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Founded in 2013 by Kevin Plank (the businessman behind Under Armour), Sagamore Spirits is a craft distillery based in Baltimore, Maryland which produces a range of rye whiskies. Being the owner of Sagamore Farm, which is renowned for its thoroughbred racing horses, Plank decided to build a distillery of the same name that would use the limestone-rich water from the farm to produce the best Maryland-style rye whiskey possible. Historically, Maryland was once a centre of rye whiskey production in the US before prohibition with modern MD rye producers claim that their historic corn-heavy, sweeter style of rye whiskey created the template for the modern bourbon mashbill of no less than 51% corn.
In 2015, having originally sourced rye whiskey stocks from MGP Indiana, Sagamore began construction on a 22,000-square-foot distillery just 22 miles from Sagamore Farm and was one of the first distilleries built in Maryland since the beginning of Prohibition. With production at the facility in full swing since 2017 the distillery boasts a 6,000 gallon mash cooker, nine 6,500 gallon fermenters, and a 40 foot copper still custom built by Vendome. The distillery site covers 5 acres and also includes a 27,000-square-foot visitor’s centre and processing facility which features a full setup of dump troughs, bottling line, and gauging tanks. The visitors centre has a gift shop and tasting rooms with a bar and restaurant adjacent to it. Currently their whiskey is ageing in a 20,000 barrel capacity warehouse in Maryland with plans to construct a 40,000 barrel-capacity ageing ‘barn’ also in the works. Sagamore’s core portfolio consists of their Signature Rye, Cask Strength Rye, and Double Oaked Rye, whilst they’ve also released some limited-edition barrel-finished ryes that have won some very prestigious awards such as World’s Best Rye Whiskey from the 2019 San Francisco World Spirit Competition for their Port-Finished rye whiskey. Their current releases are all feature blends of rye whiskey sourced from MGP, however, instead of bottling just the standard 95/5 MGP rye recipe that so many other brands do, Sagamore blend whiskey from multiple MGP rye mashbills to create their target flavour profile.
When modern rye producers sought to re-create the once legendary Maryland style of rye whiskey, simply called ‘Maryland rye,’ they ran into a bit of a problem. Despite being one of the most dominant and popular styles of rye whiskey in pre-Prohibition US, Maryland Rye whiskey never made a return after Repeal, and instead disappeared completely. With almost no recipes or written accounts of how it was distilled or produced, modern producers were left with very few guidelines to follow when attempting to recreate the famous style. What was known about it was that Maryland rye was sweeter, fruitier, and less spicy than its cousin the Pennsylvania style rye (Monongahela rye) and, instead of the very high 95% rye and 5% malted barley mashbill typical of Monogahela, its mashbill was usually much higher in corn (approx 35% corn 65% rye). Also, after the enactment of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the 1909 Taft Decision, the number of brands offering Maryland rye decreased as labels had to indicate if whiskies were blended and rectifiers were no longer able to add colourings and flavourings such as fruit juice to create the target flavour profile. This shifted the production of Maryland rye towards adding more corn to mashbills for added sweetness and several other tricks such as using used ex-wine cooperage to age their rye (legal until 1939), thus further complicated recreating this iconic style. This meant that modern producers were left to their imaginations as to how to recreate this style within the current laws and production methods. Several hypothesised that the signature profile came from improper fermentation control at the time, some claimed it came from the blending of whiskies with various ratios of rye and corn in their mashbills, and others such as whiskey historian Michael Veach, stated that Maryland rye was a product produced by rectifiers who blended new make rye whiskey sourced from MD distilleries with various other whiskies, flavourings, and colouring agents to attain a target profile. So who is correct? Nobody knows for sure. What we do know, however, is that this problem hasn’t stopped producers from each adapting their own unique production method to create a Maryland style rye whiskey.
Less than a decade old and already producing their own Maryland rye whiskey, Sagamore Spirits initially started with sourced rye whiskey from MGP. However, instead of just bottling the 95% rye 5% malted barley recipe we’ve seen umpteen other producers use, they sourced all 3 of MGP’s different rye mashbills, aged them separately, and have blended them together to achieve their target Maryland style rye flavour profile. These other mashbills vary in the amount of corn they use with one consisting of 51% rye and 49% malted barley, and the other consisting of 51% rye, 45% corn, and 4% malted barley, to no doubt give Sagamore a lot of flexibility in terms of their final profile in a way that other producers haven’t adopted en masse yet.
