Comparison: Two Hometown Bourbons – 31n50 Barrels 5 & 6

31n50
Barrel 5

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

PROOF – 142.6

AGE – 10 years 6 months

DISTILLERY – Dry Digging Distillery

PRICE – $206

31n50
Barrel 6

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

PROOF – 140.4

AGE – 10 years 6 months

DISTILLERY – Dry Digging Distillery

PRICE – $206

Regular readers of this blog will know my fondness for 31n50, the hazmat-proof bourbon from Dry Diggings Distillery in El Dorado County. Only twelve barrels were laid down, as an experiment to discover what exactly the unique Northern California weather would do to a very common mash bill aged in standard sized and charred oak barrels.

I refer readers to my interview with Dry Diggings founder, Cris Steller, for further details on the backstory of 31n50. Here I’ll just note that each of the twelve barrels yielded remarkably few bottles, the angels having been very thirsty in the extreme and dry El Dorado County heat.

With very few bottles in existence, it is not a bourbon one is going to come across anywhere outside the distillery itself. And even there it’s not presented up front. One must ask about it, and if Steller gets a sense you’re not going to enjoy it as it was intended to be enjoyed—neat, on its own pure terms—or that you’re simply unicorn hunting, he might not sell you a bottle. This irritates some people. But it also poses interesting questions about capitalism and entitlement, the consumer/distiller relationship as something akin to an audience/artist relationship, what 31n50 itself exists for at all, what it means to its maker and to a given drinker, and, more generally, why one might forge a special connection with any given bottle of whiskey. For these reasons, 31n50 is a uniquely intriguing bourbon among the thousands one might encounter.

I brought a bottle of Barrel 4 to a holiday crab dinner with friends back in the Before Times, prior to the plague having sent us all to our separate houses. It was a hit. I’ve posted notes on that bottle as well as Barrel 5 on the blog already. But something I failed to do was save a bit of Barrel 4 to taste next to Barrel 5. So here we are with the final ounces of Barrel 5 and a recently uncorked Barrel 6 to do a proper side by side. I’m posting this comparison to mark the holidays because 31n50 is my hometown hooch, and family is very much on my mind, as well as friends near and far, whether I grew up with them or met them later in life.

I opened Barrel 6 on a sunny Sunday, to share with friends who had joined my partner and I for an early evening whiskey tasting. It was the seventh and final whiskey of the flight. I often end home tastings with 31n50, the mighty monster bourbon from where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. It’s a bit like providing them with a sighting of Big Foot. I especially enjoy sharing it with friends whom I’ve met since moving to San Francisco, now oh so long ago. It’s a way to share a bit of where I come from, and who I am.

These notes were taken just over a week after Barrel 6 was uncorked, and about a year and three months after Barrel 5 was uncorked, using simple brandy glasses, and with a great deal of care to not singe my nose hairs!

COLOR

5 – rich oranges tilting into reds

6 – rich oranges tilting into russet-ambers

NOSE

5 – baked cinnamon, dry but rich oak notes, faint fruits like apricot and cherry, fresh homemade bread crusts

6 – thick rich caramel dusted with cinnamons, oak, chocolate, cherry, baked fruit pie crust

BOTH – like the color, here too they are very similar and the differences take some time to parse out

TASTE

5 – rich, tangy caramels around tart baked apricot, then chocolate brioche bread, dry thick oak, the heat surprisingly easygoing

6 – charred oak, cherry, chocolate, caramel, and though lower in proof by 2.2 degrees the heat prickles more here than with Barrel 5

FINISH

5 – dry oak, bread crusts, dry caramel, soft lingering warmth with just the subtlest prickling

6 – gently prickling heat, slightly over-baked cinnamon roll, then a lingering cooling heat like a mint with a dry caramel note hovering

OVERALL

BOTH – They are very similar, powerful yet surprisingly easy to drink, with Barrel 5 tilting drier and Barrel 6 sweeter

WORTH BUYING?

5 – Need I pose the question?

6 – Yep. And I can’t wait to try Barrel 7…!

Looking back at my uncorking notes from Barrel 5, they are very similar to my uncorking notes from Barrel 6—cherry, rich caramel, fiery. At uncorking, Barrel 6 also had—and still has—some chocolate notes, a bit like a flaming Heath Bar, which Barrel 5 does not. And so now sipping Barrel 5 at its final pours, alongside Barrel 6 just over a week into its airing out, I have insight into how Barrel 6 might evolve. Many bourbons dry out a bit as they air out in their open bottle, losing some of the sweeter fruit and candy notes and emphasizing the drier wood and spice notes.

It’s surprising how little these hazmat-proofs burn. They do burn, for sure! But it’s not like a wild fire lashing at my tongue. The heat doesn’t bite or sting. It’s more a heat that soaks in slowly and deeply. I prepped my palate with some 111.8-proof Smooth Ambler Old Scout 12 Year bourbon, a roughly similar age and also from MGP in Indiana, though I don’t know the exact recipe in use. I figured this would take the edge off the shock of these 140+ proof bourbons. I also notice now, as I continue to sip while writing this commentary, that the intensity of the heat’s prickle is quite impacted by the care or lack thereof with which I take a sip. Tossed back quickly, there’s more fire. Sipped slowly and gently, time dissipates the heat and creates that soaking sensation.

Also now as I sip, and in a manner closer to drinking than to formal tasting, it’s no real surprise that I enjoy them both a bit more. Without my attention wrapped around parsing out the individual flavors, they blend more, and my quick take for each is: chocolate, oak, caramel, passing whiffs of baked orchard fruit, and a pleasantly numbing heat.

To date I’ve tried five of the six released barrels. (The only one I’ve missed was Barrel 2.) Who knows how many years will pass before all twelve barrels have been released—or even if all of them will be released! Given their personal nature for their maker, I can imagine Steller’s plans for them changing over the years. But from here on out they are all 10 to 11 years of age, and somewhere in the 140s proof-wise. Based on this comparison of Barrels 5 and 6, I suspect future comparisons will be similar—subtle differences with a solid base of chocolate, oak, caramel, and fruit notes that gradually dry out over the life of the open bottle.

Even without those fruit notes I love so much, Barrel 5 is still an excellent pour. I might try to get through Barrel 6 quicker, share it with more people, so I can enjoy its current complexity a bit more.

In any variation, 31n50 is a conversation piece. I’ve written before that it’s not the best bourbon I’ve had—not that I know what a “best” bourbon could possibly be—and I still feel that way. But as an overall experience, it’s a full package. It has rich flavors to offer, and a certain spectacle via the hazmat-proof. But it also has a crucial ingredient—its story. And because it is a story I have a personal connection with, this adds something to the experience my friends have with it as well. Without exception, each time I share this bourbon with others, I tell them the story, then pour them a glass, they taste it and immediately melt into some kind of awe or another. That’s a special whiskey.

Purists might argue 31n50 should stand on its own without the backstory. But I’ve never agreed with any purist philosophy, whether we’re talking about bourbon or Shakespeare or Star Wars or capitalism or whatever. Change is constant. We are each in perpetual draft. And it’s simply not true that we live somehow separately from, or in any way objectively in relation to the world around us. We are our experiences, our memories, our impressions and our associations, as much as we are corporeal flesh and blood.

So here’s to home. Here’s to where we come from. Here’s to the stories of our lives, still unfolding. Here’s to sharing our stories with each other, in real time. Here’s to celebrating our friendships. And, of course, here’s to a warm glass of flaming Heath Bar goodness!

Cheers!

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