KO Distilling in Manassas recently celebrated their sixth anniversary this September, and with that milestone comes a hopeful expansion outside of the DMV area.
The craft distillery opened in September of 2015 with whiskey and gin.
“We then started putting up barrels of wheat whiskey, rye whiskey, and bourbon,” says co-founder Bill Karlson. “After those spirits were in the barrels for one to two years, we started harvesting and bottling the whiskeys. Today we’re selling whiskeys that are three to four years old, so we went from clear spirits and young whiskeys in the beginning to now more mature whiskeys.”
“It’s one of the few things in life that actually increases in quality and value as it ages,” he adds.
The Bare Knuckle Straight Bourbon Whiskey, KO Distiller’s Reserve Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon, and the Battle Standard 142 Navy Strength Gin are among the distillery’s top sellers. However, the company has grown to have many crowd favorites.
“Our brand is definitely growing,” Karlson says. “And we’ve even had some national accolades.” For example, over the last several years, the distillery has won double gold medals in more than one competition.
“What this means is that instead of a majority vote, every single judge says that you deserve a gold medal for your spirits,” Karlson says. “It’s like a slam-dunk gold medal.”
How KO Came to Be
Co-founders Bill Karlson and John O’Mara met during their time at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., where they each served as Naval Reserve officers following their graduation. They also shared similar careers paths working in the maritime industry, and later as government contractors.
Karlson had retired in 2009 and was looking to launch a new career venture at the time.
“I had contacted John, who had also recently retired, and we sort of struck up a conversation and did some research before ultimately forming our company in May of 2013,” he says.
Karlson and O’Mara settled on the name KO Distilling as a shortened version of their last names. As a play on the abbreviation of KO for “knock-out,” KO uses “Bare Knuckle” as its brand name for its whiskeys.
Looking to the future, KO is hoping to expand and pivot toward gaining more out-of-state sales.
KO introduced a new six-year-old Bare Knuckle High Rye Bourbon in September, and that release is going to help the distillery with their expansion outside of the DMV area.
This bourbon was sourced from a large distillery in Indiana in 2015. KO has been aging this high-rye bourbon in custom barrels purchased from Lousiville-based Kelvin Cooperage for six years in its Manassas warehouse.
“Success would be for us to be able to distribute and sell our products in national markets all over the country, as well as internationally,” Karlson says.
In the summer of 2022, the distillery is hoping to convert all of its aged whiskeys to bottled-in-bond spirits. In order to bear this label designation, a whiskey must be produced by a single distillery in a single distilling season, aged 4 years in charred new American oak barrels and bottled at 100 proof.
“When consumers see that, they know the whiskey is authentic and of high quality,” says Karlson. “It also puts us in the premiumization market. So looking ahead, we’re hoping to have more ultra-premium spirits starting in the summer of 2022.”
‘Grain to Glass’ Distillery
KO Distilling also takes pride in being a “grain to glass” distillery.
Similar to the ‘farm to table’ movement in the restaurant industry, this means KO sources all of their grains for their products from a local farm on the Northern Neck Peninsula. The distillery goes through about 300 tons of Virginia grain a year.
“Specifically, we use corn, wheat, and rye from Bays Best Feed Farm in Heathsville, which is 90 miles from KO,” Karlson says. “Our malted barley is also sourced from Bays Best…When we’re done distilling the grain, we give it to a local cattle farmer who then uses it as a supplement for his cows. So it kind of goes full circle from farm to farm.”
A Place to Spend Time
Another goal for the future of KO is to continue being a landing spot for people to come out and enjoy whiskey and gin.
“Not only are we a manufacturer, but we are a travel tourism destination,” says Karlson. “We feel that’s important because unlike Jim Beam or Makers Mark, consumers can literally experience what this is all about. They can go on a tour and learn how we make it and talk with the people who are making it.”
“Customers are very much about the experience,” Karlson adds. “That was always part of our plan.”
When you walk into KO Distilling from the parking lot, it looks like a typical warehouse, but once you open those front doors, the interior is both cozy and inviting. In addition to the traditional bar area, there’s a copper ceiling, oak accents, and a large fireplace surrounded by leather couches.
Look to your left and you’ll find the great room used to host events. From weddings and rehearsal dinners to casino nights, the distillery has provided a special venue for many.
“When coming up with the design, we really just geared it towards being a place people to be able to relax and enjoy being here,” Karlson says.
KO Distilling products can now be found at ABC stores throughout the commonwealth, as well as Washington D.C., Maryland, and parts of Delaware.
“We look forward to the next few years and being able to expand and build our brand as our products continue to age,” Karlson says.
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