MASH BILL – 100% rye
PROOF – 96
AGE – NAS (according to their social media, initially aged in new American oak for 2-6+ years, then another 6-24 months in a second handmade barrel)
DISTILLERY – Dry Diggings Distillery
PRICE – $70
WORTH BUYING? – Indeed.
It had been a while since I’d visited Dry Diggings Distillery in person. On my last visit, way back in August 2020, owner Cris Steller asked me if I liked rum. “Sure!” He poured me a taste of a single barrel, 8-year rum he’d just bottled. Distilled in 2012 and aged in a used whiskey barrel, it had somehow been forgotten off in some corner. When they found it in 2020, it was too good on its own to blend into their standard release rum. I’m not a rum expert. But I was very impressed. I took a bottle home that day, alongside a bottle of Rubicon Rye, Bodie 5 Dog single malt, and the gold nugget itself, 31n50 Barrel 6. Quite a haul!
So when I finally made it back to the Dry Diggings tasting room in January 2022, en route to visiting my folks who still live in that area, I asked Steller whether there were any new unique one-off bottlings that might be interesting to try. He paused, looking at the shelf, said, “Not really. But the Rubicon is new!”
Rubicon is Dry Diggings’ flagship rye. The current batch is in a new bottle. But that’s not what Steller was referring to when he said the Rubicon was new. The mysteries of aging had recently rendered a batch that is distinctly different from the cherry-laden rye I’d happily gone through three bottles of already.
“When we tried it,” Steller said, “it was nuts!” I asked, “Nuts like crazy, or nuts like nuts?” Nuts like nuts. Also more alcohol forward, Steller said, even though the bottling proof was the same Rubicon standard 96. I was intrigued.
Naturally I took a bottle home with me. I opened it that evening and shared it with my family. We all agreed: it was nuts!
Mixed nuts, especially walnut. Then also a thick dark caramel and a subtle but steady baked peach note. The ethanol was indeed strong, giving the rye an edge reminiscent of propane, which sounds terrible but it wasn’t at all—more like the very faint scent of propane at an outdoor fire in the woods where you’re camping and cooking food. As I kept sipping, this propane note gradually lifted, and it began to taste more like the nuts and peaches had simply been brandied in something very strong. Nosing the empty glass, it was almost meaty—bacon glazed in a dark tangy BBQ sauce, charred oak, caramelized pecans.
So, yes, very different from the cherry-sweet Rubicon I’d grown accustomed to and loved so much. Rather than wait to taste it formally back at my red kitchen table in San Francisco, I sipped it each night on my home visit. Then on the fourth day, I sat down with it more formally. Given my interest in terroir, what might tasting this rye whiskey in its natural habitat reveal?
So here we are. Tasted in both a traditional Glencairn and simple brandy glass, outdoors in the Sierra Nevada foothills on a crisp Winter late-afternoon, here are some notes in brief.
COLOR – toasted russet orange, with bright brassy glints as well as faintly green-tinged lemony yellow glints, and often the forest around me inverted in the whiskey creating intriguing lines like some modern art painting
NOSE – dried pine needles and pine cone, a mélange of wood and wood spice, faint walnut shell, faint baking spices (especially cinnamon and nutmeg), crystalizing honey on buttered, seedy wheat bread crisply toasted, crumbly-dry caramel brownie
TASTE – the pine and wood notes around a syrupy caramel
FINISH – dried pine and wood spice, a warm prickly heat, that baked peach note from the uncorking pour making a subtle return like a faint breeze, eventually a slightly tangy oak-tannin note lingering at length…
OVERALL – If the forest around me were a whiskey, this would be it.
I’m so glad I took these formal notes here, in the area where this whiskey is made, and outside. The air is clear today, the landscape having been scrubbed clean by recent heavy snows, now melted away by the sun making its daily journey low in the sky. Although I cannot smell the trees around me so much, the fresh air moving through them makes a simple, complimentary canvas on which to nose and taste this colorful whiskey.
Over the four days since uncorking, the Rubicon has leaned away from the mixed nut notes into the wood notes—lots of pine, some oak, cedar, hardened sugary wood saps, pine cones dried by the cold, arid, high-elevation mountain air. I’m usually tasting whiskeys in San Francisco, alongside the ocean. The foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains are dry dry dry, and their many fragrances follow suit.
The baked peach note has now virtually evaporated, lingering like a thin veil of mist or a breeze unhurried by the steady climate. With the caramel and peach notes less present, the sugars now take on a sharpness that risks going saccharine. This is where the dried wood sap notes arise. It will be interesting to see how the whiskey’s progression continues to evolve, and also what the experience will be in my more familiar tasting terroir of the San Francisco bay.
I will admit to missing the previous, cherry-centric batches of Rubicon rye. The color in this new batch leans more russet than red, and the tasting experience follows the color’s lead. This new batch is vaguely reminiscent of the Old Maysville Club Bottled in Bond Rye, though far more pleasing to me than that bottle. But it shares a certain style of dryness, and here the Maysville’s combination of maltiness and rye herbs have their parallel in the Rubicon’s range of wood notes.
