KO Distilling: Meet Virginia Makers

From Concept to Reality

Author: Bill Karlson, CEO for KO Distilling

At our college reunion in fall 2012, I happened to notice that my classmate John O’Mara was sipping some bourbon while telling sea stories from our class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. I also remembered that many years ago, John used to make beer in his basement. Soon after the reunion I asked John if he might be interested in starting up a craft distillery. I told him I had done some research and was intrigued by the microdistilling industry which seemed to be taking off all over the country.

After visits to multiple distilleries and a trip to Denver to attend the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference, we were hooked. On May 31, 2013, we formed Karlson & O’Mara Distilleries LLC with our DBA name of KO Distilling.

In Search of a Home. Finding a location took us over a year. We thought we could go anywhere and build it. The local municipalities, however, told us otherwise. They said we needed to be in a heavy industrial area because we would be manufacturing and storing flammable liquids.

Ultimately, we found our current location when it became available in early 2014. It was a 12,000-square foot warehouse zoned as heavy industrial in Manassas. After signing a long-term lease, it took us close to another year to build it out. 

Not only did we want a facility where we could manufacture spirits and store barrels, we wanted KO to be a travel/tourism destination. So, we built out a 2,500-square foot visitors center which we use for tastings, guided tours and special events.  Finally, on September 12, 2015 (almost 28 months after we formed the company), we opened our facility to the public and began selling our first spirits. 

One of the best things we did early on was hire Ryan Hendricks as our Distiller in December 2014. Ryan had just received his M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Michigan State, which happens to have its own distillery program. 

Let the Fun BeGin. Besides being a bourbon fan, John was and still is a gin lover. He wanted KO to make and sell gin (read: he wanted a lifetime supply of gin to replace Bombay Sapphire for his dry martinis). I said “OK,” and asked, “But how do you make gin?” His reply: “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” On the spot, I created our first management scorecard: a gin recipe counter on my whiteboard. 

Surprisingly, it only took four recipes before John and Ryan were satisfied that they had it right. On one of their gin distillation attempts, the finished spirit came out green. Not good. Apparently, the bitter orange peel had imparted more than just its flavor inside the 550-gallon Vendome Copper & Brassworks copper pot/hybrid still. For the next run, they moved the orange peel up to the gin basket on the side of our still’s column. No more green gin after that.

We started out with two gins, both with the same recipe of juniper berries, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, bitter orange peel, angelical, orris root and grains of paradise. The two gins were proofed at 90 and 114 proof. Both gins are of the New Western or contemporary style, in which less juniper is used so that the gin’s other botanicals can also shine.

Our 114 proof gin is a “Navy Strength” gin. We didn’t invent that term. The British Navy did hundreds of years ago. Apparently, once a week the Brits would issue liquor rations to their crew (for the officers it was typically gin; for the sailors, rum or grog). They found that if they issued the liquor at 114 proof, if any of it got accidentally mixed with gunpowder, the gunpowder was still useable. The flip side of that story is a British sailor might ask the quartermaster issuing the rations to prove that the liquor was not diluted with water. The Quartermaster would then light a match and then the liquor. If the liquor lit on fire, the sailor had his “proof” – hence the word you see on every liquor bottle. 

We cut our other gin down to 90 proof. We call that our “Standard Strength” gin. Even though the gins have the same recipe, each has its own nose (i.e., smell) and taste. The Navy Strength gin at 114 proof has a lot of flavor pop. As with any good gin, you get an upfront piney taste from the juniper which is followed by a citrusy middle and a peppery finish thanks to the cinnamon and cardamom. It’s quite an interesting journey on one’s palate.

The Standard Strength gin at 90 proof has a similar, but more subtle, flavor. In particular, the middle is a combination of citrus and floral notes. The former gin seems to be the gin of choice for gin lovers, while  the latter is often picked by newcomers to the gin category. 

In 2015, we added a third gin to our portfolio. We started with our Standard Strength gin and placed it in used Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. We then “finished” or “rested” (you are not supposed to use the term “aged”) the gin in those barrels at our site for five months. The result is a gin with a golden hue, and a mellow bourbon finish. We call it our Barrel Finished gin, and it is spectacular.

For the brand name for all three of our gins, we chose Battle Standard 142. During World War II, 142 Cadet/Midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy were killed in action on merchant ships. To this day, the Academy flies a battle standard in honor of those men. Given our shared background, John and I thought it would be a good name for our gins. On the bottom of each of our gin labels is a Liberty Ship image.  During the war, our country made over 2,700 of those cargo ships. Only two of those ships remain operational – the SS John W. Brown and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien docked in Baltimore and San Francisco, respectively. The Brown is on our Navy Strength and Barrel Finished labels, while the O’Brien is on our Standard Strength bottle.

