Heads, Hearts, and
Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories
The Sagamore Barrel Pick
Whiskey Bourbon and Scotch Enthusiasts (WBSE) Facebook group has been participating in barrel-picks for over three years. For those not familiar, a “barrel pick,” sometimes also called a “store pick,” is when a small group of people, usually four to six, from a liquor store or whiskey group make special arrangements to meet with a distillery and taste whiskey from several different barrels. They pick their favorite and then buy the whole barrel to be bottled and distributed to members of the group. There are several reasons why folks like barrel-pick bottles. For starters, distilleries most commonly marry together several barrels to make a batch of whiskey, which is then bottled and sent to the liquor store shelves. When this is done, there is consistency from one bottle to the next of any particular brand. A single-barrel, however, will have interesting, unique characteristics, which could be good or bad.
When a barrel pick is conducted, the tasting panel makes sure to pick a single-barrel with all of the typical characteristics of a whiskey brand but with additional, positive, unique elements making bottles from that barrel even more special and enjoyable than the regular bottles from that distillery. Plus, there is an added camaraderie in the group when members get their barrel pick bottles. Most of them only know each other through Facebook, but now they can all share, post, and talk about the same exclusive, unique bottle of whiskey – and that can be a lot of fun.
WBSE wanted to conduct a barrel pick with Sagamore Spirit, the burgeoning rye distillery in Maryland. Knowing that I have a relationship with folks at the distillery, they asked if I would help set things up. My first call was to Brian Treacy, President of Sagamore Spirit. I relayed our desire to buy a barrel of their rye for our group. Brian was eager to help and brought Tim Schestag, Director of Sales – Mid Atlantic, into the mix to coordinate. Typically, barrel picks are conducted at the distillery. I told Brian and Tim that since we were doing this one for WBSE, the largest, most extensive whiskey Facebook group, this tasting had to be extra special. Anyone can take a distillery tour, I thought; we needed a more special place for this tasting, a more behind-the-velvet-rope approach for this group. The Sagamore Farm rickhouse was mentioned. It’s a beautiful location behind the manor house of Kevin Plank, owner of the distillery, and just up the hill from the iconic 1909 springhouse that is emblazed on so much of the Sagamore Spirit artwork. Having been there before, I can attest that this certainly is a special place and would have been an excellent setting for our tasting, except that the barrels that we were planning to taste were not aged in that rickhouse. That just seemed to lack the authenticity for which we were looking.
One thing, perhaps more than anything else, that WBSE is known to be is authentic. There are no phony pretenses with this group, for better or worse! This group keeps it real. So where then should a group - a keeping-it-real group - sample whiskey barrels? Right where those barrels have been aging, of course. And these barrels have been sitting in the barrel warehouse in Sparrows Point, Maryland, for the last four years.
I told Brian and Tim my idea. That location isn’t really set up for visitors, Brian said. Tim said that in his time working for Sagamore, he hadn’t even ever been there. Only the employees who work the barrels, moving, rotating, drawing samples, and managing the barrel-stock ever go there. That sounded pretty damn authentic to me. A location even more exclusive than Kevin Planks house, that’s where WBSE needed to do our tasting, right there with the barrels.
Brian and Tim agreed and were inspired by our enthusiasm. The date was set, and the invitations to the others on the tasting panel were sent. The panel would consist of Bill and Chad, Founders of WBSE, Justin Jarvis of Allview Liquors, Patrick and Jackie Fisher of Freeland Wine and Spirits, Trae Lindsay representing Drug City Liquors, and myself representing both WBSE and the Maryland Whiskey Facebook group.
The morning of the tasting was a deceivingly bright, sunny day. I say deceivingly because usually in Maryland, a day with that much sunshine isn’t too cold, even in the winter. But that day was cold and windy, and being out on Sparrows Point in the Chesapeake Bay with the blustery bay air rolling in across the Back River made the chill cut deeper.
As I approached the warehouse site, I could not miss the two immense black metal rickhouses. However, other than a rather humble small sign out front, I doubt many neighbors even realize what was in these buildings. I pulled up to the security gate and waited to be let in. Tim pulled in behind me and finagled the code into the keypad and, after a couple of attempts, had the automatic gate sliding open.
