done, that performance only exists in the memories of those who were there. Like a bottle of whiskey.

For Cris Steller, 31n50 has a very specific and personal meaning. For me, it conjures the place where I lived the first 18 years of my life and which has had such a lasting impact on me, as well as friends I have now who came from many very different places than I did. In this way, 31n50 bridges my past and present. History in a bottle, still unfolding.


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