ENGINE 49 BARREL STRENGTH BOURBON
Limited Release Single Barrel (Summer 2022)
MASH BILL – 75% corn, 24% rye, 1% barley
PROOF – 137
AGE – 8 years
DISTILLERY – Amador Distillery (Dry Diggings Distillery)
PRICE – $163
WORTH BUYING? – Yes
Way back in 2018, I purchased a bottle of Engine 49 Barrel Strength Bourbon during my first visit to the Dry Diggings Distillery tasting room in El Dorado Hills, CA. The label stated it was aged 3 years. But the distillery owner, Cris Steller, told me it was actually aged 8 years and he didn’t want to have to print new labels just for that one batch.
I still remember that bourbon well. It was all cherries, oak and chocolate, and surprisingly easy drinking for a 120-proof whiskey. One night some friends visited for a late-night flight of several classic Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill bourbons. I shared that Engine 49 with them as well, and it held its own. Very different flavor profile, of course. But the quality was right there.
Any regular reader of this blog knows that in the years since 2018, my fondness for all things Dry Diggings Distillery has been ongoing. From their sunny Bodie 5 Dog Single Malt to the ever-intriguing Rubicon Rye to the smoldering and rare 31n50, Dry Diggings products lean into the Northern California terroir, balancing tradition with experiment, often favoring the idiosyncratic variations of one barrel to the next over coercing all barrels into a singular, consistent, predetermined flavor profile.
As with that 2018 Engine 49—labelled as 3 years despite actually being 8 years—any label at Dry Diggings is rarely more specific than legally necessary. To know the particulars of one batch to the next, one must pay careful attention to the distillery’s social media and website, and, if possible, talk with owner Cris Steller in person when visiting the tasting room. By labels alone, there is no way to know, for example, that the Fall 2021 and Summer 2022 batches of Rubicon Rye were actually single barrels, not small batch blends; nor that they were sibling barrels that sat next to one another throughout their aging time, and yet yielded notably different flavor profiles. And yet both batches sport the standard Rubicon Rye release label. I only know all this because Steller told me so when I visited the distillery in January 2022.
The label of this 2022 bottling of Engine 49 offers similarly few insights when it comes to what’s inside, including the fact it’s an exceptionally limited release. For example, it is indeed a single barrel despite the standard Engine 49 notice that it is “aged, blended & bottled” by Amador Distillery. The only differentiating detail on the label is that, rather than pre-printing the standard release “barrel strength” of 120 proof, the actual specific proof of this release is handwritten on the front. So while for the most part the label is standard, the contents are not.
This perpetual lack of specificity would be annoying were it not for the fact that my ongoing attention and relationship to Dry Diggings Distillery affords me access to clarifying insights, which in turn allows me to find the disregard for labelling specifics to be even somewhat endearing. There’s something about Steller and his crew’s lack of concern for announcing the minutia of each release that exemplifies what’s possible with small craft operations. Rather than batching hundreds or even dozens of barrels to achieve a consistent flavor profile from year to year, Dry Diggings embraces the singularity of each barrel. Some they blend in small batches of just two or three barrels. Some they bottle on their own. And yet all often get the same labels. The age-old marketing model of predicability, meant to satisfy consumer expectation, is let go in favor of the unpredictable nature of the aging process.
When a single barrel turns out particularly well, warranting its own special release, one might think Steller would make more of a point to record its features on labels highlighting the particularities. 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.
So, through the sleuthing methods noted above, here’s what I know about this bottling. From the Dry Diggings website we get this:
This Straight Bourbon Whiskey spent life aging in the California heat in charred American white oak barrels for eight contemplative years. It was dusted off from the corner of the warehouse in August 2020 when nineteen barrels were released and individually recorded to note the difference in yield, profile, and ABV.
Three special barrels were identified and separated to be bottled in small offerings for the world to try and for you to add to your whiskey collection. This is the first of those three.