As we drove to the rickhouse in the back, we passed by a gatehouse with a colossal crane block-and-tackle reminding me that this was an industrial location and not at all appointed to receive guests – authentic indeed! Tim opened the large garage door on the rickhouse as Brian, and the rest of the tasting panel parked their cars. I walked in, and before my eyes could adjust from the sunshine to the dark warehouse interior, I was greeted with that familiar aroma of aging whiskey that always brings a smile to my face. Brian and Tim discussed where to set up the table that Tim produced from the trunk of his car. I could hear the others make their greetings as they assembled by the door. I walked, mesmerized, through the rows of barrels stacked six stories high. I must have looked like a first-time tourist in New York City, gawking straight up as I slowly and clumsily walked the rows, mouth half open and squinting my eyes trying to read barrel-heads high above.
After meandering through the cavernous aisles, I rounded a corner and could see the group assembling around the table and chairs. The only space open for us was in one of the aisle-ways in the middle of the racks, as even the area just inside the bay door was littered with special barrels, like PX barrels that, due to their odd or extra large size, would not fit into the conventional 53-gallon barrel shelving. As we settled around the table, the cold truly began to set in. I didn’t know everyone in the group as I sat down, but it would not be long into our communal freezing, imbibing experience that we would all become friends. It was decided to keep the garage door open, not only to let in a little more daylight but also that it seemed a degree or two warmer (or less cold) outside than in this warehouse. Brian shared with us just how hot this black metal building gets in the sweltering Maryland summer heat. How the hot, expanding spirit in these barrels is forced to mingle into the wood-grain of the staves only to be pulled back again in the winter months by the frigid bay winds that we were all now experiencing firsthand. It was in this climate that these barrels we were about to taste had spent the last few years aging.
Sagamore Spirit Distillery is only four years old, and the whiskey we were to taste today was distilled over seven years ago. While distilling rye here in Maryland and filling these rickhouses by as much as 15-barrels a day, Sagamore has been bottling and selling whiskey distilled at Midwest Grain Products of Indiana (MGP). MGP whiskey has been becoming more and more popular in recent years (see this link for more of my thoughts on MGP). Sagamore uses two different mash-bills that are distilled and aged separately. One, a high-rye and barley mash like a Monongahela style rye. While the other is a rye mash with a high dose of corn and some barley like a classic Maryland style rye. These are aged separately and then blended and bottled to make the unique Sagamore rye flavor.
As we sat, shivering, around the small table, Tim produced four small bottles with whiskey from four different barrels, all aged in the racks above our heads. We poured, we smelled, we sipped, and we began to discuss. We sipped some more, argued a little, and laughed a lot. Lively conversation proceeded – “This one has a fantastic aroma in the glass. But this one has an epic finish. This other one has a fullness on the palate” … and so the conversations went. We tasted neat. We tasted with water. We cupped our glasses to our noses, and we warmed them in our hands. The spirits were warming us, and we were having a fantastic time steeped in the genuineness of this location sipping these whiskies, enjoying each other’s company and opinions on each successive dram.
Slowly, we began to whittle down the selection. We ruled out one barrel without too much dissent. The remaining three each had great attributes that shined in different ways. But as we continued to sip, we all began to favor the one more and more. By the time our glasses were dry, we had unanimously selected the same barrel, barrel #32! It had a fullness of flavor and a long, long-lasting finish. It was a fantastic rye!
A few weeks later, our barrel was dumped, and the bottles were delivered to the three liquor shops for those lucky enough to reserve one. Bill and Chad had decided to name this bottle The WBSE Trifecta, a nod to the three liquor stores that came together for the project.
And now I sit on my porch on this warm afternoon, the cold Maryland winter behind me. I sip from my bottle of Sagamore WBSE Trifecta. The aroma reminds me of the afternoon spent on the peninsula of the Chesapeake Bay, the authentic location, sipping whiskey with friends, shivering in the cold, keeping it real - WBSE style.