Distilling High Quality Spirits
Distilling High Quality Spirits

In a transition decidedly unique to Down Town Santa Ana, former owners of an art gallery decided to launch Orange County’s first craft distillery and tasting room.

Located on Washington Ave. and Santiago in Santa Ana, the Blinking Owl Distillery is owned by Brian and Robin Christenson, who formerly ran Scribble Theory art gallery. They opened the distillery in September 2016, along with their friend and business partner, Kirsten Vangsness, who plays Penelope Garcia on the CBS drama “Criminal Minds.”

From the outside, the 6,500-square-foot building is industrial and unremarkable. Walk through the doors into the tasting room, though, and you’re likely to do a double take at the upscale interior that includes a tasting bar with a view into the distillery and its gleaming copper stills.

Open for tastings four days a week, with tours on the weekends, the Blinking Owl just released the distillery’s first whiskey, which required two years of aging. “We’re really proud of the whiskey,” says Robin Christenson. “It even looks like it’s the first whiskey of record to have been legally distilled and barreled here in Orange County.”

Named after a bar that used to operate in Santa Ana, the Blinking Owl is one of the first distilleries in the state of California to hold the Type 74 Craft Distillers License. This allows for operating a tasting room and selling a few bottles to customers. In addition to several types of Whiskey, the facility makes Vodka, Gin and Aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit. The Blinking Owl’s first bourbon will be released nine years from now when it has finished aging.

Unlike some distilleries that use pre-made spirit to create their distilled alcoholic beverages, the Christensons decided to make their product from real grain. That means they source the grain from local farmers and then mill the grain, mash and ferment it and distill and age it.

“Our product is made from 100 percent California grown and produced ingredients, including the grains,” says Brian. “Most of the ingredients are certified organic or from farms using sustainable practices, such as the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana and Nisson Ranch in Tustin, where we get our oranges.”

According to Ryan Friesen, the Blinking Owl’s Head Distiller, sourcing all of the grains from California was challenging and took more than a year to realize.

“We make all of our fine spirits with Santa Ana’s award-winning water that contains all the necessary characteristics for the brewing and the fermentation process,” adds Friesen. “The water draws right from the ground and out of the Orange County aquifer, which is fed in part by snow melt from the mountains and the Santa Ana River.”

In order to produce the highest quality spirits possible, prior to opening, Friesen and the Christensons did extensive research and sought out specialized training. Brian took courses in distilling, and the couple traveled to Scandinavia to look into the making of Aquavit. Friesen had the rare opportunity to do an internship with famed Japanese whiskey maker, Ichiro Akuto, at the Chichibu Distillery. Akuto is touted as one of the world’s best whiskey makers.

Working at the Blinking Owl is the opportunity of a lifetime for Friesen. “A craft distiller could hardly ask for more,” he says. “The Christenson’s brought the passion for starting this monumental project, and they provide the seemingly endless energy to keep it going. At the Blinking Owl, we have one overriding goal—to produce the highest quality spirits we can while providing our customers with a Santa Ana-grown product and experience.

You’ll also find Blinking Owl spirits at locations such as BevMo! and Total Wines throughout Orange County, as well as local bars and restaurants.

Blinking Owl Distillery
802 East Washington Ave, Santa Ana CA 92701  /  714-852-3947

Article Published in the
Jan / Feb 19 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review
Written by Don Cribb Photo by Kayli Gennaro
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