The best way to taste the fresh spring water as it bubbles from the ground behind the springhouse at Sagamore Farm, says Randy Lewis, the farm’s guest services manager, is to do a plank. Place your hands on flat rocks, feet splayed out on the grass on either side of the narrow stream and lower yourself down to the cool gush. One Kevin Plank, owner of the 530-acre farm, recently cut his head doing the move, Lewis tells me. That information, along with the skirt and skiddy sandals I’m wearing today justify a pass.
The limestone-laced spring water is used to cut the rye named after the farm, bringing its potency from the intense distilled alcohol to the 83-proof stuff bottled at Plank’s new Port Covington distillery.
This Rye operation is one of the companies Under Armour CEO Plank operates under his privately held Plank Industries. Another, Sagamore Racing, is closely linked to the whiskey, not only because the horse farm supplies water. Hunter Rankin, president of the horse operations, says while the thoroughbreds don’t make a lot of money, “we create a lot of brand value.” The whiskey was launched in May in time to make a splash at the 2016 Preakness.
The Baltimore County farm that lends its name to the Sagamore brands was established in 1925 and given to Alfred Vanderbilt by his mother, Margaret, daughter of Isaac Emerson, who invented Bromo Seltzer.
Plank bought the farm, says Lewis, to help revitalize racing in Maryland. “His stated mission,” Lewis tells me, “is to win the Triple Crown. Kevin is very competitive, so it isn’t a question of if. It’s when.” Sagamore Spirit Rye likewise has lofty goals, according company president Brian Treacy: “We want to make Maryland famous for rye again.”
The state was once known for its high- quality rye, made from the plentiful grain planted as a cover crop by tobacco farmers. Local brands included Braddock, Melvale, Hunter and Pikesville (purchased in 1982 by Heaven Hill, and now produced in Kentucky). Maryland whiskey production declined in the years after the repeal of prohibition, when larger companies in New York, Chicago and Kentucky began to dominate the spirits industry, according the Maryland Historical Society.
In our state’s rye heyday, says Treacy (pronounced Tracy), the distilleries used water infused with limestone, a mineral prized for bringing out flavor nuances in whiskey and creating a velvety feel on the tongue. (There’s even a company, the Kentucky-based Old Limestone, that sells bottles of water tinged with the chalky stuff for mixing.) “If you look at a map of Maryland’s distilleries, you see that they follow a seam of limestone across the state,” Treacy says. Limestone, he adduces, “makes for fast horses and slow-aged whiskey.”
Sagamore recently released its first batch of rye, produced in Indiana from grain grown in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canada. With the installation of a 3,700-pound copper and steel still at Port Covington in July and the completion of a barn at the farm to store barrels, the milling, fermenting, aging and bottling is now done in Maryland. Grain continues to be shipped from the Midwest.
The home of Baltimore Whiskey Company is a far cry from the lush open spaces of Sagamore Farms, or even the clean, well-lit 50,000-square-foot distilling and bottling operation at Port Covington. Tucked in the lower level of a brick building on Sisson Street that once manufactured machines that made broom handles, the 4,200-square-foot space has a loft for storing barrels, a small tasting room with a shabby bar counter and a large work area with a 250-gallon-pot still and a bottling machine that can handle four bottles at a time.
Partners Max Lents, Eli Breitburg-Smith and Ian Newton, who opened their distillery in winter 2015 with an M&T bank loan, have already pushed out thousands of bottles of Shot Tower gin, and 1904, a sweet apple- and ginger-infused brandy. Upstairs, 16 barrels of whiskey—each holds around 300 bottles—are aging, with a projected release date of 2018.
Today, the team is taste-testing a single barrel whiskey, an experimental batch made with a mash bill (or recipe) of peated barley, wheat and malted rye. “We have a special program so groups of customers or corporate clients can have their own branded blends,” Lents explains. This afternoon, the clear, fresh blend of malt and grain has a funky flavor—“Wet dog?” suggests one of the partners—though I’m assured it will mellow over time.
The gin, on the other hand, is complex and floral, with more fruit than the juniper flavor that characterizes British brands. The 100-proof Shot Tower gin is a favorite among bartenders at Woodberry Kitchen, Blue Pit Barbecue and W.C. Harlan.
While Sagamore’s vision of Maryland spirits is closely tied to a grand past of thoroughbred racing and moneyed families, a fantasy world of rolling green pastures etched with white rail fences, the Baltimore whiskey guys are part of Baltimore city’s new bootstrap culture, the community that has spawned the recent surge of microbreweries, craft distilleries and urban farms.
“We had the entrepreneurial bug, and we wanted to do it here. We all love Baltimore and wanted to give back to the scene,” Lents explains. They tossed around ideas for brewpubs and bars. Breitburg-Smith had been a founding member of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society and also worked at Peabody Heights Brewing Company. Lents had toyed with the idea of making hand-finished cast iron pans.
The idea of a distillery lit them all up. “We’re all spirit enthusiasts,” says Lents. “We never considered this was a thing you can do, but the local distilling scene is a reminder that you can do this on a small scale.” Two of the three are working at the company full time, while Newton continues his day job as an I.T. consultant.
Sagamore and Baltimore Whiskey Company are just two of a new breed of distillers in the state. The Maryland Distillers Guild lists 11 distillers, and even more that are partnered with wineries. The two are evidence that in Maryland, spirits are on the rise—whether your taste runs thoroughbred or small batch.