Brian Treacy, Sagamore Spirit
Brian Treacy hopes that, one day, the 125-foot-high water tower emblazoned with three maroon diamonds, will lure Interstate 95 drivers to get off the highway and head to Sagamore Spirit Distillery in South Baltimore. It’s visible from the northbound interstate just after the exit to Hanover Street. The rye distillery seems a natural draw for the 42 million cars that drive by every year, according to Treacy.
“We love the opportunity of having people coming to visit,” he says.
Already the word seems to be getting out about Maryland’s newest rye distillery. Sagamore Spirit’s Port Covington visitor center has welcomed some 7,000 visitors since its opening April 20, according to Rachel Cook, the company’s brand director.
Though the distillery and visitor center are the centerpiece of Sagamore Spirit’s five-acre site that overlooks the Patapsco River, Treacy says he would like it to become a place where people want to visit again and again.
“We always want people to have a reason to come back,” says Treacy. “You don’t have to do a tour.”
With that in mind, the campus has a community feel with a wide green lawn overlooking the water.
The visitor center offers tours and tastings, plus a well-stocked gift shop. On the tour, visitors get a look at the whole distilling process from grain to bottling, followed by a tasting in one of the center’s handsome
tasting rooms. In addition to the 83-proof “straight” rye, visitors are introduced to white rye, a spicy unaged rye and the 112.4-proof cask strength rye. A rye-scented chocolate truffle adds a final sweet note.
Only the “straight” rye is available for sale outside of the distillery. The white rye, first introduced on the distillery’s opening day and the cask strength rye are available only at the distillery, according to Cook.
On warm weekends, an outdoor tasting area with a harbor view is also open.
Beginning in the fall, visitors will have another reason to return here. Two-time James Beard Award-winning Chef Andrew Carmellini is coming to Baltimore to open Rye Street Tavern in the building adjacent to the distillery.
Treacy is quick to point out the visitor center’s display panels recalling the history of rye in Maryland – a long history that includes William and Henry Walters, the father and son who founded the Walters Art Museum.
One case displays whiskey bottles from Maryland’s past, as well as Sagamore’s six-sided bottle, reminiscent of the design of the Walters’ rye bottle. “It’s an homage of old meets new,” Treacy says.
“So few people know the history of rye in Maryland,” Treacy says.
The tour winds its way past that iconic water tower – and one of the keys, Treacy says, to the rye’s flavor. The tank holds water from a limestone aquifer 22 miles away at Sagamore Farms, the old Vanderbilt farm that Plank now owns. The water is used to proof the whiskey, according to Treacy. The 1905 date on the whiskey bottle is the year the springhouse was built.
Treacy bounds up the steps of the distillery and speaks of the business with the enthusiasm of child on his birthday.
He talks about the value of the ingredients and the dedication of the staff who keep the flavor consistent in every bottle of rye. “I give a lot of credit to the men and women doing it,” he says.
The distillery combines stainless steel, PVC and highly polished copper to produce up to14 barrels during each of the day’s three shifts.
He shows off the gleaming copper continuous column still. “This is what makes the best whiskey,” he says. He demonstrates how a whiskey thief takes samples from one of the American oak barrels where newly made rye spends up to four years.
Treacy arrived in Baltimore in 2013 to take the reins of the company after 15 years heading a tour guide company in Arizona. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and was already acquainted with UnderArmour’s Kevin Plank when Plank called and asked him to take over the new distillery in 2013.
“This was a great opportunity,” Treacy says.
Even though his tour company was flourishing and he lived near the Grand Canyon, Treacy sold the tour company to long-time guide and employee Dave Logan, according to Four Season Guides’ website. “It’s still flourishing out there,” Treacy adds. He had decided it was time to come home. “I think I’m giving my kids a better opportunity too,” he says. He and his wife have two sons, ages 5 and 10.
Although Grand Canyon tours and whiskey production don’t really look like similar businesses, Treacy explains the similarities.
“It’s about an experience. It’s about hospitality,” he says. “We really believe in customer service and believe in the brand and being part of the Sagamore family.”
For now, the company is content making rye.
“We’re growing,” Treacy says, noting that the spirits are available in 22 markets – and as far away as Las Vegas. “We’ll always make sure we have enough whiskey for Maryland,” he adds.
And it’s winning awards – 15 of them in its first year. In April, the cask whiskey even won a double gold in the World Spirit Competition in San Francisco, meaning every judge gave it a gold rating. “We’re really proud of that. That’s a big one,” Treacy says.
Will the day come when Sagamore Spirit distills rum or tequila or vodka?
“I do believe some day there will be other products. But we are laser focused on rye whiskey,” Treacy says, noting that the company has a pot still for research and development. “It’s the hottest growing market.”
Moving to Baltimore has been a good decision, Treacy says. “We know it’s special,” he says. “We have an opportunity to do something few people have ever done.”
The company has partnered with several local businesses in its gift shop. Clothing is by UnderArmour, of course. The chocolates are made by Glarus. Mouth Party caramels and Frederick-based Whiskey Bottom candles with a rye scent are also available.
“Brian has been a tremendous asset to the industry, through his leadership of Sagamore Spirit and engagement in the Maryland Distillers Guild,” Kevin Atticks, the guild’s executive director, states in an email. “He’s ensured that Sagamore supports the burgeoning craft distilling industry throughout the state, and that Sagamore’s successes are those of the broader industry. Sagamore Spirit has brought a refocused national attention to the Maryland spirits industry.” I95