September 15, 2018

Sagamore Spirit Distillery, Keeping Maryland 'Wet' A Century After Prohibition

I always thought that historical whiskey tourism would only take me to Kentucky, as it did in 2006 when I attended the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Since that time, Prohibition-era laws have changed and tax breaks have been enacted, so now there are a ton of new distilleries—whiskey and otherwise—throughout the country.

But if you were to trace the origins of American whiskey, you'd have to go beyond Kentucky or even Tennessee, where Jack Daniels was founded in 1875.

No, you'd also have to go to Maryland, too.

The Mid-Atlantic state has a rich history in not bourbon but rye whiskey. Its whiskey-making dates back to the colonial era, when distillers in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Maryland blazed a brown liquor trail that hit a fire break: Prohibition.

Nearly every state ratified the Volstead Act (a.k.a. the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)—some even "going dry" before it was officially enacted on a federal level in 1920, and some continuing to stay dry even after Prohibition was repealed via the 21st Amendment.

The one exception was Rhode Island, the only state to refuse to ratify the amendment. But at the time, Maryland government officials and their constituents were so staunchly against the temperance movement that they simply refused to enforce it—one of the reasons why we still call Maryland "The Free State."

But even when and where it's been legal, local distilling has experienced its ups and downs—and it's only recently that there's been enough renewed interest in the non-corporate, craft, locovore summoning of spirits to really make a go of it.

Hence Sagamore Spirits Distillery, located in the Port Covington harbor area of South Baltimore (more on its location in a second). It's not exactly not corporate—its owner is the billionaire CEO of the company Under Armour, whose global headquarters is right next door.

But having only opened a year and a half ago (though starting to barrel-age some rye a couple years before that), it's still a new entry into the so-called "whiskey wars"—though it's become a juggernaut, already brewing up huge batches in gigantic tanks housed on a sprawling campus.

While other upstart distillers use after-market equipment to save some cash, Sagamore commissioned nearly everything to be custom-made and branded with its logo—most notably, the ginormous, 40-foot column still by Vendome.

Through various stages of quality control, condensers and doublers and whatnot, Sagamore triple distills two different mash bills—one of mostly rye with some corn and a little malted barley, and the other of nearly all rye and a little malted barley—which end up in two different charred American virgin oak barrels to be aged separately.

They then put the barrels in storage for about four years (double what most distillers will bother with), where they don't control the climate. In fact, they need the fluctuations in temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure to expand and contract the barrels. That will force the clear spirit up against and into the charred wood and back out again, drawing that amber color out with it.

Once the rye whiskey is bottled on the assembly line, it's still hand-labelled and initialed.

Besides the historical videos and other displays in the gift shop (which of course sells Sagamore-branded wares by Under Armour), there's also the neighboring Rye Street Tavern for elevated pub fare and whiskey cocktails (operated by a NYC-based hospitality group).

But to taste the product—including the limestone-filtered spring water sourced from an aquifer 20 miles north—you've got to do the distillery tour and tasting.

You start with the white rye, an unaged whiskey that's akin to moonshine (a.k.a. "white lightning" or "White Dog," or the higher wine that comes out of the triple distilling process). This one is so mellow that you can mix it or drink it straight out of the bottle. Next are the 83 proof and the boozier Cask Strength (at around 110+ proof, it varies).

And, as at all the great whiskey distilleries, you get to finish it off with a bourbon-infused truffle. (At the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, two meals a day consisted entirely of bourbon balls.)

Right now, Sagamore Spirit feels like it's hiding in plain sight—situated on the industrial waterfront of the middle branch of the Patapsco River at an abandoned railyard.

But given its proximity to Interstate 95 and the post-industrial chic of the Inner Harbor area that's thriving just across the way, its founder would like to see the area developed.

Think self-driving water taxis and mixed-used developments, high-rises, and utopian amenities.

And the trains would come back to this former railroad hub, too—by extending the existing lightrail lines that already run nearby.

Some Baltimoreans, of course, are in an uproar. People don't like change.

But are changes like this inevitable? I've already witnessed it at the Red Hook, Navy Yard, Williamsburg, Long Island City, and Astoria industrial waterfronts of New York City. It's happening right now at Gowanus in Brooklyn and Ports O'Call in the LA Harbor.

I'm sure Terminal Island is next.

I refuse to worry about it. Whenever I go to "the wettest state in the union" (about once a year), I'm just going to take some time to stop and sip the whiskey.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: How Brooklyn Does Bourbon and Chocolate Bars
What I Remember from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Photo Essay: Kings County Distillery
Photo Essay: Breuckelen Distilling Co.

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