Orange County’s First Distillery is a Grain Changer

It’s some time after the turn of the century, a man by the name of Fred P. Armbrust looks out onto his Nebraskan home. To passersby, the quaint exterior of the dairy farm whispers every ideal of the American Dream. Little do they know that beyond those wholesome walls lies a family secret. Hidden doors open up to a labyrinth of secret passageways, leading to the pièce de résistance, a still. For years Mr. Armbrust had been distilling his own spirits and selling it to only those with the privileged knowledge of the private distillery, to the local, we’ll call them alcohol enthusiasts, well into prohibition. Some days he would worry about the repercussions of getting caught, after all, he was doing awfully well for a small dairy farmer, but not today. No, today, he could feel the pride swell in his heart as he looked across his land, the tall grass swaying in a gentle breeze. But the moment doesn’t last long, he has work to do, and the people are counting on him.

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Nearly a century later, Armbrust’s great-grandson, Brian Christenson has continued the family legacy, legally, of course. Along with his wife, Robin Christenson, the three have opened Blinking Owl, Orange County’s first distillery, in Santa Ana. Some inspiration from the Blinking Owl’s namesake, a mid-century bar on Santa Ana’s Birch and 3rd streets from the forties to the seventies, resides within the walls of the new distillery. “Stylistically, I pulled from what I thought might have been in the Blinking Owl bar in that time period,” says Robin, “but I also designed around what I thought was new and different, and what has not been done.” The bar area features gold and marble accents with full leather couches and simple, exposed-bulb lighting fixtures overhead, which work to make the venue feel decidedly modern with a dash of art deco.

For the Christenson’s, Santa Ana is home, so there really was no question whether or not their new venture would be located in this city. As a burgeoning trendy city, Santa Ana would prove beneficial to their distillery in more ways than one. Brian describes it as one of the only remaining urban living sites in Orange County, though some have attempted to replicate its atmosphere, the authenticity of its history is what makes it truly unique. Brian and Robin list a number of reasons why this city works so well for their business including it being food forward and in line with the farm-to-table movement, in which many local chefs are taking interest in where and how their ingredients are sourced. “Santa Ana invites and encourages creative chefs and gives them a birthing place,” says Robin of the opportunity here, “they don’t have to be so big to make it LA but they can start and make some really cool things here that are received very well by the community.”

As a craft distillery, Blinking Owl is taking part in a movement. From the craft brewery epicenter of California, San Diego, we’ve seen more and more craft breweries head up north into the Orange County and Los Angeles area. With a movement toward small batches and traditional methods, the craft distillery is both fitting in and standing out. As the first distillery in Orange County, Blinking Owl is sure to make some noise, however, it is not only their singularity for which they are unique.

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The people behind Blinking Owl are self-proclaimed grain nerds, and for good reason. For them, the process is everything, so they have decided to create their spirits the long way by using grain rather than pre-made spirits. In their process, they do just about everything besides growing the grain themselves within their distillery. The grain is their game changer, so they’re very selective when it comes to sourcing their ingredients, but it’s not only for themselves. Brian and Robin feel an obligation to the community to source locally as well as to find farmers who are either certified organic or who are using organic practices in their farming. “We ask those questions about crop rotation because we really want a nutritious soil,” Robin says of the farming practices, “I believe that is where a good grain will come from,” and a good grain equals a good spirit. Thankfully for the Blinking Owl, Brian and Robin have found that California has a great many farmers who share the same principles, it’s just a matter of getting enough grain to sustain the distillery. It’s a work in progress, but the goal is to source every ingredient from the grain to the botanicals from California and to hopefully make an impact in the local grain economy. From the grain, to the hibiscus (Santa Ana’s city flower), to the Valencia oranges grown and bought from the Heritage Museum of Orange County, and even to the award-winning Santa Ana water, their product is still very much a California centric product.

With all of their spirits made in house, Blinking Owl has ventured into the world of whiskey, including Bourbon, Rye, Wheat, and Single Malt which they mill, mash, ferment, distill, and barrel age, in house, for a minimum of two years. In September, Blinking Owl barreled its fist Bourbon Whiskey on the founder, Brian’s, 41st birthday. Pre-sales for the 150 bottle exclusive release of the single barrel, first batch have begun. The Christensons have had an Orange County historian on the case, but all parties have agreed that if this is not the first bourbon/whiskey to be made in Orange County, then it most definitely is the first in a very long time. For those who are fortunate enough to get their hands on one of the first bottles, they will be able to engage in the behind the scenes work in which they will be invited to private barrel monitoring events with the head distiller. “When they’re buying a bottle, they’re really buying a piece of history,” says Brian of the exclusive release, “so that’s kind of fun to be a part of.”

As of now, you can purchase Blinking Owl’s three spirits, Blinking Owl Vodka, Blinking Owl OC Orange, and Blinking Owl Aquavit, but a gin is also in the works. You can also book a tour and tasting room experience that Brian promises to be educational, and I, after tasting the spirits myself, can promise to be delicious.

For more information about the Blinking Owl Distillery, located at 802 E Washington Ave, Santa Ana, visit their website.

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