Another week, another craft spirit. These are all the same, right? More than half of them are just rebottled whisky from LDI/MGP or otherwise sourced, and the rest are two year-old craft spirit from some guy with an alembic and a dream. I’ll just pour a little and get this review over with. Stick it on the bottom of the pile. *cartoon screeching noise* Holy… this stuff is actually really good! Sweet and fruit-forward without being cloying… I got all excited until I started reading the fine print.
First, the bad news. This is, indeed, rebottled whisky from LDI/MGP. Like just about every upstart distillery in America, Sagamore is sourcing their Spirit while the output from their new distillery (built in 2017) ages. I’d expect to see some fanfare in 2021 when the first casks of four year-old spirit are bottled. Until then, this is really just excellently-chosen MGP rye. Honestly, I don’t know how they did it, since there are twenty thousand “craft” ryes on the market that are made at MGP, and most of them do not make me sit up and say ‘wow’. On the website, they claim that MGP is distilling their “proprietary recipe”, but then they all say that. The MGP rye is proofed down (to nearly the legal minimum, at 41.5% ABV) with Maryland limestone spring water, but that can hardly be the difference.
A little searching online reveals that Sagamore is blending two MGP products; a high-rye (95% rye, 5% malted barley) and a low-rye (51% rye, but an unspecified mash bill, probably corn). They are also cask-finishing a number of casks in everything from Cognac to Calvados, so they aren’t just resting on MGP’s laurels. There’s also a cask strength rye. If nothing else, at least they are revealing the source of their whiskey instead of trying to hide it. Still, the proof will be in the bottles released in 2021. We’ll see if they can match or exceed the quality of the MGP liquid. Also, then it will finally be “Maryland Rye” instead of Indiana rye bottled in Maryland.
Speaking of MGP liquid, as much as I belittle producers that use it, the fact remains that MGP makes damn fine whiskey, and they are able to do it at such scale and low cost that they can supply nearly the entire landscape of the American “craft” whiskey renaissance. Now that’s impressive.
My bottle is from Batch 9AV, Bottle #2939. All of Sagamore Spirit’s products are made without added coloring, but they are chill-filtered.
Update: I was contacted by a PR rep at Sagamore Spirit to clear something up. Her words: “[Sagamore Spirit] did work with MGP until their distillery was up and running, they didn’t actually source rye from MGP. Instead, Sagamore Spirit contracted production out to exact specifications to MGP until Sagamore Spirit’s own distillery opened in 2017. Instead of buying bulk whiskey and labeling it, Sagamore Spirit had MGP custom produce and age it for them.” She tells me that Sagamore feels there’s an important distinction between sourcing bulk spirit (which a lot of brands do) vs. contract distilling. They apparently contracted MGP to distill and age two ryes (95% and 51%) and then Sagamore performed the blending themselves. In other words, they had to wait for the ryes they contracted to age instead of going straight to market with already-aged whiskey. When the distillery’s output comes “of age” in 2021, they will no longer use MGP-distilled whisky at all.
Nose: Soft, grain-forward rye. Reminds me of Crown Royal Northern Harvest. Almost floral notes of rosewater, orange blossom, toasted nutmeg and clove. Spiced, but not spicy, like mulled wine or sticky monkey bread. Very accomplished – downright polished.
Palate: Thin body. Tannic, with a lot of wood up front. Basically no tongue burn. The rye spices return, now accompanied by pliable fresh cinnamon sticks, dried cherries, and dark brown sugar. Tasty.
Finish: Of medium length. Spices, of course: rye to the end. The cherry notes verge a little close to cough syrup before fading.
With Water: Several drops of water increase the nose tickle but don’t seem to release new aromas. The water also seems to thin the body. I don’t think this rye needs water.
Overall: A very tasty rye with all of the classic elements of that grain. The spices are especially well-balanced because the grain notes are soft and rounded, so the spices complement them rather than standing out or tasting “spicy”. Basically no rough edges or off-notes. This “sweeter style” can be attributed to the blending in of low-rye (aka half corn) spirit.
I broke my own rule and read a number of reviews online after writing this, and it seems like I’m in a bit of a minority here. Most reviewers seemed to be unimpressed – widely giving Sagamore rye middling scores. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for sweeter whiskies that manage to not be cloying. Perhaps I’m a sucker for good MGP juice. At any rate, I liked it enough to buy another bottle.