Written by Naomi Jimison
Photos courtesy of Dry Diggings Distillery

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Dry Diggings is an El Dorado Hills-based distillery that digs deep into California history for Gold Rush twists on traditional spirits like whiskey, vodka, gin, brandy, and bourbon. Travel back in time to the mother lode-inspired tasting room with wood-paneled walls from the 1860s, a four-by-five-foot photo of Placerville’s Main Street in 1866, a street-scene room leading to the saloon-styled bar, and the Victorian-parloresque area filled with bottled spirits all made with locally sourced ingredients.

 

 

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Owners Cris Steller and Gordon Helm have created a farm-to-glass spirits experience and don’t rely on terms such as craft or small batch or how many times they distill their vodka. With steam-powered pot stills that separate the “heart” of the distillation run, the most flavorful and drinkable components of a spirit run, from the “head” and “tail” — the head being the harsh chemicals where your hangover begins, and the tail being bitter after effects once alcohol burns off — you’ll find a clean cut not found with national distillers, which mix the heart, head, and tail in continuous stills.

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Dry Diggings works with local vintners, breweries, and farms for its wine, grains, and fruit, including Bella Grace Vineyards wines in Amador County for brandy, Loomis Basin Brewing Company for whiskey and bourbon, and Barsotti Family Juice Co. apples for its Rocket vodka.

“We wish that there were more integration,” Steller says. “Sacramento is the farm-to-fork capital, and it doesn’t carry over to the bar. And it would be nice if local spirits got the same attention that local wine and beer get.”

That’s exactly what he and Helm have spearheaded.

At the distillery, aged spirits like whiskey and bourbon, in California’s varying weather, come out with an idiosyncratic color and taste, depending on the charred barrel, the season, and the length of aging. The Rubicon Rye whiskey is aged in Independent Stave Company barrels for two years and then moved into Radoux’s handmade, charred wine barrels for anywhere from six to 12 months, depending on the barrel’s surrounding temperature conditions. The Bodie 5 Dog California white whiskey turns the traditional whiskey on its head by only hitting new American oak barrels for five minutes, but it boasts interestingly of a high-end Blanco tequila aroma, and yet it has an earthy and citrusy taste all its own.

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However, opening the distillery wasn’t a walk in the park. Staking out their own claim in California history, Steller and Helm discovered in the middle of construction in 2011 that distillery tasting rooms were illegal because of the state’s December 1933 regulation, unchanged since Prohibition days. So Steller rounded up five distilleries to create the California Artisanal Distillers Guild in 2012. The Guild approached lawmakers, who helped pass three key pieces of legislation that nullified the archaic laws forbidding tasting rooms at distilleries. Thus, with this win, Dry Diggings’ tasting room pushed onward.

Currently, as the distillery makes and replicates history from its tasting room, Dry Diggings educates visitors about why they like the tastes they do, from both the bar and on tours.

Erica Steller, Cris Steller’s daughter and the distillery’s bar manager and event coordinator, says “it just makes you feel like you’re back in the Gold Rush and you’re walking down Main Street.”

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Naomi Jimison grew up in El Dorado County and now lives in Auburn, Calif., where she loves frequenting local breweries and restaurants with her husband. 

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