American Whiskey Distillery Focus Maggie Kimberl

Bourbon from California? Peep Blinking Owl Distillery.

Blinking Owl Distillery is making whiskey in Southern California with organic grains sourced from the state.

When you think of Southern California, you are probably thinking of beaches, sunshine, and more beaches. Tucked away in Santa Ana, a stone’s throw from Disneyland, you’ll find Blinking Owl Distillery.

Founded by local residents Brian and Robin Christenson, Blinking Owl Distillery pays homage to local heritage in more ways than one. It was named for a midcentury bar in the area that had a neon blinking owl sign signaling thirsty patrons to the watering hole. 

All of the grain used at Blinking Owl is certified organic and locally sourced within California. The water comes from an aquifer below the surface that is filtered through the clay soil. It’s a true California product.

When it came time to start distilling, the Founders brought in Ryan Friesen, an experienced distillery from Journeyman Distillery in Michigan.

Distilling in California has some technical differences, but one of the most daunting things about distilling in the United States is that there are 50+ different regulatory climates, and each one treats wine, beer, and spirits differently.

Distiller Ryan Friesen

“There are two things that jump out at me for being the biggest differences in distilling between Michigan and Southern California,” Friesen says. “The lesser of the two is the regulatory differences. That’d be true no matter what other state I worked in previously as every state has its own idiosyncrasies. A lot of it comes down to how a particular state deals with retail and distribution. For instance, California didn’t even have the ability for a craft distiller (not including brandy) to sell spirit at the distillery until 2016, two years after I moved to California. The bigger one is that Michigan is a control state and California is not.”

But even with those regulatory differences, making whiskey is making whiskey, right? Not so fast.

“The biggest difference, and I don’t think this would shock anyone to hear, is the weather,” Friesen continues. “Distilling, like wine making and to a lesser degree like brewing, is highly dependent on the weather. Or rather I should say the maturation process of aged spirits is highly dependent on the weather. When I was in Michigan at Journeyman Distillery, located a few miles inland from Lake Michigan in one of the regions most heavily influenced by Lake Effect weather (snow!), we could see temps ranging from approaching 100 degrees in the summer (much hotter indoors) to -15 and beyond in the winter. I even had the privilege of being snowed in at the distillery once, meaning I got to crash on a cot the boss used to use when he pulled all-nighters. I wrapped up production after everyone had gone home, got a few hours of sleep, woke up bright and early and started the next day’s production all while the rest of Southwest Michigan was under a strict no-travel warning.”

Such temperature shifts are commonplace in much of the Midwest and Northern states, but in Southern California you can generally expect the same weather every day: hot and sunny.

“On the flip side, the only snow we see in SoCal is occasionally off in the distance on mountain tops,” Friesen says. “We routinely go over 100 degrees inside the distillery. The coldest we’ll typically see in our little micro climate of Santa Ana along the Santa Ana river and about 7 miles as the crow flies from the ocean is low to mid-40s. We are normally hotter and drier than Southwest Michigan, which means we have a pretty aggressive Angel’s Share. Reasonable folks will argue over whether that means the spirit is maturing faster. I tend toward saying we definitely get rapid extraction from our barrels (color and initial flavor), but true maturation that gives whiskey depth and character takes oxidation and esterification, something that is less affected by extremes in temperature and more by regular changes over time in temperature, humidity, and pressure. While both SoCal and Southwest Michigan get big fluctuations in those variables, our barrels never get so cold as to slow or even stop the maturation process as might happen in a non-climate controlled rickhouse in a colder climate. In other words, we have very active cooperage which gives us lots of spirit mobility into and out of the wood which means we’re very happy with the finished spirit we’re seeing at even 2-years old. That said, the 4-year old product which is just now coming out to our Parliament Club (spirits club) is exceptional. We don’t yet know what the top end will be for spirit aged in barrels in Orange County. Could be in the 4-5 year range, or maybe 8+. We’re excited to find out!”

Experimentation is key in newer distilleries, especially in regions where distilling might not have been common in the past, at least for a very long time. There’s no one down the street to compare notes with, and while new distilleries are popping up all over the United States, many just don’t have enough data under their belts to really know what their product will look like in a decade or two.

“We tell people about these differences and highlight how terroir and decisions made by distillers across this immense and immensely diverse state show up in finished spirit, aged and un-aged,” Friesen says. “Everything has an effect, from what kind of raw materials we use, where they were grown and how we handle them, through to decisions made in the mash tun, fermenters and still. Everything has to be considered! But that’s what makes it interesting. I think the general public will soon begin talking about spirits the way they do about wine; regionally, even locally, with all the nuance of a Napa or Bordeaux appellation. We have been focusing on these distinctions almost since the inception of the craft spirits boom that COVID slowed, but couldn’t stop.”

Blinking Owl is a great stop if you are in the area to visit Disneyland or go to the beach, but especially if you are a whiskey enthusiast who lives in Southern California. Once you learn the basics of American whiskey, particularly Bourbon, it’s time to start geeking out about how production changes in different climates.

“Of course we still occasionally (but regularly) have to help people learn that yes, you can make Bourbon in California,” Friesen says. “You can make it in Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and even U.S. Territories! At the end of the day it still comes down to whether you made good juice and got it in the bottle. But if you’ve got that baseline covered the sky’s the limit for innovation and breaking the mold of what we think of when we think about domestic spirits and the eponymous American spirit; Bourbon. At the Blinking Owl our focus is on connecting that through-line of quality and integrity from the soil to consumer and all points in between. It’s a story, yes, but one we believe in and put into action. Selling people on the idea of California Bourbon is actually pretty easy, especially once they’ve tasted it.”

Planning your visit: Blinking Owl also has a fantastic restaurant that serves pizza, cocktails, and more. Plan to make an afternoon of it.

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

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