SAGAMORE RESERVE SERIES RYE
8-Year-Old Batch 1A (2021)
MASH BILL – unstated MGP rye mash bills (Although see below for details)
PROOF – 114.9
AGE – 8 years
DISTILLERY – Sagamore Spirit
PRICE – $81
WORTH BUYING? – Yes indeed
My first experience with Sagamore was their Double Oak Rye, a bottle of which I picked up sometime around late 2017. Using the MGP 95/5 and 51/45/4 rye recipes, and aged a few months over 4 years, this rye struck me as fine. Nothing unusual. The more I sipped at it, however, the stronger its younger, greener notes seemed to become—bright pine, sweet saw dust, and something like wood glue or paint thinner. I eventually gave the bottle away to a coworker.
I didn’t really think about Sagamore again until this 8-year-old cask strength release popped up. I picked a bottle up late on a Monday afternoon. As I left the shop, I texted a friend who lived nearby and asked if he wanted to take an early break from the home office for a glass of something flammable. “I’ll get out the good glasses,” he replied.
We uncorked the bottle in his apartment building’s backyard, a compact secluded forest in the heart of San Francisco, with a variety of loud birds hopping from branch to branch and a neighbor’s ancient dog offering quiet company to anyone who sits out there. My friend and I hadn’t seen one another in quite some time and a lot had been transpiring for each of us. It was nice to catch up over a glass of something, and though my attention wasn’t fully on the Sagamore, right away I recognized it was indeed something.
There have been other MGP-sourced 8-year releases this past year, like the great Hughes Belle of Bedford, which, rumor has it, featured barrels intended for Willett that somehow didn’t get used by them. One might think that means the barrels didn’t pass muster. But that was an exceptional rye. Released at a similar cask strength of 114.4 proof, the pricing on that Hughes single barrel was too high at $130. One could also find a 104 proof “standard” version of the Hughes for around $80. That’s also not cheap. But considering the standard Willett cask strength rye release is aged 4 years and goes for around $60 on average, paying a bit more for twice the age is palatable.
Having first enjoyed this new Sagamore release while catching up with a longtime friend (the best way to enjoy whiskey) it already has a special place on my shelf. I’ve been noticing lately how the formal process of tasting can end up shelving a whiskey at an almost academic angle. Whereas if I just drink it first, rather than formally taste it, my relationship to the bottle changes significantly. Opening the Maker’s Mark SE4 x PR5 in honor of a friend who recently passed away, for example, added a specific association to the experience of that bottle, which then informed my formal tasting of it.
One might argue such things make me less “objective.” But I would argue that I never was objective, and neither is anyone else. Objectivity is an intellectual concept one can strive for, and there are times when it can indeed be useful to strive for it. But objectivity will always be a failed pursuit. We are irrevocably subject to the happenstance of our life’s journeys.
So here I am, now sitting down more formally with this Sagamore rye. It’s three days on since that congenial uncorking. I haven’t tried it in the interim. We enjoyed it in a gorgeous and heavy crystal tumbler that sunny afternoon. Today I’ll taste it in both a traditional and Canadian Glencairn.
COLOR – rich roasted oranges
NOSE – wonderfully fresh rye herbs and spices, juicy bright caramel, a sprig of dill, a dash of black pepper and cinnamon, wild honey, clove, some kind of dark fruit-based oil (I don’t even know what that means but it’s what comes to me.)
TASTE – very true to the nose, with a nice balance of sweet and dry elements and a subtle but solid oak note
FINISH – the bright caramel and baking spice notes darken into something like those prized doughy crevices of a cinnamon roll, the array of rye herbs and spices still dancing in the mix
OVERALL – Reminds me very much of a 2014 Willett 8-year cask strength SiB I lucked into a few years ago, sharing that bottle’s fresh herbs, dill, bright caramel notes, and overall elegance.
Though the MGP mash bills are not stated, some sleuthing reveals it’s primarily their ubiquitous 95/5 recipe, with some of the 51/45/4 recipe added to get at the traditional Maryland flavor profile. This is a blend Sagamore uses for other of their releases, and the 95/5 is what that similar 2014 Willett I mentioned in the notes used. Despite the 95/5 recipe’s widespread use, occasionally it comes across with an uncommon combination of depth and brilliance. This Sagamore does also remind me of the Hughes Belle of Bedford, only much more elegant. It’s this sense of elegance that pinged my memory of the 2014 Willett—to date still among the best Willett rye offerings I’ve experienced.
The solid presentation is also a rarity in how it truly reflects the experience inside the bottle. The bottle itself is a hefty, carefully etched piece of glass. The year 1909 appears in a couple places, honoring the year the “spring house” they acquired was built, the facility that draws a natural supply of limestone-filtered water up from the ground for use in proofing their whiskeys down. Sagamore Spirit itself may only date back to early 2017 (or 2012 on paper). But they’re tapping into Maryland’s age old rye tradition. The bottle and label design make a solid effort to honor this tradition. That the whiskey inside—though originating in Indiana, not Maryland—lives up to the packaging’s promise is what ultimately wins me over. Despite my prior experience with Sagamore’s Double Oak release, this 8-year has opened my mind to them again.
This experience plays into a theme that’s been on quite a roll for me in 2021. There seems to be a gradual shake up in the works around pricing. In a tall slender Willett bottle with their regal label on it, this exact whiskey—same origin, age, and proof—would command $250 at least. One can now buy cask strength 15-year George Dickel from George Dickel for around $60 or so, or from any number of non distiller producers for twice that price.
With this Sagamore release we have the opposite of the Dickel scenario. A secondary bottler has sourced some MGP—the least original move an NDP can make—put it out at a solid age and proof, and priced it in what might be considered a “moderate” range these days for such specs. Hughes Belle of Bedford did the same thing, minus the affordable pricing.
Why these variances from brand to brand and source to source? In a way, it’s a pointless question. The broad answer is Capitalism + Fashion + FOMO. For the whiskey geeks like me who are tracking these trends, and who are keeping an eye on their bank accounts while staying particularly attentive to the quality of experience had with what they buy, this irregular range of pricing strategies and whiskey specs appears to be an opportunity to be choosey. It seems if one is patient, one will find the Sagamore 8 Years and the Dickel 15 years, or be hit by that momentary gush of $50 Knob Creek 15 Year SiBs that got sprinkled somewhat generously across the country during 2019/2020.
So if I put my whiskey hunting energies toward remaining open and nimble, rather than zeroing them in on Weller and Pappy and Willett and all things BTAC, over time will I actually come into a greater range of “rare” whiskeys and spend less money overall to boot?
As I write this, there is no shortage of this Sagamore release in my local San Francisco Bay Area shops. It did not vanish immediately online at K&L, where I picked this bottle up, as it would have were it bottled by Willett. Same with the Dickel 15 Year. Even the Remus Repeal Reserve Batch V, new to California this season and very well reviewed everywhere, can be found with just a bit of looking about—and that’s a bottle boasting 16-year MGP in its blend!
I can see my whiskey hunting plan for 2022 forming… Should theory bare out in practice, I look forward to the money I’ll save and the good whiskey I will enjoy.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a fragrant glass of rye beckoning right here and now.