Today I’ll be taking a look at Sagamore’s Cask Strength rye whiskey. This whiskey is an undisclosed blend of two sourced MGP rye mashbills – one with a high-rye content and one with a low rye content – in proprietary proportions. Although it doesn’t carry an age-statement, further research into this whiskey confirms that its constituent parts have been aged between 4 and 5 years. The whiskey itself is presented at ‘cask strength’ with the back label claiming that the only thing that has been added is a ‘splash of spring water from our spring house built in 1909,’ and it has won several prestigious awards including being scored 95 points at the 2019 Berlin International Spirits Competition and being awarded Double Gold at the 2017 SFWSC. This whiskey recently landed in the UK and has already won the hearts of many rye lovers so let’s see if its positive reception is down to a pretty bottle or the quality of the spirit inside.
Name: Sagamore Spirit Rye Cask Strength (Batch: 9AB)
Age: NAS but confirmed to be between 4-5 years old
Proof: 112.2 proof (56.1% abv)
Type: Straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: Undisclosed blend of two MGP rye mashbills
Producer: Sagamore Spirits, sourced from MGP
Nose: The nose opens dark and broody with clove, charred oak, and faint herbaceous dill taking the lead whilst brown sugar bordering on molasses, a touch of cinnamon, black pepper, and lush red fruit dance around the fringes.
Palate: The palate follows the nose, opening dark and delicious with a faint viscosity carrying notes of thick deep brown sugar caramel, sweet red fruit, and a flash of earthy cinnamon before classic MGP dill and further baking spices including faint cloves emerge. As the other notes fade the dill notes become wrapped up in dark chocolate and peppery oak notes with some heat coming from the rye itself and shining towards the back of the palate.
Finish: The finish opens with a lingering kick of spice leftover from the palate before notes of creamy chocolate, faint herbaceous dill, and earthy baking spices emerge and fade to charred oak and a lingering herbaceous and peppery spice.
Jackpot! Sipping this whiskey and reading the description of what defined a Maryland rye this is exactly what I would expect a Maryland style rye to taste like. It’s well-balanced, robust, and deeply flavourful all whilst also delivering a unique twist to the classic MGP rye flavour profile. The nose is well balanced whilst leaning towards the bolder flavours of clove, fruit, and herbaceous dill, whilst on the palate there’s layer upon layer of flavour with minimal amounts of spice. As you drink it heat travels down the sides of the jaw, invigorating the tongue without setting your mouth on fire with alcohol or oak spice. The constant hum of spice makes the experience of the other flavours more pronounced, driving instead of overwhelming them. In fact, despite being a high proof rye whiskey there’s little to no alcohol burn on either the nose or the palate and even the rye spice that’s there simply prickles through instead washing across like the wave of fiery spice you typically get with 95% rye MGP ryes.
Despite being a blend of 4 and 5 year old stocks this whiskey is surprisingly good and keeps pulling me in for sip after sip. Having previously had some very average young MGP rye whiskies I am very impressed by this whiskey and it’s honestly unlike any other MGP rye I have had before. It demonstrates the skill of Sagamore’s blending and also serves as a great eye-opener for who think they know the MGP rye profile like the backs of their hands. There is still a distinct MGP rye vibe with cinnamon and dill a-plenty; however, this is a more nuanced rye whiskey with an added level of flavour and complexity that I wasn’t expecting (no doubt thanks to the corn!) Sagamore have really out-done themselves with this whiskey and have created something in keeping with their goals to produce a Maryland style rye whilst also delivering a twist on the classic MGP rye profile. With their own Maryland rye entering barrels since 2017 I’m looking forward to what the future holds for Sagamore. They can definitely create a great blend but does level of skill transfer to making their own whiskey? Only time will tell but as we approach the 4 year mark I’ve a feeling we’ll find out soon enough.
Try or Buy?
With a UK retail price of around £73 on average I’d say rye lovers are getting a delicious and unique cask strength blend of MGP ryes for a great price! Buy buy buy!
I want to take this moment to thank bourbon historian and all-around awesome guy Mike Veach for fact checking my history of Maryland rye for this review. If you haven’t checked out his blog already I’d highly recommend it!