"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) , 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) , 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.