"They used to make steel there, no?" a European mobster asks a stevedore union leader gone bad as they look out on an abandoned factory in Baltimore's harbor in an episode of "The Wire," the great HBO series set in Baltimore. If it's up to Kevin Plank, they'll design athletic shoes and apparel, make whiskey and house wealthy tourists instead.
Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour Inc. (UAA) - Get Under Armour, Inc. Class A Report , is attempting to reinvigorate the city with a visionary plan for 235 waterfront acres once devoted to industry that Plank's Sagamore Development Co. now owns. The scheme incorporates residential, retail and commercial elements. It could take a generation to implement and may hinge on Under Armour's performance, since the company anticipates building a 58-acre campus in Port Covington, as the area is called. The athletic apparel maker's stock has lost more than half its value over the last year.
The real estate entity takes its name from Sagamore Farm, the Baltimore County estate once owned by the Vanderbilt family that Plank purchased in 2007. The property also inspired Sagamore Spirit distillery, which became the first piece of the plan to be realized when it opened in Port Covington on April 21. Plank is a whiskey drinker, and Sagamore Spirit's line of rye whiskeys allowed him to indulge that interest while building a brand that could capitalize on the increased popularity of rye, a spirit made from that grain.
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Brian Treacy, whom Plank tapped to run Sagamore in 2013, says that rye is where bourbon was in popularity in the 1970s or 1980s, which suggests considerable growth to come. Even several years ago, he says, High West and Whistle Pig were barely known. High West sold for $160 million last year to Constellation Brands Inc. (STZ) - Get Constellation Brands, Inc. Class A Report , while Whistle Pig is reportedly weighing a sale.
About 8,000 visitors have toured the distillery so far, and Rye Street Tavern, a restaurant operated by New York chef Andrew Carmellini's NoHo Hospitality Group, is settling into its September opening. The facility has nine 6,500 gallon fermentation tanks, a 500-gallon custom-built Vendome pot still and a 40-foot mirrored finish Vendome copper column still, all of which which Treacey says will allows Sagamore "to build something fairly large out of the box."
A good story is central to the success of a craft spirit, and Sagamore has one. Maryland was a major producer of rye in the 19th and early 20th century, but the local spirits industry declined after local distilleries were converted to ethanol plants during World War II and never reconverted.
Sagamore nods to that history with its packaging, a six-sided bottle that stands out on the shelf and takes as its inspiration the bottle shape used by William and Henry Walters, who made enough money selling rye that they were able to build a significant art collection and create Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery. Sagamore adorns its bottles with the three-diamond logo of Sagamore Farms. It's a compelling design that makes Sagamore stand out on the shelf or the bar.
Treacy tapped Larry Ebersold as a consultant on the liquor itself. The former head distiller at Seagram's, Ebersold oversaw the Lawrenceburg, Ind. distillery where much of the product that launched the current rye boom was made. Sagamore's Signature 83-proof Rye, which retails for about $38, has a smooth texture and a soft smokiness from the new charred oak barrels in which the whiskey is aged. The cask-strength rye, which ranges from 111 to 114 proof, is softer and rounder; both are designed to work well in cocktails. Sagamore also offers a white rye - one that's unaged - at the distillery, a straightforward spirit that would make a good mixer for margaritas or bloody marys.
Across Baltimore's harbor from Sagamore Spirit sits the Sagamore Pendry Hotel, which occupies Recreation Pier. Built in 1914, the structure served as the set for the television series "Homicide," the predecessor to "The Wire," in the 1990s. But it sat empty from 1999 until Plank's real estate company paid $3.4 million for it three years ago and spent another $60 million turning it into a luxury hotel on the level of the Four Seasons nearby, which opened in 2011.
With 128 rooms, the cheapest of which go for $380 a night, the Sagamore Pendry is exactly half the size of the Four Seasons Hotel a few blocks away and has the amenities typical of such a property, from a pool with a view of the harbor and Under Armour's headquarters to a large banquet space and the Rec Pier Chop House, also a Carmellini project. The restaurant's menu leans Italian and culminates in prime cuts of steak, though it nods to local palates with a crabcake and linguini with a generous serving of crabmeat and a tomato sauce spiced with jalapeno peppers. After dinner, guests can go to the Cannon Room for a Sagamore Spirit nightcap.
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Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 13.