Sagamore what? This was the general consensus when I asked members of the MALT team if they had heard anything about this Maryland straight rye whiskey. Silence. Yes, sometimes silence is golden, but not when you’re looking for input. Except for Adam, who quite rightly picked up on the fact that Sagamore makes a big deal about this whiskey is cut with their own water.
Yes, that’s right, their own naturally-filtered spring water, complete with a limestone aquifer and loved by champion thoroughbreds that have been raised on the farm. I’m never going to complain about Scottish swamp monsters, witches or mythical creatures ever again. If I do, then please remind me of this article.
The water aspect that somehow has become a big selling point whilst driving strength down to a marginal 83 proof or 41.5% (if we’re keeping it European) gives this whiskey a little bit of Maryland. Visiting the official Sagamore site, you’ll see they do now have a very impressive distillery that opened in 2017, which means we’re dealing with a brand built upon sourced stock until the true spirit of Sagamore is good to go.
Regulars will know my beef with this tactic, effectively exploited by Teeling closer to home, of passing off something as from a new distillery when in effect it is distilled elsewhere and sourced. This is more prevalent in America and is more commonly accepted, where labels often have phrases such as “bottled for” or “bottled by.” This all equates to the same thing: namely, sourced whiskey. Except acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.
The real identity of the contents of this bottle come on the reverse label in small writing at the very bottom, beneath all that water chat, government warnings and the barcode. At the very bottom is a statement: aged in new charred oak barrels. Distilled in Indiana. Bottled by Sagamore Spirit, Baltimore, Maryland. In other words, this is MGP whiskey, sourced from another state.
While this is the first Sagamore whiskey we’re reviewing here on MALT, you’ll understand that it isn’t technically the Sagamore we’ll be seeing further down the line. A risky strategy, as how do you define your style of whiskey in advance of the stills being designed, built and the first drops of spirit going into the cask? It’s a roll of the dice, and eventually, you’ll have to draw a line under sources versus your own homebrew. In some cases, it can only mean resurrection and a second chance at life. WhistlePig would be a good example of this, as I’m optimistic their own whiskey will be better than the overpriced and cask-forced drivel I’ve had to swallow of late.
I’m acutely aware that we’re now reaching the part of the article where we should talk a little about Sagamore itself, given their impressive distillery; this, and the Maryland-style of rye that they are trying to resurrect.
The Sagamore distillery is situated on the banks of the Patapsco River in Maryland. I’ve never personally associated this state with whiskey, but it turns out it once rode the coattails of Pennsylvania and Kentucky, prior to the 1940s. Like distilleries across Scotland during the war effort, production ceased and the facilities were adapted for other purposes. When the war ended, a return to distilling was not forthcoming for many former distilleries—until now, that is, with sizeable investment. Sagamore isn’t a craft distillery or a farm distillery in the classic sense. It’s a shiny huge behemoth backed by a lot of cash: you know, the money men who finance every operation, whether it’s on the banks of a river in Maryland or in Waterford, Ireland. The distillery was designed with the assistance of a master distiller formerly of MGP, and what says America more than a 40-foot copper column still that has a mirrored finish? The bling still. A smaller still exists for more experimental and special releases, which thankfully is made from just copper.
As with all distilleries, it’s commonplace to quote a misleading year, and I’ve nothing against this practice. Sagamore goes with 1909, which is when the springhouse on the farm was built. That’s relatively retracing your steps after a drunk night out: fairly close in proximity and tangible. In Scotland, we prefer to stretch things beyond comprehension with Lindores quoting 1494, which relates to the historical documentation around taxes. My own personal favourite is Tullibardine, which goes back to 1488, despite the distillery being built in 1949. Bottom line being, if the whisky or whiskey is good, isn’t that sufficient?
The Maryland-style rye was a popular option prior to the decline of distilling in the region. It was seen as a lighter and less forceful style of rye, with the emphasis on sweetness rather than black spices. This style comes from the mash bill, and I’d refer you to a very informative piece at the NY Times for more on this.
This Sagamore Spirit Straight Rye Whiskey comes in a very masculine and angular bottle. Rigid and taut, there’s clearly been a great deal of investment in the design. For the record, this is batch number 4i? And bottle number 1455; at least I can read that bit, and it is hand bottled at the distillery. My thanks to Jessica from The Academy Drinks for bringing this bottle over as a surprise gift.
Sagamore Spirit Rye Straight Whiskey – review
On the nose: Vanilla caramel, wood shavings and orange peel towards the end. Peanuts, rubbed brass and a little cherrywood. A hint of subtle all-spice and black pepper, popcorn, fudge and brown sugar. A touch sweet and lacking that robust forceful rye nature we’ve become familiar with.
In the mouth: More vanilla and caramel, gentle and oaky. A weak finish with some vanilla and it lacks body and substance midway. A fleeting experience. More brown sugar, a little wood bitterness, almonds, ginger, balsa wood and cherry once again. It feels as if the local water has been overused and this has been cut to be a mixer in a cocktail or the basis of another drink; rather than a stand-alone whiskey.
Solid, if unexceptional. A whiskey that’s more of a marker in time and something you can reach for without too much fuss or effort.
Sagamore does seem to have a strong foundation and considerable investment. What I’d hope for is they make the most of the opportunity and to establish their own whiskey and their style. Not go chasing the mainstream with smooth and ultimately dull whiskies. Showcase the style of rye and do something different and worthwhile.
Our Scoring Bands guide is always worth reading over as well.