Whiskeys. When John and I shook hands in May 2013 and formed the company, we also pledged that we would be making aged whiskey. At the time, we had no idea how big a decision that was. Think about it. You spend a whole lot of money to buy equipment, build a place out and staff it, and then you make whiskey and store it in barrels for years before it can be brought to market. And of course, the barrels need to be stored in a hazardous space because international building code requires it, hence the need for a sprinkler system. 

Because we needed some revenue in 2015 and we were not able to source charred new American oak barrels (unbeknownst to us when we started, the nation was in the midst of a barrel shortage crisis), we decided to make a white/unaged whiskey to complement our gins. At first we decided to do a corn whiskey, but many of the ones we tried had a harsh taste. We opted instead to do a wheat whiskey. Ours has 60% wheat, 30% rye and 10% malted barley. The wheat gives the spirit sweetness, while the rye provides a spicy finish. We call that spirit Virginia Moon White Whiskey

After months of trying to get new 53-gallon barrels, John and I jumped on a plane to Louisville and walked into Kelvin Cooperage unannounced asking to buy some barrels. Kelvin’s President, Kevin McLaughlin, seemed to like us and our moxy. We spent over two hours with Kevin and got a tour of his facility. He then committed to provide us some barrels. Now we could make some aged whiskey! 

In late 2015, we started by making an aged wheat whiskey, as we had the Virginia Moon process down pat. We followed that up with a wheat bourbon (70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% malted barley) and a 100% rye. As it turns out, rye is a challenge to work with. It has lower yields than other grains, plus it can foam up when fermenting. One morning in 2016, we came in and found rye had been sprayed all over the distillery. We checked our security camera footage and saw that late at night, the top cover of one of our fermenters had exploded off the tank. Apparently, the carbon dioxide air lock for the tank had become clogged. The pressure built up until the cover had to blow.

For our aged whiskeys, we have chosen the brand name Bare Knuckle, which is a play on KO for knockout. We released our Bare Knuckle American Wheat Whiskey in November 2016. It was aged for 12 months in charred new American oak barrels. In June 2017, we released our Bare Knuckle American Rye Whiskey which has aged for 18 months. In late 2017, we will be releasing our small batch Bare Knuckle Straight Bourbon Whiskey aged at least two years. Each whiskey label features an image of a different bare-knuckle fighter circa 1910. 

For the whiskeys we make, we source all of our corn, rye, wheat and malted barley from local Virginia farms; Bay’s Best Feed Farm in Heathsville on the Northern Neck of Virginia is now our go-to grain supplier. When we first started, we got our malted barley from the Midwest, as there really wasn’t much of a malt house industry in Virginia. Now, we source our malted barley from Copper Fox Distillery (thanks Rick Wasmund), which gets its barley from Virginia farms. To jump-start our bourbon inventory, we do have some barrels of low rye, new make bourbon produced by MGPI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana not yet released. As of June 2017, we have about 525 53-gallon barrels of whiskey stored at our site, and have room for a few hundred more.

The Future. As we go through our toddler stage, the future looks bright. We now have three gins and three whiskeys in our portfolio, which are certified as Virginia’s Finest products. The two brown spirits (Bare Knuckle wheat and rye) have been valuable additions. The straight bourbon whiskey will also be impactful. 

We now sell our spirits in Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Delaware, as well as to the Navy Exchange Command (NEXCOM). In Virginia, we have our Navy Strength gin and two Bare Knuckle spirits “listed” by VA ABC and on the shelves of over 100 stores. In D.C., Maryland and Delaware, we sell our spirits to a private distributor (Prestige Beverage Group), which in turn sells to retail licensees. For the rest of 2017, we will be concentrating on growing our on- and off-premise footprint in those four markets. In 2018, we’ll look to expand into other markets.

We’ll also grow in another way this year. We recently took delivery of a new 12-inch diameter, 30-foot continuous column still made by Vendome. That still and related equipment will give us the ability to triple our production. To help us with our plant expansion, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Manassas have given KO Distilling a $50,000 Governor’s Agricultural and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) grant. That money will be put to good use as we add production capability, create new jobs and make bigger Virginia farm grain orders. 

It is hard to believe we are already four years into our experiment. While we like to joke that our pat answer these days to the question “Why did you start a craft distillery?” is “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” the truth is we love being in the spirits business. We hope many will try and like our products and come visit our distillery. For those who do, remember: DrinKO Responsibly!