Here we have confirmation on age (8 years), and that this is the first of three such single barrels to be released. However, this information suggests the whiskey was 8 years old in August 2020. Was it bottled then, or later, in which case is the whiskey actually older? A June 2022 Dry Diggings Instagram post reiterates the 8 year age statement without clarifying dates:
Digging a couple months further back, this post from Cris Steller’s own Instagram account was no April Fool’s joke, but a hint at what was to come:
The timing of Steller’s post, which includes several photos of the bottled whiskey, only confirms the whiskey was bottled at least by April 1, 2022. In another June 2022 post, Steller notes “We have a few bottles set aside of this special project.”
And that’s all the skinny I could find—so far! [see addendum below!]
These rarer Dry Diggings / Amador products receive somewhat closeted handling. Their 2020 single barrel Engine 49 Rum release, for example, made it onto Instagram once or twice. It was a spontaneous one-off, an exceptional barrel that had actually been neglected off in some corner until, 8 years later, it was found and had aged into something special. But like the ultra-rare 31n50, though mentioned fleetingly, the Rum was never pushed in any usual marketing sense. One would need to ask for it to hope for a bottle.
So here we are, a little over three weeks since uncorking and three pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – smoldering russet-oranges
NOSE – roasted and candied redskin peanuts, rye spice, thick caramel, oak, brown sugar, a brown sugar syrup, a dusting of crystal-sugared baking spices
TASTE – prickly heat leaning toward biting, super syrupy caramel, a rich and drippy dark chocolate syrup, seared brandied cherries as opposed to merely baked, everything dark and glowing like a distant fire at night
FINISH – those redskin peanuts, caramel, a cooling heat like a mint, that seared quality around everything
OVERALL – a stormy nighttime bonfire of a bourbon
This has darkened since uncorking. It’s very much like 31n50, which I’ll need to pour a bit of in a moment. Like that hazmat bourbon, this 137-proof Engine 49 also has a mighty bite that overwhelms the flavors at first. But once my palate acclimated, those crazy rich caramel and chocolate notes emerged from the heat in opulent waves.
At uncorking things were much fruitier. The nose was vibrant with tart cherries and plums, creamy caramel, rye spices, thick real butter on thin-sliced dark rye bread, altogether sweet and rich. The taste was then very like the nose—syrupy, with the same flavor notes, some nice savory dried herbs, and shockingly smooth for 137 proof. On that first pour, I’d never have guessed the proof was so high. It all came across like a much sweeter, less biting variation on the 31n50 experience, featuring a similar fruitiness and caramel and a very familiar, almost metallic heat at the back of the throat.
Today that metallic heat manifests in this seared quality I’m getting. It’s particularly notable around the cherry notes. It adds an overall brightness to the whiskey, a kind of vivid liveliness, like flames dancing against the dark. Today it’s this flames-in-the-dark metaphor that hits me most—the colors, the crackling flavors, the dark and decadent syrupy richness of it.
Then on the nose, also quite similar. The 31n50 is actually a bit less forthcoming. But even in its relative restraint—surprising for a 140.4 proof whiskey—there’s a sense of something mighty lurking behind the curtain of steam. Maybe at 10.5 years, that additional time in the El Dorado County heat was enough to grant it the patience of age. When the aromas do start to emerge, like the color they are comparatively brighter than the Engine 49. The caramel hits first, with a brandied and seared quality. The redskin peanuts make a faint appearance, mixed with the brown sugary baking spices. There is also a bit more chocolate and rye spice coming from the 31n50. They must both be approached with caution, given the heat, which makes parsing out their differences a slow process. They’re quite similar.
Then on the taste, the 31n50 is immediately and substantially drier, and the bite has sharper teeth. Taking a second sip to now get past that bite, the syrupy quality is there. But it’s textured by a grittiness, which seems to come from this seared aspect I keep mentioning, like how the seared edges of meat have their own texture and particular flavor. The caramel is there as well, certainly the oak, and loads of soft dark chocolate. But very little fruit compared to the Engine 49.
At this point I can’t distinguish one finish from the other. My mouth is admittedly a bit numb now after allowing these bonfires to spread repeatedly across my tongue and slide down into my belly. It makes me think of the famous old Yosemite firefall tradition, when a cascade of fire was poured over the edge of Yosemite’s Glacier Point.
