Betting on bourbon’s older brother
Whiskey was being produced in Maryland 150 years before Kentucky became a state. In fact, by 1910 and with 44 distilleries, “The Old Line State” was a hotbed of rye whiskey production. Those distilleries, however, were converted for ethanol production to support war efforts and never recovered, ultimately ceding ground to Kentucky and Tennessee as America’s heartland for whiskey and bourbon production. Sagamore Spirit (Sagamore) seeks to alter that conventional notion and inspire a global passion for Maryland rye whiskey.
Founded in 2013, Sagamore Spirit’s waterfront complex at Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood is quickly becoming the heart of Maryland’s rye whiskey resurgence. The company, which wants Maryland to be synonymous with rye in the same way Kentucky is with bourbon, has linked its differentiation to the state.
In many ways, Sagamore has imbibed Maryland to create its products and identity. The naturally filtered water it uses in its proofing process (which comes from a limestone aquifer on nearby Sagamore Farm) is as central to the company’s positioning as is the state’s rich history of rye whiskey production. And just as Maryland is not often thought of as at the forefront of American whiskey, neither is it widely regarded as an incubator of innovation and creation. Sagamore wants to prove that innovation, like rye whiskey, is indigenous to Maryland.
For those who take risk without knowing the reward
Incepting whiskey production is not for the faint of heart. Not only is the category crowded by a sea of brands and varietals, but it takes at least four years for the product to age, so there is great inventory and investment, quite literally, sitting on shelves. Though the category’s challenges are daunting, they are also invigorating and Sagamore pursues its mission boldly, even beyond charting a new geographic frontier in America’s whiskey landscape.
Sagamore has made strategic and irreverent decisions that set it apart. Unlike well-established bourbon and whiskey outfits in Kentucky and Tennessee, the company does not employ a single “master distiller,” instead opting for a team of distillers who, through collaboration and experimentation, push each other and Sagamore’s products to greater heights. This approach creates award-winning products and a company where people are passionate about their work and believe in the impact they are making.
Enhancing community spirit
Sagamore’s whiskies are often characterized as “smooth and approachable” and the company intends that description to transcend its products and represent the business itself. While its vision is global, the company’s heart is local and it sees its distillery and operations as part of the Baltimore community.
This community building is fostered in multiple ways – from numerous specialty cocktail tours and a monthly summertime concert series called “Whiskey on the Waterfront,” to Sagamore’s work with Maryland farmers that seeks to incentivize high quality rye production. And the architecture of its five-acre Port Covington campus, with inviting windows and greenspace, has made it a national destination. The distillery was recognized by Trip Advisor as the city’s #2 “Thing to do” and as #8 on Travel + Leisure’s “25 Best Distilleries in the US.”
Sagamore Spirit is succeeding by challenging the conventional – taking on ingrained perceptions of what constitutes great American whiskey and where it comes from, embracing collaboration and innovation against the backdrop of a monolithic and hyper-traditional production process, and building a global brand that is inextricably linked to Baltimore. Sagamore’s is a new and emerging story, but one breathing new life into a rich history.