We’ve Got Spirits, Yes We Do

I knew it was coming and I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. Would it would bring a smile to my face or a tear to my eye? The answer turned out to be both. When the Instagram memory eventually popped up, reminding me that it had been a year since my trip to Scotland for a whisky tour of Islay, I was grateful to have had an idyllic experience mere months before the pandemic changed everything. But I was also sad, not knowing when I’d be able to return to continue my whisky education.

I decided to commemorate the occasion – and the arrival of chilly weather – with the purchase of a bottle of Scotch whisky from my neighborhood store. I discovered after my trip that the peaty Islay whisky I brought home wasn’t quite suited to the mid-Atlantic climate where I live (in my opinion, of which I’m sure not all would agree), so as I looked past the familiar bottles on the shelf – Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin – and considered the other options, my gaze landed on a bottle of Sagamore Spirit Rye, a whiskey made in Maryland (whiskey from the US and Ireland is generally spelled with an “e”). I picked up the bottle and considered it. I put in back on the shelf. I had come for a Scottish whisky. I was loyal to Scottish whisky. Scottish whisky was my first love. In fact, I had never even liked whisky until I tried it in Scotland.

Yet, in this year of doing things differently, perhaps it was time for me to see what was available closer to home. I had actually been to the Sagamore Spirit Distillery when they were offering free tours and tastings as part of a Baltimore “Doors Open” event. I had a nice afternoon there, but spent the entire tasting comparing everything to what I had tasted in Scotland. I missed an opportunity to appreciate what Maryland spirits had to offer. The bottle of Sagamore Spirit on the shelf made me realize that it was time for me to pay more attention to what else I could find in my own neck of the woods.

Maryland actually has a long history of spirit distillation and prior to prohibition was one of the largest producers of rye whiskey. In fact, Maryland never enforced prohibition, which is how it got the nickname “The Free State”. After prohibition was repealed, Maryland enjoyed a short-lived boom in rye whiskey production until it fell out of fashion after World War II. But the past decade has seen a whiskey renaissance in the state, extending to production of other spirits as well. As I’ve begun my journey of whiskey exploration in my own state, the thing that immediately strikes me is that the local spirit industry in Maryland is essentially made up of craft distillers. Visits to distilleries here remind me a bit of the distilleries I visited in Scotland, conveying a sense of intimacy and camaraderie, with the slight sensation of being in Willy Wonka’s factory due to the cool steam-punk-like equipment.

On a visit to the McClintock Distillery, the tour guide was a member of the production team and shared stories of how they’ve experimented with different infusions and created happy accidents with distillations that didn’t turn out as originally intended but turned out to be better. It made the tasting experience even more special, knowing that the bottle was a limited edition, slightly spontaneous production. It almost took me back to the time in college when my roommate’s boyfriend started brewing his own beer in his dorm room, and I was invited to the private tasting. But in that case, it was agreed by all present that the limited edition dorm room craft beer experiment was not a good idea.

McClintock, however, surprised me with its variety. From whiskey to vodka to gin, each tasting was a journey for my palate. I had never tasted anything like the Gardener’s Gin. My friend described it as that perfect summer aperitif that you sip on as you sit on the porch and think about what to make for dinner. I bought a bottle and decided I couldn’t wait for summer, enjoying it with my Thanksgiving leftover turkey sandwich. While this isn’t intended as a promo piece for McClintock, before moving on I will add that they are an organic certified distillery, McClintock is in Frederick, Maryland, where you can get many stamps in your Maryland Distillers Guild Spirits Trail Passport, including from Tenth Ward, a female-owned distillery which produced Maryland’s first absinthe.

Sagamore Spirit is also part of the Spirits Trail, and is arguably the best known Maryland distillery, due to its ownership. Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour, founded Sagamore Spirit, which sources its spring water from Sagamore Farm, also owned by Plank. The farm is soon to shift from horse-racing to grain production for their spirits. The distillery is located right along the water and in my opinion provides the best post-tasting experience, as you saunter out of the tasting room, find a perch outside, take in the fresh air, and watch the gently lapping waves until you feel sufficiently composed enough to move on with your day, or go for a bite at the restaurant next-door. If you close your eyes a little bit, it can almost feel like being in Islay. Oops, there I go again, comparing it to Scotland. Truthfully, it’s not at all like Scotland. It’s its own thing.

Scottish whisky is special. But what I’ve learned during this year of no travel is that there are so many other experiences that don’t need comparison as a benchmark. There is no need for “if you like Italy, go to Napa,” or “if you like Switzerland, go to Vermont.” Admittedly, it’s taken me a while to shift my traveler mindset, but I’ve come to cherish my local excursions as I discover Maryland spirits. And I’m excited to continue the journey next year. In the meantime, I enjoy picking up a bottle to pour myself a drink and feeling slightly smug that I met the person who made it.