Maryland’s heritage of rye whiskey production was a long and rich one, but it all nearly came to an end 50 years ago.
Rye whiskey played a major part in the history of Maryland, dating back to the colonial days when the production of this treasured spirit began. It comes as no surprise the colonist were fond of using rye to produce whiskey. Other popular whiskey grains like wheat and barley were much more difficult to grow and corn, which was still relatively new to them, was not much easier and was typically saved to provide food for the people.
Ryegrass was different. This resilient grain could grow in poor soil conditions and had a high tolerance for unpredictable rain levels. Frost did little damage to ryegrass and, conveniently, it could be planted in the fall and would begin to grow after winter thawed away in the spring. Furthermore, it was an excellent counterpart to tobacco planting and could be used in rotation to help replenish the soil’s health and prevent erosion.
Maryland’s production of rye whiskey became a booming success. By 1910, Maryland was home to 44 different rye whiskey distilleries. Even Kentucky’s famed Bourbon couldn’t touch Maryland’s rye whiskey history. In fact, Maryland had been producing rye whiskey more than 150 years before Kentucky was even a state.
But Prohibition hit the rye whiskey industry hard. While Kentucky distilleries were located in rural locations, Maryland’s distilleries were in urban areas, where turning down high real estate prices was difficult for distillery owners who couldn’t even produce their goods legally. The few distilleries that remained were then converted to produce ethanol during the war. Sadly, in 1972, the last rye whiskey distillery in Maryland closed its doors.
Rye Whiskey Revival
Fortunately, many still remember the prosperous and beloved rye whiskey traditions of Maryland’s past, and new rye whiskey-focused distilleries have slowly begun returning. One distillery at the forefront of this revival movement is Sagamore Spirit.
Sagamore Spirit is on a mission to craft the best rye whiskey in the world, and they are making headway against that goal. Their rye whiskey has already won over 100 different awards internationally, including the World’s Best Rye Whiskey in 2019 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This distillery sits on a beautiful 5-acre waterfront property on the Patapsco River in the Port Covington area of Baltimore.
What makes Sagamore Spirit’s Rye Whiskey so special?
While many whiskeys are produced under the direction of a single master distiller, Sagamore Spirit’s rye whiskey production is overseen by a team of distillers. This unusual dynamic’s purpose is to push each of the distillers to greater heights through collaboration and experimentation together.
One way the team of distillers infuses some innovation into their process is by creating their rye whiskey with a blend of two separately aged whiskeys. One of the whiskeys will have a high rye mash bill at nearly 100% and the other will have a much lower rye mash bill at around 50%. This gives their rye whiskey a much more complex flavor profile. The high rye mash brings forward flavors of baking spices and fruit while the low rye mash brings smooth sweetness to the blend.
The barrels used for aging also must pass through a careful preparation process before any whiskey goes in them. American White Oak staves are first seasoned for 6 to 18 months before a Cooper meticulously chars them to a level three or four char. Once ready, the barrels are then filled with the triple distilled White Rye spirit and sent to be aged.
Following Maryland rye whiskey tradition, the aging facility at Sagamore Spirit is actually not climate controlled. While this may seem odd, its purpose is to allow changing temperatures throughout the year to dictate the flavoring of the whisky from the barrels. Depending on where the barrel is in the aging facility will age and flavor the whiskey differently. Sagamore Spirit ages their whiskey for at least 4 years, but it’s not about hitting a certain amount of time for them. Aging is finished based on the taste of the rye whiskey.
But, if you had to choose one reason why Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey is truly unique, most would say the water. Just 22 miles away from the distillery, on Sagamore Farm, stands a stone structure that may not look like much, but is literally flowing with history. This is where Sagamore Spirit gets the water used to proof their whiskey. This Spring House was built in 1909 and is fed from a limestone aquifer. The crisp, 52º water is excellent for making whiskey thanks to its high calcium content. This water gives Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey that extra touch of smooth creaminess.
New Life for a Maryland Tradition
Sagamore Spirit has worked tirelessly since opening its distillery doors in April of 2017 to not only bring back Maryland Rye Whiskey but to honor it in the process. Their buttery smooth Rye Whiskey is available to enjoy in three different styles currently, although the distillery periodically produces limited edition runs of special recipes.
Signature – Aged for 4 to 6 years. Flavors of cinnamon and clove from the high rye mash bill are balanced with flavors of caramel, honey, and citrus peel from the low rye mash bill.
Cask Strength – Aged 4 to 7 years. Bold flavors of dark chocolate, hazelnut, and molasses are skillfully layered over intense black pepper and brown sugar notes with a hint of honey for balance.
Double Oak – Aged 4 to 5 years in high-char American oak barrels and then transferred to unique toasted wave stave barrels for 18 months. Wave stave barrels provide increased surface area for the rye whiskey and impart flavors of caramel, toffee, hazelnut, and toasted coconut.