Spirited newcomer Ironclad Inn combines ‘bourbon gene,’ historical DNA

by | Apr 11, 2024 | ALLFFP, Business, Fredericksburg

Kara King likes to say that nothing pairs better with bourbon than a good story.

Her family’s newest business venture aims to distill a nearly 200-year-old narrative into their unique vision for a property that has catered to the Fredericksburg area for generations.  At noon on Saturday, the Kenmore Inn will officially reopen as the Ironclad Inn under the ownership of the King family, which purchased it in December from Rob Alling.  

The Kings, who opened Ironclad Distillery in Newport News in 2014, still intend to operate the B&B that’s served guests upstairs since 1932. In addition to the inn and restaurant, the downstairs lounge tacks on an additional B — for bourbon. 

“Now you can be down here and be within stumbling distance to your room, if you want,” King said with a laugh.  

As tempting as that might be, the inn’s bottom floor is considered a tasting room, and as such is limited to serving three ounces per person per day. That allotment could take the form of a bourbon flight, drinks either neat or on the rocks, or cocktails that will rotate seasonally. Light snacks will also be available.

“I had a lady here last week who said, ‘I don’t drink Bourbon,’” recalled King of a recent soft opening for local business owners. “She had three cocktails by the end of the day.” 

For Kara’s brother Owen King, who runs Ironclad’s Distillery operations, bourbon is inexorably tied to the notion of family.

“I can remember our grandmother on Christmas morning sitting there with an Old Crow on the rocks with a splash of water,” he said. “That’s a built-in memory in my brain of the first time I saw bourbon.”

According to Kara King, however, the family’s shared affinity for the spirit is more nature than nurture.

“Since we turned 21, we have the joke that everybody has the bourbon gene in their DNA,” she said. “Either it turns on or it doesn’t, and ours lit up like a Christmas tree.”

The siblings’ father Stephen King (no, not that one) originally purchased the 13,000-square-foot building that would become Ironclad Distillery for an unrelated business. They started with a five-gallon still and recently celebrated their 10th year in business.

“It’s been really, really fun,” Kara King said. 

When Ironclad was looking to expand, they targeted a few potential Virginia locations with vibrant downtowns that weren’t saturated with distilleries. Owen King said he doesn’t view the Ironclad Inn as a competitor for Fredericksburg-based A. Smith Bowman Distillery. 

“We always like to say a rising tide lifts all ships, and the more craft makers in the area, the more people who are going to come out,” he said. 

The tasting room will offer bourbon flights along with bottle sales. (Photos by Joey LoMonaco)

Normal business hours for the downstairs lounge will be Wednesday through Saturday from 1 to 8 p.m. As part of Saturday’s festivities, alt-country music performer Karen Jonas is playing from 5-8 p.m. 

Ironclad Distillery derives its name from the transformational Civil War naval battle that took place on March 9, 1862. According to Kara King, the distillery in Newport News’ shipyard district “would’ve had front row seats” to the epic clash between the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor, which ultimately ended in a draw. 

Several of Ironclad’s bottle labels peel back to reveal historical tidbits pertaining to the battle. Their flagship whiskey bears a blueprint of the first ironclad ship, while the straight bourbon — the black label — features an image of the Merrimack. The distillery’s “Monitor” blend depicts the battle incrementally as the bottle is depleted.  

Likewise, the Kings are committed to preserving the Kenmore Inn’s extensive history as part of the rebranding. According to a 2006 architectural survey from the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, the current building was constructed in 1793 and is located within the city’s National Register Historic District.

Kara King recently unearthed some old menus that she plans to utilize as a casing for her own drink menus. The distinctive black and gold sign that’s stood for decades outside 1200 Princess Anne St. will be displayed prominently in the lounge.  

“This is just adding to the portfolio of stuff we can talk about,” she said. “The name is not going away in any shape or form. It’s an extension of our brand now, but we want to share that history and all those stories.” 

Over a tipple or two of bourbon, of course.

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