It feels like I’ve run through some version of the modern revival of bottled-in-bond whiskey/bourbon a dozen times on this site at this point, so let me be brief in noting the significance of it once again.
Before the beginning of the modern bourbon boom, seeing the phrase “bottled in bond” on a bottle usually implied a high-value, low-price bottle of relatively young (in industry standards) bourbon from one of the major producers such as Beam, Heaven Hill, etc. For these companies, a 4-year-old, 100 proof bourbon was a way to offer longtime customers solid bang for their buck. These were workhorse bourbons with old-school branding, and a rather archaic image.
During the modern bourbon revival, however, the “bottled in bond” designation has been premiumized by the rise of smaller craft distilleries. If being able to release a straight bourbon (at least 2 years old, and 80 proof) is the first major milestone for a distillery’s barrel aging program, hitting the BIB mark (4 years, 100 proof) feels like the moment when a distillery focused on whiskey truly comes of age in a more robust way. And whereas those bottles would be considered value brands when coming from the likes of Beam, which has god-only-knows how many 20-year-old barrels lying around, a 4-year-old BIB product is probably viewed as the cream of the crop when it’s some of the oldest distillate available from a craft distillery that has only been around for half a decade. Thus, many younger distilleries have released bottled-in-bond bourbons that they market as their most premium expressions, flagship products that show off their own house whiskey style. This has subtly helped to transform consumer perception of the phrase “bottled in bond” itself, and indirectly led to more of the major distilleries releasing premiumized bottled-in-bond bourbons of their own.
For Manassas, Virginia’s KO Distillery, a passion project of longtime friends Bill Karlson and John O’Mara, who met as classmates and cadet midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, their bottled-in-bond Distiller’s Reserve series represents the company’s proudest achievement to date since the release of their first spirits in 2015. Featuring KO’s own wheated bourbon mashbill, and 100% rye (Virginia grown) mashbill, they’re the clearest indication yet of the NoVa distillery’s—often seen at festivals and spirits events—vision for its future.
I was able to obtain samples of both Distiller’s Reserve bottlings from KO Distillery, so let’s get to tasting and see how they compare.
This BiB bourbon was first released in 2020, and represents KO Distillery’s most common house bourbon recipe, a wheated mashbill of 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% malted barley. As a bottled-in-bond product, it must be aged at least 4 years, with a minimum of 100 proof, and my sample specifies that it was aged 52 months. It retails for a fairly steep MSRP of $70, but that’s just the reality of buying any decently aged, in-house spirit from a craft distillery in 2022. Although the likes of Beam could produce a product with these specs and then sell it for $25 (Old Tub!), the same is not at all true of an independent craft distillery. This is a reality the consumer simply must come to terms with if they’re going to be supporting smaller distilling operations.
On the nose, this is striking me up front as notably fruity, with a lot of bright red fruit notes of strawberry or raspberry pie filling. There’s caramel, but it’s of a lighter strand, sweet and tempered by something almost like fresh cream—caramel latte, or Charleston Chew candies. Underneath, there’s flashes of sawdust and baking spices, but not too much to give away the whiskey’s age.
On the palate, this is sweet and inviting, with lightly caramelized sugars, strawberry jam and light oakiness, combined with flourishes of florals or grass. The profile then transitions more in the direction of spice, with a bit of allspice and gingerbread. Ethanol heat is kept nicely in check, registering more in the chest than on the tongue, and the general impression is of composure, which is a good thing. This simply feels like a bourbon where the distillery has managed to rein in its more youthful features, with notes that are beginning to approach something more akin to maturity. As it is right now, it’s offering a nice balance between approachable flavors and drinkability, though the $70 asking price makes the value more questionable. With that said, I’ve had far worse and far more youthful tasting 4-year-old bourbon from many craft distilleries, all of which implies that KO Distillery is definitely on the right track here. For a craft, BiB bourbon, this is pretty much what you’re hoping to receive.
KO’s rye (first released in 2021) is a brash, 100% Virginia grown rye whiskey, which is always something I like to see—both the focus on their own state’s terroir, and the commitment to differentiating the rye whiskey from the bourbon as much as possible. As another BiB offering, this one also weighs in at 100 proof, but my sample is notably slightly older at 55 months, meaning that this is a touch over 4.5 years old. Also nice to see. MSRP is similar to the bourbon, though one wonders what designates one to be $5 more than the other.
On the nose, it will be immediately clear to any American whiskey drinker that this is a very different animal from KO Distillery’s wheated bourbon. The rye is very distinctive, and the profile is very classic high-rye American whiskey—I’m getting lots of rye bread and pure rye spice, along with pink peppercorn, spearmint, caramel, cinnamon, licorice and something sweet and fruity that is evocative of cotton candy.
On the palate, there’s a pop of initial sweetness, with some similar bright red fruitiness to the bourbon, but the rye quickly takes precedence, with assertive notes of pepper, rye grass, hot cinnamon, and honey green tea. There’s little here that is reminiscent of the Kentucky-style, “barley legal” rye, and it helps to really distinguish this bottle from the bottled-in-bond bourbon. If you prefer the modern, spicy, greener rye whiskey profile, this is a very capable example, although perhaps sweeter than some of the others on the market. Still, it strikes me as a very capable cocktail rye, although once again the elevated MSRP will make it a harder bottle to pull the trigger on for some buyers. If you’re looking to support Virginia distilleries, though, KO Distillery is illustrating that via these Distiller’s Reserve releases, their output has only gotten better with age.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.