Graduates from the United States Merchant Marine Academy abide by the motto “Acta Non Verba,” meaning deeds not words, and they are leaders that exemplify the concept of service above self. As graduates from the class of 1982, KO Distilling co-founders Bill Karlson, CEO, and John O’Mara, president and head distiller, understand the importance of service to the community and enjoy great locally sourced spirits.

United by a love for whiskey and gin, the two men founded their company in May 2013, and they never looked back. They recently opened their distillery to the public, and they are already giving back to those that have supported their journey and building future partnerships.

As well as a love for bourbon, what prompted you both to want to start your own distillery, and how did you come to choose this location in Manassas?

John: It took us a while to find this place. We searched for eight months throughout Prince William County in Gainesville and Manassas to locate the warehouse. We were restricted to industrial facilities, and because of that, it took a much longer time to find a place. We wanted to have a tourist destination and not just a distillery. We are about six miles from Interstate-66, which is really good.

Bill: We underestimated how long it would take to find the right place. We found this place about 18 months ago and signed the long-term lease for 10 years.

Since May 2013, you have been building this business as a huge operation that literally took years to get you to a point where you are finally ready to open your doors to the public. What are you most looking forward to about being able to share your distillery with the community?

Bill: As John mentioned, we really wanted to make a travel and tourism destination. Since we are in an industrial area, it’s not quite like a bucolic vineyard with trees and whatnot, but once you walk inside the doors, we have 2,500 square feet of visitor center space really done well. We are both a manufacturing plant and a destination. We anticipate having upwards of 25,000 people a year coming here to visit us. That’s a big part of our business model.

John: What are we looking forward to share? Good spirits (laughs). We worked very hard on the recipes. Ryan Hendricks is our distiller. He’s 27 years old, and he has four years of distilling experience. I came up with some basic recipes, and he helped refine them.

I love the aesthetic of your tasting room with its large leather couches and a fireplace. It has a warm, welcoming feel to it. Is that what you intended?

Bill: Absolutely. We hired local architects and friends of mine from Baltimore who are in the interior design business, and they designed the offices, the tasting area, and the bottling room. One of their past clients was the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they do really good, high-end work. Everything they came up with was fantastic. For distilleries like ourselves, copper is a big deal, as well as oak. So it was important for us to have copper and oak everywhere.

John: I didn’t look at any of their paint colors or textures. I saw the iniitial drawings and thought it would look good, and when it came to fruition, it was beautiful. The windows are tinted at the entrance so you can’t see in too well, but as soon as you enter the door, everyone is impressed.

It even features a commissioned work by local artist Nathan Loda depicting two Civil War soldiers cheering over a bottle of KO’s Virginia Moon Whiskey, which pays homage to the past and present. What are your thoughts on it?

Bill: It’s a spectacular painting. Nathan was highly recommended to us by the dean of the arts school at George Mason University. He is finishing his Master’s in Fine Arts. I’m a Mason graduate myself, and it meant a lot to us to have him working on the painting for us. Within three months, he produced that work. It is about the Civil War, and you’ll notice we tried to make it as neutral as possible with the blue and the grey combined to celebrate history. The feast at Manassas Junction was 153 years ago, and we celebrate it every summer. We unveiled the painting on the August 27, which was the 153rd anniversary, and it was spectacular. Everybody loves it.

Can you tell me about your partnership with Renwood Farms and what it has been like working with them?

John: We work with Renwood Farms and Bays Best Seed Company. They are very responsive, and they produce great grains that are nice and clean. Plus, they bring them right to our back door. We pick it off with our forklift and put them in our back storage area. A number of the small distilleries in Virginia all talk to each other and help each other out. We have great relationships with Catoctin Creek Distillery and Copper Fox, and I can call them up if I need a lead on rye. Everybody is sharing information. We work as a community.

Bill: We realized early on when we started this business two years ago that grain to glass is a big deal in our industry, just like the farm to table movement is with restaurants. We have been trying to partner with local farms to support that.

I read in an article published by Northern Virginia Magazine you are planning to make 700 barrels of bourbon, and they won’t be ready until 2021! Can you tell me about what Virginia bourbon fans can look forward to from that batch?

John: The first batch that will come out is a wheated bourbon, which is 70 percent corn, 25 percent wheat, and 5 percent malted barley. It’s a lighter bourbon, and it doesn’t have that sharp rye taste. We are going to go for a high rye mash bill on the next bourbon run we do. Keeping those mixtures in the barrels for six to eight years, or even 10 on our first barrel, I’ll have to look at my longevity to make sure I get some of it (laughs).

During your distillery’s grand opening, you debuted your Battle Standard 142 Gin and Virginia Moon White Whiskey. What makes each of these spirits distinct?

John: We both graduated from the United States Merchant Marines Academy, and there were 142 merchant marine cadets killed during World War II. It is also the only federal academy that can fly a battle standard for having cadets killed during a time of war. They were on a lot of convoys taking supplies back and forth over on delivery ships. We named the gin Battle Standard 142 in their memory. With regard to taste, it’s a little bit different than other gins. It does have the background of junipers, but it also has some citrus and floral notes. We’ve had a number of people taste it who swear they aren’t gin drinkers, but after they have ours, they turn around and say they love gin now (laughs). That’s what we wanted to see. It took us four batches to get to the right recipe.

Bill: What John hasn’t told you is he is obsessed with gin, and he is trying to make the perfect gin (laughs).

John: On the Virginia Moon, I’m not a big corn whiskey fan because it has a real bite to it, and with an unaged spirit, I didn’t want people to feel like they had to mix it with something else to make it palatable. We decided to make a wheat-type whiskey, which is 60 percent wheat, 30 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. That gives it a nice smooth flavor. You can drink it on the rocks, and it pairs very well in cocktails.

Your Battle Standard 142 Gin is also available in “Navy Strength.” Is that an ode to your time spent in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy?

Bill: We found out a year or so ago that the British used to give their officers gin, and they would give their crew grog. They found that if they gave the officers gin at 114 proof and the officers spilled the gin on the gunpowder, they could still use it. So they issued all the gin to their officers at 114 proof, and they called it “navy strength.” That’s where the term comes from. We didn’t make it up. It’s 100 years old.

Will any of your other spirits also have a “Navy Strength” counterpart?

Bill: With the bourbon, we have the opportunity to release it at “barrel strength,” meaning whatever comes out of the barrel, we don’t cut it with water down to about 90 proof. We could actually sell it at barrel strength. If you go to a liquor store and buy a bottle of Bookers, which is a Jim Beam product, it’s 128 proof. I could see us doing a couple 100 proof whiskeys.

In addition to supporting your distillery, you have also donated to a handful of local organizations, including the Prince William County Chamber of Commerce. Why is it so important for your distillery to give back to the community?

John: Both of us, as individuals are, very generous in helping as many charities as we can. We are both very blessed in that we had very good previous careers, and we help out as many people as we can. With our company, we are going to take the same approach to it. At our grand opening, we had an organization for rescue dogs come out, and we plan on helping out throughout the year with a number of different organizations. Bill and I are truly blessed with everything we have, and we want to share that with the community.

For more updates on KO Distilling, be sure to visit their website, “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter and Instagram, and visit their tasting room and production facility at 10381 Central Park Drive, Suite 105, Manassas, Va. 20110.

Joe Fitzpatrick

Joe Fitzpatrick

As editor-in-chief, Joe is very passionate about promoting music and culture in Virginia and DC. A resident of Fairfax, Joe enjoys going to shows, checking out local breweries, and trying new foods with his girlfriend Alex.