Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sagamore Spirit Should Leave Cinco de Mayo Alone

Sagamore Spirit’s 'Rye-Garita' and 'Paloma' cocktails,
for an authentic Maryland Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Sorry, Sagamore Spirit, but you caught me in a grumpy mood. I didn't know I was in a grumpy mood until I learned, from your helpful press release, that "the countdown to Cinco de Mayo has officially begun." Already? And officially! 

It continues, "But what if you’re bored of traditional tequila or have made one too many margaritas at home this past year?" 

Yes, by God, I am bored with traditional tequila and have made one too many margaritas at home this afternoon...I mean, this past year. But what's a boy to do?

Sagamore Spirit has the answer. First, rush out and buy a bottle of their straight rye whiskey finished in Tequila barrels (because that's a thing). It's just $69.99/750ml from Drizly. Use it to mix up a batch of Cinco de Mayo cocktails using that instead of, well, something actually Mexican.

Sagamore Spirit is a Baltimore-based whiskey brand with an increasingly fractured persona. In the beginning (just a few years ago), Sagamore Spirit was all about reviving the heritage of Maryland rye whiskey. "Our spirit flows from a spring house, built in 1909, at Maryland's Sagamore Farm," they cooed. "Naturally filtered spring water, fed from a limestone aquifer. The same water that fuels our champion thoroughbreds also cuts the rich spice of our rye, creating a spirit as revolutionary as America’s risk-takers and history-makers. Our story is one of passion, of old meeting new, and crafting a timeless American whiskey."

Is it?

Well financed by the owner of Under Armor, Sagamore Spirit built a beautiful, state-of-the-art distillery on the waterfront in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood, just off I-95 and close to the Inner Harbor. It opened in 2017 and celebrates its fourth anniversary this month. Today's press release mentioned none of that.

No whiskey made there has been bottled yet. Their current product is a mixture of two straight ryes made at MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In fact, they designed their Baltimore distillery to duplicate those whiskeys as nearly as possible. That famous Maryland water is used to dilute the barrel-proof Indiana whiskey down to bottling proof.

The whiskey's actual provenance has never been a secret. Other than scattershot messaging, they've done everything right. They've established the brand solidly throughout the region and stand a good chance of transitioning to house-made liquid without a noticeable change in taste. That's been a challenge for many new producers. 

So naturally, as one does when one is trying to revive an early American regional whiskey tradition while transitioning from a sourced to a house-made product, Sagamore Spirit decides to finish some of its rye whiskey in 'Extra Añejo Tequila barrels.' The result of this pairing, they claim, "is remarkably unique tequila finished whiskey with notes of agave and vanilla on the nose and honey, peppercorn and orange citrus to taste." (I assume that was translated from the original Mexican.)

It might have been interesting to mention that most Tequila aging is done in used barrels that previously held bourbon or rye or some other new-barrel American whiskey, maybe even one made at the same distillery in Indiana where Sagamore Spirit's whiskey is made, which would be a neat story indeed, remarkably unique even; barrels made from Ozark oak, first used to age Indiana rye, then dumped and shipped to Mexico, where they hold Tequila for 3+ years, are dumped again and shipped to Baltimore where they're used to finish some of that same Indiana rye so it can be used in a lame Cinco de Mayo promotion by a distillery that thought it had an image but now isn't so sure.

The press release also helpfully reminds us that "pairing tequila and whiskey is always a risky move," which is, apparently, why they didn't do that. This is not "tequila-finished whiskey" as claimed. It is tequila barrel finished whiskey. That's different. The claimed "notes of agave" are not bloody likely.

I visited Sagamore Spirit in the summer of 2019. It's a beautiful and modern facility, right on the water, paired with a small hotel and upscale restaurant. They have a lot going for them, but in addition to being a young brand, Sagamore Spirit is a small brand. It can't afford such a fragmented image. Successful brands, including the biggest ones, are focused and consistent They know who they are and stay on message. The best example is the most successful American whiskey, Jack Daniel's. Their message hasn't changed in 100 years! 

Sagamore Spirit should decide who it is and be that, and probably skip Cinco de Mayo altogether. Consider instead a May promotion involving a little local horse race called The Preakness.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Grumpy indeed, but right.