Baltimore’s neighborhood taverns and dive bars are great places to meet friends for a few beers. The city’s drinking scene is constantly evolving: A few months ago, Sagamore Spirit opened the largest distillery in the state, now open for public tours. Oliver Brewing, established in 1993, just celebrated the second anniversary of its expansive new brewery, and Diamondback Beer, not yet a year old, is turning out an interesting variety of beers in Locust Point, where you can play ping-pong and kick back with a cold one.
Maryland’s official state beverage is milk, but that’s not what it should be. From the early 19th century until (and probably through) Prohibition, Maryland was known for its rye whiskey, which beverage historians say was sweeter and more refined than the bold, spicy rye whiskeys from Pennsylvania. World wars and shifts in popular taste led to its decline, but it’s making a comeback, thanks to small craft distilleries and growing interest from bartenders.
The splashiest entry into this growing market is Sagamore Spirit Rye, a brand backed by Kevin Plank, the billionaire owner of Under Armour. In April, Sagamore Spirit opened a vast distillery in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood, a peninsula about 2½ miles south of the Inner Harbor. The striking buildings, designed to resemble the rickhouses where bourbon is aged, have floor-to-ceiling windows, a 40-foot copper column still and a 120-foot water tower that holds limestone-filtered water from a spring on Plank’s horse breeding facility in Reisterstown, which is used to cut the rye whiskey before it’s bottled. (Tour guides explain that the water is trucked down Interstate 83, which is why Sagamore Spirit Rye is 83 proof.)
Admission includes an hour-long tour: You’ll see nine 6,500 gallon fermenters, and if they’re full, you’ll be invited to stick a finger inside and taste the bubbling yeast, which has a spicy sourdough quality. You’ll get an up-close view of the column still’s shiny patina, and after seeing all that high-tech distilling equipment, you’ll watch as the seals are affixed by hand on a small bottling line.
The tasting room, full of stone and polished blonde wood, serves a flight of three whiskeys: the unaged, fruity white rye, which is only available at the distillery; the standard Sagamore Rye; and the Cask Strength Rye, which weighs in at 112 to 114 proof and displays much more depth and complexity than the regular rye.
While you’ll hear a lot about the glories of Maryland rye, only the white rye is actually a product of Maryland right now: The regular Sagamore and Cask Strength are made of a blend of rye whiskeys from an industrial distillery in Indiana. This will be the case for three or four more years, while the first barrels from Port Covington age in a warehouse.
I showed up midweek and was the only person on an afternoon tour. On weekends, my guide told me, busloads of visitors pack the place, and waits are common. A weekend trip makes more sense if you can visit during the monthly Whiskey on the Waterfront, a Saturday afternoon party with live music and food trucks on the grassy lawn overlooking the Patapsco River; the next one is Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.
Next month, Sagamore will open Rye Street Tavern, a restaurant and bar adjacent to the visitors center, where a full bar will allow visitors to see how the rye performs in various cocktails; for now, the guide suggested I head to Fells Point, a 20-minute Uber ride away, to try a Sagamore Spirit Rye Manhattan at the bar at Sagamore’s sister hotel, the Sagamore Pendry. While balanced and well-made, and a relative steal at $15, it’s most worth the drive if you’re going out in Fells Point afterward.
301 E. Cromwell St. Tours offered every 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. $8-$15.
Sagamore has the biggest distillery in Maryland, but it’s not the only rye distillery in town. The Baltimore Whiskey Company, which launched in the Remington neighborhood in 2015, boasts that it will bottle its first made-in-Baltimore straight rye whiskey on Feb. 6, 2018.
While the whiskey ages, the distillery is cranking out other spirits, including the citrusy Shot Tower Gin and the slightly smoky Charles Street Apple Brandy. Free tours are offered only on Saturdays, followed by a tasting of the full product line. Because the Baltimore Whiskey Company doesn’t have a full bar, you’ll have to go somewhere else to try its booze in cocktails, such as the nearby Joe Squared (33 W. North Ave.) or the Brewer’s Art brewpub (1106 N. Charles St.), which makes drinks with Shot Tower Gin and occasionally pours beers that have been aged in used Shot Tower barrels.
2800 Sisson St. Free tours offered Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.
Baltimore’s love affair with Natty Boh shows no signs of abating, even though the Pabst-owned beer hasn’t been brewed in Charm City for decades. But nostalgia keeps a large illuminated Mr. Boh sign shining over Brewers Hill and shops in Fells Point selling orange and purple Boh T-shirts. If there were any justice in the world, Baltimore beer lovers would move on and embrace the similar but tastier Old Oriole Park Bohemian Lager, a light lager made at Peabody Heights Brewery. The brewery takes its name from its location, which occupies the site of Oriole Park, the home field of the minor league Baltimore Orioles until 1944. The beer is crisp, smooth and easy drinking, the perfect thing to sip while watching a baseball game.
Open since late 2012, Peabody Heights is best known for producing beer for a variety of breweries, including Raven Beer and Full Tilt, while also releasing others under its own brands. This means the products in the tap room can vary: On my last visit, there were two beers from Old Oriole Park — the lager and a roasty session stout, which could be combined into a black-and-tan — and 10 from Peabody Heights.
Part of the fun is going to Peabody Heights itself. The outdoor beer garden is full of picnic tables and potted palm trees, and food trucks pull up on weekends. Inside, there are toys for children — “I feel like I’m walking into a pediatrician’s office,” a friend joked — and walls covered with vintage baseball memorabilia and posters. Although not as dirt-cheap as Natty Boh — a pint of Bohemian Lager is $4, and most beers cost $2 for a five-ounce taster, regardless of brewery — Peabody Heights is a good place to linger with friends for a few hours.
401 E. 30th St. Tasting room open Wednesday and Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Diamondback has been at McHenry Row for less than a year, but it’s making the former Coca-Cola and Phillips Seafood building feel like home. A brick chimney towers over Adirondack chairs and barrels-turned-tables on the patio. Inside the tasting room, a circular bar wraps around the chimney’s base, windows look out onto the basement-level brewery, and table-tennis and foosball tables offer ways to spend time while enjoying a pint.
Overall, the beers are solid. Green Machine, a juicy IPA, and Omar’s OPA, a pale ale made with oats for a creamy mouthfeel, are deserved flagships, but the brewers aren’t afraid to mix things up: Menus have featured crisp German-style zwickelbier, sweet and aromatic Belgian-style table beer, and sour beer with berries. It’s a downer when a brewery doesn’t do flights, but at least Diamondback sells eight-ounce pours ($3 to $4) as well as full pints.
1215 E. Fort Ave. Open Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m., Friday from 4 to 11 p.m., Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.
Two years ago, Oliver Ales left its tiny basement brewpub at the Pratt Street Ale House and moved to a huge warehouse-size facility in Northeast Baltimore. They’re producing more beer than ever, but there’s a downside: Instead of a central location, the brewery is about 20 minutes from either downtown or Canton.
Oliver is open on weekends, complete with a bar — really just a designated alcove away from the main brewing equipment — and corn hole and other games set up on the brewery floor. A variety of beers are available: the English-style Coventry Cream Ale, double IPAs and experimental beers. At $5 for a flight of four beers, it’s hard not to want to explore everything on the menu, and the friendly staff encourages you to linger.
As my friends and I were finishing up on a recent visit, the bartender brought out some Three Lions Ale for the handful of people hanging out at the bar and boasted that “this was just canned today.” It was a nice gesture — and a tasty beer.
4216 Shannon Dr. Tasting room open Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.