It can be tough to know exactly how to judge rye whiskey products sourced from MGP of Indiana. As so many other whiskey writers have pointed out in so many reviews and essays, the former Seagram’s plant currently known as MGP is a massive player as a provider of rye to countless American distilleries: Bulleit, Templeton, High West, George Dickel and Redemption are only a few of the dozens who get variations on similar juice from MGP. As a result, they are to credit (some would say “to blame”) for the specific flavor profile that many American drinkers have come to associate with rye whiskey.
But on the other hand … I happen to quite enjoy the product that MGP makes, and so do a whole lot of other people. I do occasionally wish that so many of the rye whiskeys on the shelf at the package store weren’t so similar to one another, but all I’m really asking for when I say that is a basic tweak. If Bulleit Rye can be used as an approximation of the “base” MGP 95% rye whiskey recipe, all I truly want from another MGP-made rye is enough of a difference to justify its existence.
Enter, the Maryland-based Sagamore Spirit. Their flagship rye whiskey is also sourced from MGP, but it’s not quite what you might immediately expect.
For one, the company is adamant in branding its product as “Maryland-style rye,” a somewhat archaic designation that apparently was once applied to ryes of the state that possessed a somewhat richer or sweeter character. Different sources seem to have conflicting ideas on what exactly “Maryland-style” is supposed to imply, but if this whiskey is actually a good example, then I will happily throw in with the definition that cited them as “earthier and grassier” than others. It was here that I found something to savor about the liquid in this particular bottle.
First things first, though: Sagamore Spirit Rye is actually a blend of two different rye whiskeys sourced from MGP, a “high rye” and a “low rye,” the “high rye” presumably being the famous 95% rye MGP juice used in so many other bottled ryes. These two are combined in Maryland and cut down to 83 proof (41.5% ABV) with limestone-filtered water, which is where we get our “Maryland-style rye” tag. Note: Only the finishing water is coming from Maryland, unless they’re shipping big tanks of it to Indiana, which we can probably assume is not happening. I have no problem with this, although I do have an issue with this page of the Sagamore website on the process of distillation, which goes out of its way to imply at every step that the whiskey is being produced exclusively in Maryland. Note to Sagamore: If you’re getting your juice from MGP, and this page of your website doesn’t contain the word “Indiana” on it somewhere (it doesn’t), then you’re failing to meet the most minimum level of transparency that any consumer could possibly ask for. Do better; be honest; no one is going to care that the whiskey is sourced, because pretty much everyone does it. Hiding it is far worse than simply owning it.
With that said …
On the nose, Sagamore Spirit Rye is distinctly herbal, with hints of dill and mint. There’s something woodsy about this whiskey, and note that’s “woodsy” rather than “woody”—less oak barrel, and more “piney/grassy” notes, with some cedar cigar box in there as well. There’s also plenty of rye grain and hints of baking spice, with cinnamon, caramel and booze that is slightly more assertive than I would have expected from the 83 proof.
On the palate, this is an interesting combination of different elements. Caramel/brown sugar and rye bread lead off, with black and pink peppercorn spice, and the same sort of grassy, “green” character I got from the nose. This isn’t always a note I enjoy in rye, but here I think it actually works really well. What I don’t get is the suggestion of greater sweetness than other ryes—that might have been true of historical Maryland-style rye, but this one has no more residual sweetness than most of the MGP stock, which is what has made many of them popular for classic cocktails in the first place. To hammer that point home, I made myself a Manhattan last night with Sagamore Spirit Rye (3/1 ratio), and it was pretty damn good.
Stray observations: I love the bottle this is packaged in. I never typically bother to comment on packaging in a whiskey review, but this bottle is just a beautiful thing to hold. Another thing to note is the roughly $45 price tag on said bottle, which is how much they retail for on the Sagamore Spirit website. It might be fair to describe that as just a hair more expensive than expected, considering that the price point of other MGP-sourced ryes tends to be in the $25-$35 range, all of which tend to be higher in proof as well. I don’t think $45 is a dealbreaker for the liquid in this bottle, but if it’s sitting on the shelf next to a $25 bottle of Bulleit Rye, and you know it contains at least some of the same liquid, you better hope that your aesthetic appreciation of the Sagamore Spirit bottle can make up the difference.
In the end, I quite enjoyed this rye. I think the company can do a better job with its transparency, and I have no idea of whether this is an accurate representation of “Maryland-style” rye whiskey, but it is a pleasure to sip both neat and in classic cocktails, with enough complexity and drinkability to easily enjoy in both applications. That’s what matters most.
Distillery: Sagamore Spirit Distillery
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 41.5% (83 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $45 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.