(This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post newspaper. Corrected Feb. 13, 2023)
Quite a bit of Maryland comes together on the southern shore of the SoBo peninsula to make whiskey that is leaving its mark around the world. Sagamore Spirit (301 E. Cromwell Street) blends limestone-filtered spring water and locally sourced rye, malted barley, and corn to produce a variety of rye whiskeys and canned cocktails that have earned more than 150 awards. The distillery also collaborates with Maryland breweries and vineyards to create new flavors.
Another key Maryland ingredient – Under Armour founder and former CEO Kevin Plank – laid the groundwork for Sagamore Spirit through real estate purchases in the Port Covington area and the farm in Baltimore County that gave the distillery its name.
The attractive distillery campus, which opened its doors on the South Baltimore waterfront in 2017, features a tasting room and water tower sporting the brand’s distinctive, three-diamond pattern. Sagamore Spirit ships 7 percent of its products internationally to 11 countries, 10 percent inside Maryland, and the rest across the United States.
But it’s the farm about 20 miles north of the peninsula that gives the distillery its deep Maryland heritage, water, and grains. The year “1909,” prominently displayed on Sagamore Spirit bottles, marks the date that Charles A. Councilman built a springhouse on a limestone shelf near Glyndon, Maryland, in Baltimore County. Limestone filters out certain impurities from water, making it the ideal proofing solution for whiskey distilling. When Plank bought Sagamore Farm in 2007, initially for horse breeding, he realized the potential of the limestone-filtered water and began to entertain thoughts of distilling his own whiskey.
Now more than 250 acres, Sagamore Farm grows all the corn used at the distillery and over one-third of the 4 million pounds of rye they mill. The staff also work with local farmers in Baltimore, Harford, and Carroll counties to grow barley and other grains that kick off the whiskey-making process.
“We’re trying to learn as much as humanly possible about growing rye,” says Brian Treacy, Sagamore Spirit cofounder and president. “We plan on scaling up, but slowly. That’s not something you can rush and do overnight.”
The grains and limestone-filtered water are trucked to the distillery where the grains are milled and sorted into “mash bills,” which are the grain mixtures that contribute to Sagamore’s distinctive flavor. What sets Sagamore’s Signature blend apart from other whiskeys is that the distillers combine two separate mash bills at the end of the distilling process.
The fine grains are ground and mixed in a grain collector and sorted into the correct ratios for their respective mash bills – a low-rye and a high-rye bill. The mixed grains are added to a massive mash tub cooker to start the cooking process. The liquid from a previous distillation is also added to the mash tub to help induce acidification in the mash bills. This is considered a “sour mash” distilling process that provides an ideal environment for fermentation. The mixture is cooked at precisely 210 degrees and then piped into one of nine 6,500-gallon beer wells, also known as “bubbling tanks.” Yeast is added to induce fermentation. The tanks are open at the top to allow the CO2 to escape. Coils filled with cold water line the inner walls of the tank to keep the temperature from getting too high.
During the three-day fermentation period, attendants keep the mixture between 68 and 90 degrees. The end product is a mushy liquid referred to as “distiller’s beer” that looks like wet papier mache. Now it’s on to distillation.
The distiller’s beer is piped into the top of a 40-foot-tall copper column to begin the distilling process. The column, nicknamed “Penny,” is heated to 200 degrees and the distiller’s beer begins to separate. If you peer through one of the seven view ports, you can see that the bottom few are packed with layers of solid spent grains, while the alcohol becomes gaseous and rises to the top in a vapor. This vapor travels through a pipe into a horizontal copper tube called a condenser, where it becomes liquid again and settles into a “spirit safe.”
Sagamore uses three spirit safes in its triple-distillation process. In the first safe, the alcohol is considered “low wine.” This liquid is piped into a copper doubler, a squat vat that heats the mixture until it again turns into vapor. The vapor rises into a second condenser where it turns into liquid again to be observed in the second safe. Now it’s considered a “high-wine” mixture. The process is repeated a third time to produce a “higher-wine” mixture in the third spirit safe.
The higher wine is moved into a product tank where it is mixed with the limestone-filtered spring water. Another quality check is performed on the clear grain alcohol to ensure that it’s around 120 proof. Now it’s on to barrel aging.
Sagamore uses Kentucky-made white oak barrels, the insides of which are charred. That char activates the sugars in the whiskey during the aging process. Thousands of 53-gallon barrels are transported to the distillery. Once filled, the barrels are trucked to one of three in-state barrel houses called rack houses, the largest of which can hold up to 44,000 barrels. The whiskey is left alone to age in the non-climate-controlled rack houses for four years. While fermentation accounts for 40 percent of the whiskey’s flavor profile, barrel-aging accounts for the rest of the flavor and gives the clear alcohol its distinct amber color.
After aging is complete, the barrels are brought back to the distillery where the whiskey is poured into a trough and the charred bits are filtered out. Then the high-rye and mid-rye mash bills are added in equal portions to a reducing tank, where they are mixed evenly for that signature whiskey concoction. More limestone spring water is added to bring the proof down to exactly 83 proof. Now it’s on to bottling.
At Sagamore, every bottle is bottled by hand. Up to eight attendants work the line, filling up to 2,500 bottles in a shift. Each bottle is closely inspected and held up to the light to see if any debris or bits of cork are floating inside. Once it passes inspection, each bottle is marked with a batch label and hand-initialed by one of the attendants.
Sagamore recently partnered with canning company Wildpack and released a line of canned cocktails. They’ve also released special blends with Monument City Brewing and Boordy Vineyards. “It’s really important to be a part of the neighborhood,” says Treacy, when asked about fostering collaboration within the distilling and local Baltimore communities. “The neighbors matter, and their opinions matter. We would not have gotten as far as this without them.” – John Thomas