It took more than two years for co-founders Bill Karlson and John O’Mara to go from conception to the grand opening of KO Distilling in Manassas, Virginia, on the weekend of September 12.
“It’s been quite the learning curve for us, and it’s taken markedly longer to pull off than we expected,” says Karlson.
The two college classmates from the United States Merchant Marine Academy began KO Distilling as a retirement project. Now Karlson, KO’s CEO, finds himself working 60 hours per week. “It started out at a much smaller scale conceptually than it’s turned out to be,” he says with a chuckle.
KO Distilling has a 550-gallon hybrid copper pot still from noted manufacturer Vendome. O’Mara is the company President and Head Distiller, and the team has hired Ryan Hendricks to join him as a distiller. They have a 12,000 sq. ft. space, with room enough for their equipment, barrel storage and a tasting room.
Currently they have three products available for sale, including two versions of their Battle Standard 142 gin, a standard 90 proof version, and a Navy Proof bottling, at 114 proof. The gin is named in homage to the 142 Cadet/Midshipmen from the Merchant Marine Academy who lost their lives serving in World War II.
The third offering is Virginia Moon White Whiskey. While many white whiskeys are made predominantly from corn, they don’t use corn at all in theirs. “Corn whiskey moonshine can be kind of harsh,” says Karlson. “Ours is 60% wheat, 30% rye, 10% malted barley. It’s a very smooth white whiskey.”
There’s more on the way, including rye whiskey, vodka and rum, and potentially a range of other products. KO Distilling is making bourbon, too, but if you want some of that, you’re going to have to be patient. As opposed to many startup distilleries who use small barrels to accelerate the aging process, and then release whiskeys that may have had only a few months in the barrel, KO Distilling is solely using full size 53-gallon barrels. And they plan to sit and wait on it.
“For those distillers that are doing the younger bourbon… it’s a newer bourbon, and it can still be good,” says Karlson. “But one that’s been in the barrel six to eight years is going to be better.”
Of course, while that’s his target, he acknowledges they may not end up being quite that patient. “There’s going to be a temptation to get to ‘em earlier than that. In fact, John would probably say five years,” he says with a laugh. “But I’ll say six to eight.”
At full capacity, they can stock away between eight and 10 barrels of bourbon per month, in addition to the gin and white whiskey they’re producing. With storage space for 700 barrels though, they decided to kickstart their stock by purchasing 80 barrels of bourbon from MGP in Indiana.
“It would take us forever to fill up our storage area, so we decided to get a jump start on that,” explains Karlson. Most importantly though, they don’t intend to be duplicitous about their purchased whiskey, hiding the fact that they didn’t distill it themselves.
“When we bottle that, it’ll say on the label distilled in Indiana, bottled at KO,” he says. Honesty is the best policy, and nobody likes to be lied to about what they’re drinking.
Either way, you’ll be waiting to enjoy their aged whiskey. In the meantime, their three products are available for purchase at the distillery, or via special request to Virginia ABC stores. KO hopes to have their products on ABC retail shelves this year, having just made a presentation for Virginia ABC’s quarterly cycle process.
“We’re pretty optimistic that in the very near future we may have from one to three of our products on the shelves,” he says. “I think at as many as 100 ABC stores.”
KO Distilling offers tours Tuesday-Friday from 1-6 p.m., Saturday from 12-7 p.m., and Sunday from 1-6 p.m. Tours cost $6, and last 30 to 45 minutes, and tastings cost another $6 per person.
KO Distilling: 10381 Central Park Dr., #105, Manassas, VA; 571-292-1115;www.kodistilling.com