Blinking Owl, Orange County's first distillery, opens this week

Southern California can add another craft distillery to its growing roster of booze businesses. Blinking Owl Distillery, which takes its name from the midcentury bar of the same name on Birch and 3rd streets in Santa Ana, will open to the public on Sept. 24. Co-owned by husband and wife Brian and Robin Christenson and their friend Kirsten Vangsness, the spirits producer is the first distillery in Orange County.

While Santa Ana might seem an odd spot to set up shop, it was a natural fit for the Christensons. "We love our cool ‘hood," says Robin, "and have lived in downtown Santa Ana since 2003. This is a very close-knit community where the food, beverage, and artisanal scene truly work together."

Brian, whose great-grandfather was a bootlegger in Nebraska, studied spirits making in Seattle in 2013; he and Robin each hold Level 3 degrees from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Head distiller is Ryan Friesen.

With no distilleries in Orange County, the time seemed ripe for Blinking Owl to arrive on the scene. "Grain is our game changer," says Robin. "We order such large quantities that we could literally support an entire farm. It was then we realized that we could significantly impact the local grain economy, and that’s the big picture for us."

This personal mandate to source locally and organically has been more difficult to realize. The Christensons contacted more than 50 farmers for grains and botanicals, but couldn’t get the quantities they needed; in some cases, the grain brokers didn’t even know where their grains came from. For botanicals, the distillery has had to source mostly internationally, although the orange peel, bay leaf and lavender that Blinking Owl uses are all California-grown. Ironically, hibiscus, which is the flower of Santa Ana, where the distillery is, can’t be sourced in the quantities needed. As for the juniper needed for gin, the Christensons are working to forage berries from a location in Northern California.

While the effect right now is subtle, Blinking Owl is playing a long game to become a 100% California product. Upon opening, the company will introduce three un-aged spirits — vodka, orange-flavored vodka, and aquavit. Gin will come in November and whiskey, which will age for at least two years, is on the horizon. All the spirits can be sampled and purchased in the on-site tasting room. Finally, a relaxing – and fortifying — alternative to hiking through South Coast Plaza or braving Disneyland’s crowds.

802 E. Washington Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 542-5928, www.blinkingowldistillery.com.

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