I opened my eyes as my alarm sounded, greeted by the dark of early morning and the retina-burning glow of my phone. A small sigh escaped my lips as I hoisted my heavy body from the mattress and hobbled to the closet, blinking in shock as I flipped the light switch on. The weather called for rain and wind, so I shuffled into my warmest leggings and made sure to layer as many water-wicking shirts onto my back as I could before grabbing my car keys and rushing to the car. I already had a feeling that I was going to be late, and I couldn’t spare another wasted minute.
It was the second year, at least according to the email I received; year two of a five-year event. The second year that Sagamore Distillery in Baltimore was to give out three bottles each of their Penny Proof Rye Whisky to the public, for only a penny each.
Last year, they gave out the same whisky, aged for 1.5 years, to 297 brazen whiskey fans. Each pack came with three bottles; one for now, one for the year, and one to try with the next year’s release. The whiskey was unique and only given out during this limited-time release, so only the early birds were likely to try it and have it for the years to come.
I made my way to the distillery, nestled snuggly on the edge of the Baltimore harbor, and watched the sun rise over their white water tower as I wrestled to find a parking spot in the already-filled lots. Even at 6:30 am, the place was packed. My hopes to get my hands on the free three-pack plummeted as I stepped out of my car and made my way into the line that wrapped the buildings. There had to be more than 600 people here.
This year’s early bird event had 597 sets of three to give to the public, and the whisky had been aged for a year more. And for the next three years, they expect to do the same; to offer “free” whiskey to the public aged a year longer than the year before. At the end of the five years, the devoted Sagamore fan would have five bottles of whiskey, each aged a year longer than the last, to see just how the aging process changes the taste of the whiskey.
We stood in line for hours; three to be exact. Word whispered through the crowd that the man at the front of the line had gotten to the distillery at 8pm the night before, and slept in the rain in his lawn chair while waiting for the event to begin at 7:30 am the next day. All of us in line looked sleep deprived, and yet it was the jolliest crowd I had been in since covid. With coffee cups in hand, everyone was eager to make friends with their fellow early-bird Sagamore rye whiskey fans. People saved others’ spots as they ran to the bathroom, and some folks walked around with their own bottles of Sagamore whiskey to give out samples of the year prior’s Penny Proof whiskey to those in the crowd.
At the end of our three-hour wait, I came out to be number 581 out of 597; just barely scraping by. If I had gotten there any later, I don’t think I would have made it at all.
They pulled us into a tasting room and gave us little cups of the 2.5-year Rye Whiskey. We each sipped the cool corn concoction as they explained to us the distilling process for this batch, and how every part of this whiskey was uniquely Maryland-made; from the corn and rye they used to the barrels they kept them in, to even the storage place the whiskey had lived in for the last 2.5 years. And then we grabbed our three-packs and made our way back into the cool November morning air.
The whole experience was so uniquely Maryland; so uniquely human. There is no place I have ever been where people would joyously join together to raise their own spirits when faced with hours of standing and waiting in the cool wind and burning sun. There is no place I have ever been where people cheered for the man who slept in a lawn chair at a distillery and cheered for the old man who received the last three-pack who happily handed it over to his wife. I will be back next year, even if whiskey isn’t my favorite drink. I will be back to see the community I was gladly welcomed into, and to see Maryland at its best; as 600 sleep-deprived whiskey fans cheering and dancing in the early morning hours at the edge of the inner harbor.