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By Wendy Migdal
To walk through the front door at 10381 Central Park Drive in Manassas is to enter the world of craft spirits. As if to mark the distinction, the asphalt parking lot and concrete and metal buildings disappear from view, to be replaced by warm woods and leather sofas. A wooden bar and a large fireplace flank opposite ends of the room, while overhead is a bespoke ceiling crafted from barrel staves. Welcome to KO Distilling.
Spirits enthusiasts won’t need much persuasion to visit the tasting room and sample the seven varieties of whiskey and three of gin offered here. For those who prefer beer and wine, it may be time to give spirits a try. Just like beer and wine, the terroir — the surrounding natural environment — is an important contributor to the final taste, and Virginia’s relatively mild climate and rich soil lend a characteristic flavor to its nearly 60 distilleries.
And, a visit to KO Distilling is a one-stop immersion into Virginia craft spirits. The distillery sources its grains from the Northern Neck; all of its whiskeys (except one) are made from scratch on site. This means KO’s production team mills, mashes, ferments, distills, barrels, ages, and bottles in the distillery — a process which can be viewed from the tasting room itself. And, to complete the cycle, the spent grains are given to the nearby veteran-owned Silver Key Ranch, which provides a nutritious food source for the farm’s livestock.
Across the country, as the population continues to grow and the world continues to, well, globalize, people have never stopped yearning for that personal connection. Craft distilleries (and their cousins, wineries and breweries) have, in a way, stepped in to take on the modern, reinvented role of the mom-and-pop establishments of the past. These business ventures are often started by friends or co-workers, and that’s the case here. KO takes its name from its founders, Bill Karlson and John O’Mara, who met as cadet midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. (The names of their American-style gins pay
homage to this heritage. Battle Standard 142, the gins are called, in honor of the 142 cadets from the Merchant Marine Academy who died serving in World War II. The word “standard” refers to the flag commemorating them. You’ll find other nods to the Merchant Marine throughout the distillery.)
Both owners stress they want their company to be first and foremost about people, including employees and customers. And KO has found many ways to make a visit there about people and connection as much as it is about the spirits themselves.
Customers can drop in for events like painting nights, craft classes, or an author’s series, paired with a cocktail. They can tour the distillery on weekends and learn more about the science of distilling. (KO’s head distiller has degrees in chemical engineering and chemical physics.)
Customers can also attend one of the several large events throughout the year that are accompanied by live music and food trucks. One of KO’s most popular events is Derby Day, where those who want to experience Kentucky Derby culture can don their ornate hats and spiffy bow ties right here in Virginia. Mint julep in hand, they can watch the race on KO’s big screen TV.
(And nothing ever gets out of hand; distilleries in Virginia are limited to selling three ounces of spirits per person, per day).
For those who’d like to delve a bit deeper into all things distilled, KO offers education programs such as guided tastings, lectures, and mixology classes. These are often themed and tailored to holidays, such as Mardi Gras, where students learn to make authentic New Orleans cocktails, or Valentine’s Day, where
guided tastings are paired with truffles. Check their Facebook page for the most up-to-date information.
Another tribute to the Merchant Marine connection is the PlanKOwners Club. A customer loyalty program, the name references “plank owners,” an official designation for someone who was a member of the crew when that ship was placed into commission. When the ship was decommissioned, they received a plank from its decking. KO Distillery invites their fans to “distinguish themselves as a ‘PlanKOwner’ and join our
special, dedicated group of followers who have helped our craft distillery metaphorically set sail,” as they put it. For a one-time cost of $142 (yes, that number was chosen for its significance to the Merchant Marine), members receive free tours, discounts on merchandise, and invitations to special events such as barrel selections and new product releases.
Distilleries provide a place in the community where people are welcome to sip, hang out for a while, learn, play, and enjoy the company of others.
Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer who has lived in the Northern/Central Virginia area since 2000. She enjoys traveling around the area to learn about parks, restaurants, attractions, and especially history.