Remaking Baltimore’s Waterfront, With a Splash of Whiskey
BALTIMORE — Rising high above the new Sagamore Spirit distillery in South Baltimore is a white water tower with three maroon diamonds on each side, a nod to the jockey silks of the thoroughbred farm that provides the spring water for the company’s rye whiskey.
The distillery, which opened a few weeks ago, is the latest endeavor of the growing business empire of Kevin A. Plank, founder and chief executive of the sportswear company Under Armour. His new enterprises — collectively they are called Plank Industries but nearly all have Sagamore in their names — are reshaping Baltimore’s waterfront and restoring luster to Maryland traditions and landmarks.
At the distillery and elsewhere, Mr. Plank, 44, has drawn inspiration from Sagamore Farm, which he purchased in 2007 with the hope of raising horses to compete in Triple Crown races. On Saturday, the colt Recruiting Ready and the filly Chubby Star will represent Sagamore on the undercard of the 142nd Preakness Stakes.
In March, Mr. Plank’s Sagamore Pendry hotel opened not far away in the Recreation Pier building in the Fells Point neighborhood after a roughly $60 million renovation. That the pier, built in 1914 and vacant since 1999, needed significant structural work mattered little to Mr. Plank. He often gazed at the property from his Under Armour office across the harbor and dreamed about its possibilities.
“He has a bit of a habit when he sees something in Baltimore that could have new life breathed into it, could be restored, he often has an interest in us doing that,” said Tom Geddes, the chief executive of Plank Industries.
Outside the hotel, a fleet of new water taxis owned by Mr. Plank and modeled after Chesapeake Bay deadrise boats will soon ferry riders to Port Covington, the industrial South Baltimore waterfront area that is undergoing a $5.5 billion overhaul led by his real estate firm, Sagamore Development.
In September, the Baltimore City Council approved the use of $660 million in bonds to pay for infrastructure around that mixed-use project, which will include a new Under Armour campus. Under an arrangement called tax-increment financing, the bonds will be repaid through future property taxes generated by the development.
Sagamore is also hoping to receive nearly $600 million in state and federal investments for a light-rail extension, modifications to Interstate 95, and other improvements.
Many of the efforts from Mr. Plank, a former football player for the University of Maryland who founded Under Armour in 1996, have been greeted with open arms from the community.
But against the backdrop of all this rejuvenation, Under Armour’s stock has fallen about 45 percent since May 2016, as the company struggled in the face of a quickly changing retail industry. Its chief financial officer, Chip Molloy, resigned in February. In April, the company reported its first quarterly loss as a public company.
Mr. Plank, responding to questions by email, said he was fully focused on Under Armour and left the day-to-day work of Plank Industries to his employees.
“I am incredibly proud of the Plank Industries team for all that they have built and of the economic impact we have been able to have here in Baltimore,” he said.
Some people have raised concerns about the tax-increment financing deal, the largest in city history. Critics say that the subsidy is too big for a business with resources like Mr. Plank’s and that the city should focus on more critical needs, like schools. Others questioned whether agreements on compensation and affordable housing were adequate — and why there was no independent analysis of the numbers.
The former councilman Carl Stokes, who ultimately voted in favor of the deal, said he still wondered why his peers were eager to push it through without pursuing that analysis.
“Kevin’s been a good guy for the city of Baltimore, but he himself would not O.K. a deal that he didn’t vet,” he said.
There is no doubt, though, that Mr. Plank has managed to make sweeping changes to the downtown area. And even to those closely involved, it is almost unthinkable that all this development flowed from a horse farm in Glyndon, Md., less than 30 miles to the northwest.
Wanting to jump-start Maryland’s once-flourishing horse racing industry, Mr. Plank purchased Sagamore Farm and set out to restore it to its heyday under the racing industry titan Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.
Mr. Plank set a lofty goal for Sagamore — to win a Triple Crown — one that Vanderbilt, who died in 1999, was unable to accomplish, even with Native Dancer, one of the most celebrated horses ever. So far the highlight of Mr. Plank’s ownership is Shared Account’s victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf in 2010.
Sagamore’s biggest success may end up being the whiskey business it has spawned.
Approached about putting a vineyard on the farm, Mr. Plank, a whiskey drinker, looked into making the spirit instead. It turned out that Sagamore sat atop a limestone shelf and featured a springhouse built in 1909 that held the kind of calcium-rich water that has nourished Kentucky’s famed horses and bourbons for decades.
That he settled on rye was no accident; it was an opportunity to revive another tradition. The Mid-Atlantic States, especially Pennsylvania and Maryland, produced the spirit as early as the 1700s. But production slowed during Prohibition and ended during World War II, allowing blended Canadian rye to dominate the market.
Demand for American whiskey has come roaring back in recent years, including for rye, setting up a nice business opportunity. From 2009 to 2016, rye whiskey volumes sold in the American market have grown 780 percent, to 775,000 cases from 88,000, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
Inside the production center of Sagamore Spirit’s three-building complex in Port Covington, another three-diamond-stamped beacon greets passers-by: a 40-foot copper column still with a mirror finish that is believed to be the first of its kind.
Asked why the finish was essential, Brian Treacy, president of Sagamore Spirit, channeled Mr. Plank, a childhood friend. “Because it’s all about brand,” he replied.
Production of Sagamore Spirit Rye began in Indiana in 2012, under a longtime master distiller from Seagrams, Larry Ebersold. It was unveiled at last year’s Preakness. On April 10, the crew cooked its first batch in its new home.
“The fact that they have him, and they have a column still, tells me that they are in this to make a lot of whiskey and to be really competitive,” David Wondrich, a cocktail historian and author, said of Mr. Ebersold.
In April, with help from Sagamore Spirit, the American Distilling Institute held its conference in Baltimore for the first time. Many attendees visited the distillery, which has received 13 awards in 11 months.
“It was sort of the look-we-did-it moment,” Mr. Treacy said. “The ultimate compliment was when someone from Kentucky would come through and say, ‘Great job.’”