You know how when you went on school field trips to farms as a kid, and someone said, “Hey, kids! This is where your eggs and bacon come from”? I got a similar feeling standing on a freshly harvested stretch of Howard County land recently, because this is where the whiskey comes from.

That is, if you’re a patron of Sagamore Spirit Rye, which is distilled and bottled in Baltimore’s Port Covington.

Carroll Mill Farm, in Howard County’s Ellicott City, is one of three Maryland farms that supply the rye that will become that golden brown elixir, in a partnership beneficial to the local economy and to very yummy cocktails.

“This wasn’t about whisky, really. We needed a profitable crop,” says Natalie Ziegler, whose Carroll Mill Farm, which has been in her family for more than 100 years, has worked with Sagamore since 2018 in association with the University of Maryland Extension. “It was a business decision, but I have to admit that it’s pretty cool.”

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Sagamore Distillery's operations manager Max Hames, (from left) Carroll Mill Farms owner Natalie Ziegler and Marcus Stevens of Sagamore survey a fresh-cut rye field. (J.M. Giordano for The Baltimore Banner)

The program pays a minimum price for the rye seed, no matter what is yielded, meaning that in this time of uncertainty the farmers still get paid. That’s meant more than 1 million pounds of local rye harvested in the last four years, and the result is delicious with a taste of sweet vermouth and boozy cherries.

“We love this,” Max Hames, Sagamore’s distillery operations manager, says of working with Maryland farms. They also work with Rural Rhythm Farm in Dayton in Howard County and Hickory Hollow Farm in Carroll County. Although the majority of their rye comes from Brooks Grain in Indiana, Hames said sourcing from in state “is a practical thing, a responsible way to cut out shipping and [reduce] the environmental impact. We’re trying to grow more rye in Maryland.”

Distilleries themselves are a very Maryland story, says Marcus Stephens, the executive vice president of brand management. Pre-Prohibition, there were many of them here, “and we’re trying to bring them back. … As a brand that is the largest urban distillery in America, with that comes a responsibility. Distilleries were a part of the local economy. So how do we generate the local economy? By getting the local community involved.” He adds that Sagamore sources 100% of the corn it uses in Maryland, as well as barley, and uses oak from trees in the state in the casks that age its whiskey.

Carroll Mill Farms owner Natalie Ziegler pulls a few weeds from a rye field. (J.M. Giordano for The Baltimore Banner)

Carroll Mill Farm, which was once a dairy farm, has been part of Ziegler’s family for generations, and she spent some time there, but she says she’d never intended to be a farmer. Raised in New York and Boston, she was a journalist, working as a guest booker for CNN, geographically only about 40 miles but what seemed like a world away in Washington, D.C.

When her grandfather died in 1989, “I was drafted to deal with it,” says Ziegler, who is also a Democratic candidate for Maryland delegate in District 9A. While she managed the business for a while, it still took her years to move to the farm full time. “I had quit CNN, had my second child, and eventually I cried ‘Uncle’ and got a lot more hands-on, learning slowly. There’s a lot I still don’t know.”

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There was a lot of trial and error in that learning. They grew barley, which didn’t do well, and sorghum, a plant in the grass family that can be used for cereal and also for animal feed, that was also a “bust,” she says. Climate change and air pollution have also made things uncertain.

In 2017, the farm became part of a trial to grow rye. The first attempt was “pretty bad,” with a variety that was hard to combine. Then she was connected with Hames. Now 48 of the farm’s 360 acres are used to grow rye, along with corn and soybeans.

Max Hames, distillery operations manager at Sagamore Distillery, holds fresh-cut rye. (J.M. Giordano for The Baltimore Banner)

The rye that was just harvested from Carroll Mill Farm will be distilled later this month, and barreled by the end of the year. And in a minimum of four years, that local whiskey will be ready to drink, a potable product of local collaboration.

“Sagamore has been fantastic to work with,” Ziegler says. “And I feel like they’re committed to our success, too.”

And that’s something to drink to.

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Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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