The Baltimore Sun Highlights the Sagamore Spirit Distillery

Nodding to past, Sagamore Spirit aims to develop rye whiskey’s future at Port Covington distillery

By Wesley Case | Read online at BaltimoreSun.com  

When entering the new Sagamore Spirit distillery, you begin inside the rectangular visitors’ center, where the Kevin Plank-owned company presents the history and what it hopes is the future of rye whiskey.

The past can be seen through an interactive touch-screen that illustrates Maryland’s rich history with the spirit, and a centerpiece of old glass bottles by local brands that have come and gone. Sagamore’s ambitious future can be seen for sale everywhere else: apparel (branded with Plank’s Under Armour logo), spicy barbecue sauce and neat rows of rye whiskey bottles.

It’s a simple, yet effective approach: Better understand what came before to appreciate what could follow.

“We didn’t have a place to come meet with the folks that were interested in learning more about the brand and the history of distilling in Maryland,” Sagamore Spirit President Brian Treacy said last week inside the facility’s fermentation room. “It’s important for us to have people come in and meet the folks that make it, day in and day out.”

The juxtaposition of a storied lineage and a promising future feels appropriate inside the sleek Port Covington facility, which opened in April. Storytelling is a point of emphasis here, and there hasn’t been a shortage of inquiring minds.

With daily tours starting every half-hour, 800 people on average have toured the distillery weekly, a number Treacy hopes will increase this fall when the on-site restaurant, Rye Street Tavern, opens next month. (New York’s NoHo Hospitality Group, not Sagamore Spirit, will operate the restaurant, which will nod to southern and mid-Atlantic influences.)

“We think this is as mellow as it gets,” Treacy said.

Located on a 5-acre waterfront property, Sagamore Spirit’s facility features a 22,000-square-foot production center and a 26,000-square-foot welcome and processing center. It’s the largest distillery in the state, according to the Maryland Distillers Guild’s Kevin Atticks, and while walking through it, it’s hard not to wonder just how high the price tag runs on an operation like this. Details like the 120-foot water tower and the 3,700-pound, custom-made iridescent still stand tall, eye-popping reminders of the project’s scale.

Treacy declined to say how much the facility cost.

“No matter what it costs, hands down, it’s worth it,” he said. “You can’t put Maryland back on the map without doing it all yourself in Maryland. It starts there.”

In one significant way, that sort of thinking is a work in progress for Sagamore Spirit. Consumers now purchasing the brand’s flagship 83-proof Signature Rye Whiskey or the stronger Cask Strength version will taste a product distilled in Indiana, then blended and bottled in Baltimore. Those looking to taste something made from start to finish here can purchase a bottle of white, unaged whiskey at the visitor’s center, but we’re still years away from tasting an aged rye whiskey made from scratch in the area, Treacy said.

“Obviously, it takes time. We’re [aging] on the shelf now,” he said. “It seems a long way’s away, but it’ll be here before we know it.”

For Treacy, there’s no need to rush if it sacrifices quality.

In April, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition gave the Cask Strength rye whiskey a Double Gold medal, an award given “to the very few entries that receive a Gold medal rating by all members of the judging panel,” according to the competition’s website.

The fast start has also included the brand’s growing national footprint. As of next month, Sagamore Spirit whiskeys will be sold in 21 markets, including the most recent additions of Chicago and Texas. Treacy said the company’s attention in the near future would remain on those markets rather than further expansion.

“It’s extremely important that we continue to really focus in on the Mid-Atlantic, our backyard,” he said. “We’re not walking away from that anytime soon.”

There’s still plenty for the company, which now employs 52, to concentrate on, Treacy said. The distillery allows for more experimentation, which recently led the distilling team to create a limited-edition rye whiskey. They aged the spirit in barrels used previously in the production of a Portuguese dessert wine called Moscatel. An early sample revealed an appealing amber-colored spirit that opens with a spicy rye kick and is soon mellowed by the grape-finish. It’ll be released in small quantities this fall, Treacy said.

“Because of the sweetness, we definitely think you need the heat,” he said of the alcoholic kick. With the different flavors in play, he imagines consumers drinking it straight. “It’s like a Manhattan already in a glass.”

Being able to develop limited-edition products is another reminder of how far Sagamore Spirit has come in a short period of time. Given the company’s resources and manpower, it’s not a complete surprise, but that doesn’t make the execution any less impressive in person. There’s a palpable optimism to Treacy and his team’s demeanor about the future, partially because the biggest hurdle — building the distillery — is behind them.

“This has been in the works since 2012, and we got it open in 2017,” Treacy said. “It was an extremely heavy lift that was well worth it, but it just takes time. You can’t microwave it.”

If you go

Sagamore Spirit’s distillery is located at 301 E. Cromwell St., Port Covington. The visitor center is open 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily, with tours given every half-hour between 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours are $8-$15, with children ages 9 and under free. Call 410-624-7488 or go to sagamorespirit.com.

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