Nostalgia for past Rubicon batches aside, this edition offers a distinctly northern Californian taste profile, and the Sierra Nevada foothills in particular. It could not be a better match for my current surroundings. How it will come across outside of this setting and for anyone not familiar with this region is a good question. I’ll never not be from here. But I can certainly report back when I’ve returned home to San Francisco.
Until then, cheers to the complexity of terroir!
Tasting Notes in San Francisco
Okay. Back in San Francisco, one week later at my kitchen’s old red table. Let’s see how the Rubicon comes across now…
On the nose I get that strong and sunny pine forest aroma, with a notable whiff of BBQ very like that bacon note from the uncorking. Also some maple figuring into the BBQ glaze. Tasting it, the array of pine is most prominent, with some walnut shell, cedar, bright vanilla and honey all waving subtly amongst the pine boughs. The finish lingers with the cooling warmth of a mint, the mint more pine and cedar in this instance, leaving subtle pine flavors to linger most. But it’s the cooling sensation that lingers longest.
So, you can take the whiskey out of the Sierra Nevada foothills, but you can’t take the Sierra Nevada foothills out of the whiskey.
I would say, all in all, I prefer the previous editions of Rubicon Rye with their deliciously sweet and fruity cherry notes. The overwhelming emphasis in this latest batch on wood and rye spice is pleasant, even fascinating. But on the whole I find it less pleasing, personally. When I want an unambiguous taste of home, I’ll certainly reach for this bottle. And for anyone else who grew up or still lives in a densely forested region featuring many mighty pine trees, this whiskey might be as satisfyingly evocative as it is for me.
Going Down The Rabbit Hole
Interesting final note. In 2018 my folks gifted me a one-off set of four 375ml Rubicon Ryes that Dry Diggings put out to showcase some single barrels and two-barrel blends. The bottles included a blend of what they named Batches 6 and 7, a single barrel of Batch 8, single barrel of Batch 9, and a blend of 8 and 9. I looked back at my notes on those and here’s what I wrote about the lot as a whole:
Collectively, though a novel opportunity to try four variations of a rye from my home-county, these are too young for me. The range of pine notes are not at all displeasing, as I’ve found other young piney ryes to be. Rather, they’re unique and legitimately reminiscent of the fresh Sierra Nevada mountain air I grew up breathing. The texture is quite thin and watery, however, and the flavor punch overall neither remarkable nor offensive—so, a bit bland. They remind me I like my whiskey like I like my theater: strong in flavor!
Rubicon has thickened and gained complexity since those younger 2018 samplings. Yet when I look at my further notes on each of the four individual sample bottles, they echo aspects of the tasting experience described up above—especially the Batch 9 sample, which shared a notable number of very similar notes to the current bottle on the table.
This got me curious. The Dry Diggings website doesn’t provide many details, so I scrolled through their Instagram feed. Interestingly, a January 31, 2020, Insta post featuring the new bottle design reveals this:
Is this the batch I’m drinking? That same Batch 9 that I sampled in 2018, only with two+ more years on it? Based on my notes and sense memory, I’d believe it. Having hit the shelf at the end of January 2020, that it may not have sold out two years on is mmmaybe conceivable, given Dry Diggings has very limited distribution, not to mention the clamp of the pandemic, which no doubt slowed traffic in their tasting room shop.
I emailed Cris Steller with questions. He clarified that the current bottle is not that same “Batch 9” from 2018. That’s long gone, and there have been four other bottlings of Rubicon released since that 2018 sampler set, so the bottle featured in that January 2020 Instagram post is from one among those.
Here’s what Steller shared with me about the current release:
This current bottling is a barrel that was part of a pair that lived their whole barrel life within 6 feet of each other. One only moved with the other. Once they were filled the liquid lived in those barrels until Nov/Dec 2021 when it was decided to bottle both. I was going to blend them. Kendric [Steller’s son] called me in back and said “I don’t think we should.” Once I tasted them, he was right. This bottle has a lot of nuts and is alcohol forward, the next barrel is deep rich caramel, vanilla, molasses and maple syrup with the alcohol toned way down. There is no explanation why each barrel is so different, except the wood. Everything about both of those barrels is otherwise exactly the same.
Very interesting. So this Fall 2021 bottling is actually a single barrel release. And once it has sold out, its sibling barrel will then be released as a single barrel.
Something I appreciate about this is how it exemplifies what’s possible with small craft operations. Rather than batching hundreds or even dozens of barrels to achieve a consistent flavor profile from release to release, year to year, Dry Diggings embraces the singularity of each Rubicon Rye barrel. Some they blend in small batches of two or three barrels. Some they bottle on their own. And yet all get the same Rubicon label. The age-old marketing model of predicability meant to satisfy consumer expectation is let go in favor of the unpredictable idiosyncrasies inherent to the aging process.
One might think Steller would make more of a point to advertise this feature of what Dry Diggings does, with labels indicating the particularities of each release. At the same time, I respect that he just lets it be. Since most bottles are sold directly by Dry Diggings rather than through conventional distribution, that personal contact allows Steller to share the details with the consumer face to face.
In any case, I will be sure to hold back on finishing the current bottle so as to eventually try it side-by-side with its sibling.