Bennett: Drop in at Blinking Owl distillery for eclectic local liquors

If Wes Anderson decided to go into the liquor businesses, the result might resemble Blinking Owl, the quirky new distillery that's home to the first spirits to be made in Orange County since Prohibition.

Not only are the spirits that are now being crafted inside a former staircase-manufacturing warehouse in Santa Ana's Logan barrio not your typical rubbing-alcohol vodkas and trend-following whiskeys, but the distinctive personality of the entire brand — from the nostalgic look of the bottle labels to the all-black bar, furry ottomans and bronzed endtables of the '40s-meets-'70s tasting room — is an exercise in mixing the past and the present to make an entirely irresistible future.

"I really like eclecticism," says Robin Christenson, a physical therapist who co-founded Blinking Owl with her husband, Brian, a former art director for a local ad agency. "The way I approached designing the tasting room is the same way we approach our product. There's a great saying that I love, it's 'Don't give people what they want. Give people what they don't know they want yet.'"

And just as people probably don't know yet that they want Blinking Owl's old quonset hut-style building in an industrial part of Orange County to have elegant, marble-tiled restrooms, there's no doubt that people don't know they want to drink Blinking Owl's aquavit, one of two delicious signature spirits that were released at a grand opening party last weekend.

Aquavit is a Scandanavian specialty rarely seen in American bars. Like gin, it starts as a neutral grain spirit that gets infused with native botanicals. Unlike gin, its main ingredient isn't juniper but caraway seeds, like the ones found embedded in rye bread, with secondary aromatics of star anise, dill and cumin, depending on the country of origin. Blinking Owl's is a sippable homage to Brian's own Swedish heritage, made "Santa Ana style" with hints of hibiscus, the city's official flower.

The rest of the Blinking Owl lineup includes a smooth (not astringent) vodka, a forthcoming gin and, eventually, various whiskeys, which will be aged in fresh American oak barrels (an orange vodka infused with fruits from the OC Heritage Museum's on-site garden is also on the way).

For all of their liquors, head distiller Ryan Friesen — who came from a small distillery in Michigan to help open Blinking Owl — and the Christensons are dedicated to sourcing as much of their raw ingredient as possible from California. It's a task that's proving to be harder than it sounds.

Currently, the majority of their grains come from within the state, but they're hoping that within in the next few years, as demand for heirloom grains for distillers and brewers grows, they'll be able to sell all-California liquors.

"We do believe that the earth transfers to the glass," Robin says. "Even though it's colorless and odorless, we've tasted through 50 different versions of our vodka, each with a different grain bill, and you can taste the difference in every one."

If finding California-grown ingredients for booze is difficult, try opening a distillery to make the booze in. When the Christensons started on their quest to open Orange County's first modern distillery nearly four years ago, locally made liquors were a fleeting dream. In Southern California at the time, a slew of young breweries might have been contributing to an explosive craft beer scene, but you could count on one hand the number of companies producing spirits.

Blame the dearth of artisanal liquor-makers on California's antiquated distilling laws, which until a few years ago only allowed distilleries to give tours, but not give samples or sell directly to consumers, as wineries and breweries easily do.

Then, starting in 2014, the law loosened to let distilleries offer up to six quarter-ounce samples of the goods after a tour, but only if the customer paid for it. It wasn't until the beginning of last year that the California Small Spirits Bill went into effect, finally putting small-batch distilleries like Blinking Owl on the same playing field as other craft alcohols.

Now, no tour is necessary to stop in and ogle the shiny, 1,000-liter copper still — which sits majestically behind 30-foot-tall windows in full view of the tasting room's bartop — and order a cocktail designed by local bartenders and, when you're done, buy a few bottles to go.

"The law was passed after we started this process, but it's definitely a game-changer for us," Brian says. "Good spirits don't sell themselves. The easiest way for us to sell our product is to let people meet us, meet the distiller, hear our story and learn what we're all about."

"We're thinking of ourselves as the one-drink wonder," Robin adds. "Come here before dinner to have a drink and buy a bottle for later."

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