It was a mostly hometown crowd of reporters that gathered Wednesday at City Garage to sip Sagamore Spirit's Straight Rye Whiskey for the first time.
The initial impressions: pretty smooth work.
For years, Kevin Plank's Sagamore Spirit has bided its time, waiting for its facility to be built and, most importantly, its rye whiskey to age. The former is still under construction, but on May 13, the rye whiskey will finally hit the shelves of Baltimore-area bars and liquor stores, said company co-founder Bill McDermond.
While Sagamore Spirit declined to provide specific locations that will have the whiskey, the company said later through a publicist that it should be in 1,000 bars, restaurants and retail locations in the area by the end of May. That includes Baltimore City and County, and the counties of Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard. By the end of fall, Sagamore Spirit expects to have its rye whiskey in Western and Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and the Washington suburbs.
On Wednesday, Sagamore Spirit hosted a ceremonial whiskey barrel dump for local media members at the Sagamore Ventures innovation space temporarily housing the spirit's production facility. President Brian Treacy walked the audience through the production process and had reporters briefly work the bottling line. Afterward, samples were handed out in plastic shot glasses that sported the company logo.
Sagamore Spirit would appear to have a clever product on its hands. While rye traditionalists might crave more spice on the nose and alcohol "heat," this rye whiskey is relatively sweet (thanks to notes of nutmeg and vanilla bean) compared to most competitors. That sweetness, which will remind drinkers of bourbon, should provide an accessible entry point for those normally intimidated or turned off by rye and whiskey. It's sippable, but it's easy to imagine it also blending well in cocktails.
Some have wondered if the involvement of Plank, CEO of Under Armour, would put Sagamore Spirit on a fast track to brand ubiquity around the world. McDermond said, however, the company is solely focused on the state and region as of now.
"We set out to make a product that all of Maryland would be proud of, and we mean that," McDermond said a couple days before the media preview. (While Sagamore Spirit emphasizes its local ties, its rye whiskey is being distilled in Indiana, while the bottling and labeling occurs here. The distilling process will move to Baltimore once the new facility opens, publicist Monique Smallow said.)
Earlier in the week, friends and family of the company could be seen working the production line at City Garage, filling boxes with new bottles of the 83-proof, dark-amber spirit. It's a temporary setup, as Sagamore Spirt's permanent home — a 5-acre complex on East Cromwell Street — has been under construction since October. The hope is to open the 22,000-square-foot facility by the first quarter of next year, McDermond said.
Sagamore Spirit only produces rye whiskey, which was the plan from the start, McDermond said. He did not rule out one day expanding the brand's offerings, but said Sagamore Spirit is "laser-focused" on producing rye as of now.
Prices for the rye — some of which has been aging in 53-gallon oak barrels since 2012 — will vary by market, Treacy said. In Maryland, a 750-milliliter bottle will retail "in the $40 range," he said.
To develop the recipe, Sagamore Spirit hired a 10-person team led by master distiller Larry Ebersold, who has more than three decades worth of distilling experience with Seagram's, Treacy said.
While bourbon has led the resurgence of whiskey in recent years, rye — a spirit with a deep history in pre-Prohibition Maryland — has found a new wave of fans. (One difference between the two, by law: The grain used in a rye-whiskey mash must be at least 51 percent rye. Bourbon's must be at least 51 percent corn.)
The goal of Sagamore Spirit's version, Treacy said, is to appease connoisseurs who prefer to sip whiskey straight and consumers who like mixing it in cocktails.
"I wouldn't consider it to be spicy or intimidating with this harsh burn or anything like that," Treacy said. "It's flavorful, with this really nice sweet finish, and I think that's what's so unique about it."
They credit the rye's drinkability with the water it drives in from its limestone spring at Sagamore Farm, 22 miles away in Reisterstown. They use this water in the "cutting" process in Baltimore — and not during fermentation in Indiana — that gets the spirit to 83 proof.
Executives at Sagamore Spirit discussed building the distillery outside of the city, but ultimately decided to settle here, in part to hopefully add to Baltimore's tourism industry, both officials said. They project the new facility will annually draw 100,000 visitors.
McDermond and Treacy declined to provide details on Sagamore Spirit's production capabilities.
"We're not in a hurry to ramp up production to capacity," McDermond said. "We're going to be build a world-class facility and you're eventually going to see the size and the scope of it. We will be able to compete at the highest levels when we, as a team, are ready to get there."
In the meantime, they're focused on simply introducing a new product — albeit one with Plank's star power behind it — to the area.
"Our goal is to become talked about in that category of great Baltimore brands — to be linked with the T. Rowe Prices, the Legg Masons and the Under Armours of the world. That's what we strive to do one day," McDermond said. "We want to win in our backyard."