Suffice to say the finishes here are long and warm. The notes I get now include coffee, a nice ironic button to puctuate a couple of very potent pours…!
One last experiment. A few hours later, I tried the Engine 49 again with a small splash of water. (Shhh! Don’t tell Cris Steller! 😉) It was like the cherry basket had been tipped over. The nose exploded with bright red cherries. The taste followed suit. Then the finish reigned them back in balance with the caramel, oak, rye spice, and redskin peanuts. Good to know!
As I write this, the remaining bottles of this release may already be gone. The second of the three releases is soon to come, according to a comment left beneath an early-August Instagram post. I don’t imagine there will be too many bottles in any of these releases. The Engine 49 trio is very much a younger cousin-brood to the older, hotter, taller 31n50 line, itself not plentiful at 12 barrels total, released one by one only as each very slowly sells out.
I’m so curious about Cris Steller’s approach. It speaks to why he’s doing this, I believe. I don’t get the sense distilling is his career so much as his passion. It’s got to pay for itself, of course. He’s a business man. But at the small scale that Dry Diggings and Amador Distilling jointly operate, it’s surprising how many exclusive one-offs they offer, and Steller’s habit of dolling them out.
In short, get one if you can. It’s no everyday drinker. It’s for special occasions. Or a bit of after-dinner fireworks for friends and family. Or the balm to a particularly searing week. Or, in the tastiest and most spectacular way, to thoroughly sanitize your mouth of any virus or bad mood that might dare try to disrupt your good health!
email Q&A with Cris Steller
I emailed Dry Diggings / Amador distiller and owner Cris Steller with some questions. Here are his replies!
MARK J – The Dry Diggings website says this single barrel was aged 8 years as of August 2020, two years ago. Was it bottled then, preserving the 8-year age? Or did it continue to age until being bottled more recently, and if so how old was it at bottling?
STELLER – Yes, we did a massive (for us) barrel dump in August of 2020. Aging ends when it is removed from barrels, we always rest our spirits in stainless before we bottle. We believe letting it rest before putting in bottles allows it to breath a bit and for the fine particulants to drop out. We don’t do any chill filtering, and only use a paper filter to remove larger barrel bits. So the barrel age stays at 8 years old.
MARK J – My notes from way back in 2019 are that the mash bill for Engine 49 is 75% corn, 24% rye and 1% barley, and that it is a distillate contract-distilled from MGP in Indiana, then aged in El Dorado Hills, not unlike 31n50. Is that the case with this bottling as well, or does this bottling contain whiskey distilled by Amador/DD? And if so is the mash bill the same or different?
STELLER – The mash bill is the same for Engine 49 Bourbon at 75% corn, 24% rye and 1% malted barley. We don’t confirm or deny where barrels come from, but they are not all MGP. In this batch, I believe it is all sourced. There will be some changes down the road on this, but for now this is what we do.
MARK J – I can’t recall where in the Dry Diggings social media I read that this barrel yielded only 18 bottles. True? Or 18 bottles to sell, and some number of others held back for the future restaurant or the like?
STELLER – No, that is for the last barrel of 31n50 I believe. Amador barrels at 8 years still have somewhat reasonable yield (by our standards, but Kentucky people would have a heart attack). We don’t yield industry averages, but for us 8 years gives us a decent number.
MARK J – The website mentions there are two other Engine 49 single barrels that will be released later. Are they already bottled, or still aging? Anything you can share about them?
STELLER – There are a total of 3 barrels Kendric [Steller’s son] and I pulled aside. They each are unique and very fine single barrel bottlings. The other barrels are all blended and make a really nice bottle with that blend. They are not all bottled, and are resting in Stainless Steel awaiting their moment. Each of the 3 barrels selected will have notes that differ and have came out at unique proof. So each will have their own style of finish, nose and taste. Fun way to experience unaltered barrel character. Each individual barrel has its own signature and rarely are they identical, but some are extremely different. This 3 bottle set is a testament to that, and like 31n50 are high proof and wonderfully finished Bourbon.