Historically, Maryland had been a center of rye whiskey production in the US. Before Prohibition, the state hosted 44 distilleries, 13 of which were in Baltimore. Many distilleries never recovered from Prohibition. Even so, in 1936, Maryland was still producing 14.1 million gallons of rye whiskey. Those distilleries that did reopen were converted to ethanol production during World War II. After the war, few returned to making rye.
Maryland rye was sweeter, smoother and less spicy than Pennsylvania style, termed Monongahela rye. It’s mash bill was typically 35% corn and 65% rye. Monongahela rye, on the other hand, was typically 95% rye and 5% malted barley. Baltimore style rye proved to be popular with Midwest producers and would eventually, with more corn in the mash bill, become the template for producing bourbon.
In 2015, the Sagamore Spirit company began construction on a 22,000-square-foot distillery in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood. This was among the first distilleries built in Maryland since the beginning of Prohibition.
The five-acre distilling complex also includes a 27,000-square-foot welcome and processing center containing a bottling line, barrel filter, dump trough, and ten, 1,000-gallon capacity, proofing and gauging tanks. It also has a gift store and two tasting rooms. There is also a full-service bar and restaurant, Rye Street Tavern, which is independently owned, on the grounds.
The whiskey is aged in a 20,000-barrel capacity facility in North Point, Maryland. According to Sagamore Spirit president, Brian Treacy, the company ages to taste rather than for a specific period, but anticipates that spirit will be aged for at least four years.
The distillery includes a 6,000-gallon mash cooker and nine, 6,500-gallon fermentation tanks. Distillation is from a one of a kind, 40-foot copper column still that was custom built for the distillery by the Kentucky based Vendome company. The facility also has a small, 250-gallon pot still that is used for R & D purposes and for small batch seasonal releases and new spirits.
Sagamore Spirit was founded by Kevin Plank, who had previously founded, Baltimore based, Under Armour and still serves as its CEO and Chairman, and Bill McDermond. The company uses limestone filtered water that comes from Sagamore Farm. The famous Reistertown horse farm is 22 miles away and is owned by Plank. The water is used to bring the cask strength whiskey down to bottling strength.
Originally the company used MGP in Indiana to source its rye whiskey. Since May 2017, it has been producing its own whiskey at the distillery.
Sagamore’s current core range consists of six different expressions of rye whiskey. Tasting notes are below.
According to Sagamore, its rye whiskey is a blend of a high rye and a low rye whiskey. The specific mash bill is not disclosed. Since the original whiskey was crafted at MGP, however, it is likely a blend of MGP’s standard rye recipes. In addition to its usual 95% rye and 5% malted barley mash bill, MGP also produces rye based on a 51% rye, 45% corn and 4% malted barley mash bill, and from a 51% rye and 49% malted barley mash bill. Given the company’s description of its rye blend and the obvious corn sweetness on the palate, it’s likely that the blend is based on the first two mash bills.
The color is a medium gold. On the nose, it offers notes of candied orange zest and brown sugar, as well as rye’s signature spices of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. On the palate, the whiskey is sweeter than on the nose, offering candied notes, along with some dried stone fruit and tropical fruit. The finish is medium length, with some pepperiness and a lingering sweetness.
The Cask strength rye is based on the same blend as the Signature rye. The color is a light amber. On the nose, this whiskey is very aromatic, with a distinctive spice element of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and vanilla, as well as some dried floral notes. On the palate, it is sweet, with notable honey and brown sugar notes, along with elements of dried tropical and stone fruit and a pronounced pepperiness. The whiskey is creamy, with a pronounced palate weight and a slightly waxy character. The finish is long, with a pronounced sweetness, along with some stone fruit notes, pepperiness and a hint of bitterness.
The Rye Double Oak is aged for four years, after which it is barreled into a second oak barrel. The new barrel extracts additional flavors of caramel and vanilla. The color is a medium amber. On the nose, there are the typical rye spices of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, along with caramel and orange zest. There are also some candied, marshmallow notes.
On the palate, there are pronounced caramel and vanilla notes, along with some dried stone fruit notes. There are also some nutty flavors and a hint of coconut. The whiskey is smooth, viscous, with a pronounced palate weight and a candied, buttery quality. The finish is long, with lingering candied sweetness, along with stone fruit notes, pepperiness and tropical spices.
The rye port finish begins as Sagamore’s 4 YO straight rye whiskey and is then aged for an additional period of time, typically six months or so, in a combination of European and locally sourced American port barrels. This rye won a Double Gold at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirit Competition and was selected World’s Best Rye Whiskey. The color is a dark amber, with a pronounced reddish hue.
On the nose, it has the typical assortment of rye tropical spices, along with caramel and dried and cooked red and dark fruits. On the palate, there are caramel notes, along with elements of dried dark fruits of raisin, fig and dates, as well as plum and cherry jams, and a bit of prune. The rye is sweet, very creamy, with a noticeable palate weight. The finish is long, spicy and remarkably dry.
The Rye Vintner’s Spirit also begins as Sagamore’s 4 YO straight rye whiskey. The whiskey then undergoes an additional seven months of finishing in a cask that previously held pinot noir, shiraz or port wine. The three whiskeys are then blended together. The color is a medium gold.
On the nose, the rye is very aromatic, featuring floral and spice notes of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, along with some cherry and dried red fruit notes. On the palate, the rye is creamy, with a slight waxy feel. There are caramel and brown sugar notes, some cinnamon spice, along with some vanilla and fruit notes of cherry and some blackberry and plum notes. The finish is medium to long, peppery, with a slightly bitter note.
The Rye Moscatel barrel is the most recent Sagamore release. It features the company’s signature rye whiskey finished in barrels that previously held Moscatel wine. The color is a medium amber. On the nose, there are fruit notes of raisin, as well as peach and apricot, along with the usual rye spices of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. On the palate, there is a bit of sweetness, caramel and brown sugar, and raisin and dried fruit notes. The finish is medium to long, with a lingering dried fruit sweetness and rye spice.
These are all outstanding ryes and well worth trying. The various wine finishes add sweetness and dried fruit notes to supplement the typical caramel and spice character of rye, while the Double Oak, doubles down on the vanilla and caramel notes typical of rye. Most of these ryes are bottled at higher proofs. Rye benefits from higher proof bottling as it brings out the spice and fruity elements and creates a more aromatic whiskey. They are all worth a try, especially the Port Finished Rye. If you want to taste what one of the world’s great rye tastes like, you owe yourself a shot.
I have been writing and speaking about wines and spirits for 20 years. Along the way I became a winemaker, Oregon Pinot Noir; a judge for various international competiti...
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