Kevin Plank, the billionaire founder and CEO of Under Armour, has a history of making audacious bets. But his latest is something of a left turn for a man whose empire is built on health and fitness: Sagamore Spirit is a new rye whiskey set to hit shelves this Friday, May 13.

While there's no shortage of moguls launching liquor brands, Plank's version aims to rise above them. Most celebrity spirits are partnerships with one of the multinational beverage giants (think Diddy's Ciroc vodka with Diageo, or Justin Timberlake's Sauza 901 tequila with Beam Suntory). Then, there are the small-batch indie brands, like George Clooney and Rande Gerber's Casamigos tequila. But Plank is going all-in, using former Under Armour executives to create a leading new brand in the hyper-competitive whiskey space.

The king of moisture-wicking shirts is hardly the first entrepreneur to recognize the growing appetite for whiskey. Global sales of American-made whiskeys mushroomed to $2.9 billion in 2015, growing at almost twice the rate of American distilled spirits overall. But with growth has come saturation. Hundreds of craft distilleries have emerged in the past decade, forcing the established companies to dream up new concepts, such as Jim Beam's much-advertised Devil's Cut, which boasts features like "barrel sweat" in its mix.

"We want to do this product better than anyone has ever done it before," says Plank's Sagamore Spirit co-founder, Bill McDermond, one of Under Armour's first employees who formerly ran the athletic wear company's European operations. With Sagamore, Plank and McDermond are aiming for the masses, hoping to appeal to those consumers who don't typically feel invited to the whiskey party. "The data point that jumped out at us is that women felt whiskey was unapproachable," says McDermond, who's been focused on a rye formula that tastes equally delicious straight up or in cocktails. "We didn't want to be some stale old-man category," he says. "Our goal is to be a world-class rye whiskey and to compete at the highest level."

Great whiskey brands tend to have winding narratives behind them, and Sagamore is stitching its together. The 83-proof mid-priced liquor is named after Sagamore Farm, a thoroughbred horse breeding farm Plank purchased in 2007 that once belonged to the Vanderbilt family. When McDermond left Under Armour in 2009, he and Plank--old football buddies--started meeting at the Maryland farm to discuss new ventures.

Over the years, Plank had been approached about starting a vineyard, but he wasn't much of a wine guy. "I love whiskey," he told McDermond, and asked him to do some research. McDermond discovered that Maryland was once a big rye whiskey-producing region, and the limestone aquifer that filtered all the natural spring water on Plank's farm produced just the kind of high-quality water necessary for distilling great whiskey. "We looked at each other and said, 'Whoa, this is a readymade story,'" McDermond says. "We have to think bigger!"

The company is first focusing on distributing in the local Maryland area, where Under Armour is based. Sagamore is slated to debut this month in 1,000 bars and stores primarily in the state--a strategy, McDermond says, to "win in our backyard," and then expand.

Selling a bottled product is just the beginning. While Sagamore is currently being distilled in Indiana, production will eventually shift to a five-acre waterfront distillery complex in Baltimore that broke ground last year. By early 2017, the Sagamore distillery will have a 27,000-square-foot processing center, three tasting rooms, a restaurant, and an event space.

This is all part of Plank's larger plan to rehab a massive section of post-industrial South Baltimore called Port Covington, 266 acres that Plank began buying up a few years ago. The area--which he now owns nearly two-thirds of--will eventually include a new corporate headquarters for Under Armour, 40 acres of public parkland, two and a half miles of waterfront, a flagship Under Armour store, and large swaths of residential and retail developments.

The multibillion-dollar development project--along with Plank's other non-Under Armour ventures, including Sagamore--fall under the domain of  Plank Industries. Tom Geddes, the company's CEO, calls the plans for Port Covington "one of the biggest urban renewal projects in America today--by almost any measure: acreage, economic impact, amount of private investment." Plank Industries is betting that the Sagamore distillery, located adjacent to bustling I-95, will become a gateway for tourists. "Part of the idea is that this will be like Baltimore's front porch," says McDermond. "Touring the distillery could be a fundamental part of coming to our city."

Given Plank's tendency to shoot for global domination in everything he touches, the scale of his whiskey ambitions shouldn't be surprising. The goal of his thoroughbred farm? To win the Triple Crown. His goal with Under Armour? To beat Nike. As he told Inc. earlier this year, and likes to remind his employees any chance he gets: "Winning is a part of our culture-it's who we are."

Published on: May 11, 2016