On the Line: Robin + Brian Christenson and Ryan Friesen of Blinking Owl Distillery
We missed you, Robin!
Photo by Brian Feinzimer
While Orange County has no shortage of breweries, it is lacking in any distilleries. We get to know the team behind our first distillery in the area, Blinking Owl. Special thanks to Greg Nagel of OC Beer Blog for assisting with my line of questioning.
What antiquated booze laws exist that you wish were different?
Brian Christenson: We are thankful for recent changes in the law, such as being able to sell up to three bottles per person out of our tasting room. Not having the same privileges as craft breweries is perplexing, and we hope for the laws to allow us to eventually operate in a similar manner.
Ryan Friesen: The law is the law, and we abide by and support it as written. However, legislation is not static, and with proper inputs, it can adapt to changing needs. Parity is important, and distillers, brewers and vintners alike benefit from parity.
How did you come up with the name?
Robin + Brian Christenson: Blinking Owl was an old bar in Downtown Santa Ana at Third and Birch streets, where a parking structure now stands. It had a neon sign with an owl that blinked. We have been looking for additional information and images for a few years and have mostly come up short, except for one blurry photo and a few people reaching out who remember going there.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
RF: I'm still learning what all Orange County has to offer, but it has a lot to keep me busy. Between exploring Little Saigon sandwich shops, Anaheim's breweries and associated food trucks, DTSA, the noodle shops I recently discovered in Tustin, and the myriad other great spots I've yet to come across, there's no shortage of options.
RC: Community. The OC culinary scene has created a bonded community between restaurants and faithful eaters. This has been achieved by our local chefs, bartenders and restaurant owners' constant collaboration, support and respect of others in the industry as they all strive to make a delicious OC! We personally experienced this sense of community through the constant encouragement and support from our wonderful industry friends while launching the Blinking Owl.
One food you can't live without:
RF: I can live without a lot, but I won't often turn down some al pastor at Lola Gaspar in Santa Ana.
RC: Wine. That is often my dinner on busy days, so I think it counts as food.
BC: Good potato chips.
A stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true:
BC: That you must have a massive, overgrown distiller's beard. It is in no way, shape or form true or required, even though mine has been known to get out of control. We also don't sit around drinking all day.
RF: Come to our distillery and see for yourself if any of them hold true.
What were you up to five years ago?
RF: Almost exactly five years ago, I quit a good job near home and set off on a road trip around the country with no plan for how it was going to end. To my surprise, that trip turned into a year in New Zealand working on a master's degree and eventually ending up with my future wife.
RC: I was in the middle of expanding my specialty physical and integrative therapy clinics, Womanology, which I ended up selling to Hoag Hospital in 2014. Brian was loving his job at Akins Parker Creative as an art director. Back then, Brian was secretly drinking Pappy Van Winkle at Memphis At the Santora for $8 a glass. Most times, he'd just have them bring the entire bottle to the table; this was prior to Anthony Bourdain's proclamation that caused the Pappy buying frenzy.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
RC/BC: French press coffee and a smoothie with grapefruit, lemon, parsley, flax seed, apple cider vinegar and tumeric.
RF: I make a mean scrambled egg.
Will you be producing your own alcohol from grain, or will you be refining bulk cut?
RC/BC: We will be distilling everything we make—vodka, gin, aquavit, whiskies—from grain. We will source as much grain as possible from California; it is not as easy as one would think. Long term, we hope to help build and support a local California grain economy that utilizes organic and sustainable land practices.
RF: Most of the pleasure I derive from my work comes from knowing I participated in every step of the process that I was reasonably able to. I'm not a glass blower, so I can't produce our bottles; but I can develop a strong relationship with a manufacturer. I'm not a farmer, so I can't grow our grain; but I can find a farmer whose practices align with our goals. Most of the rest of the process I can put my hands on, and we do. That's what makes the job worthwhile for me.
How did everybody meet?
RC/BC: We met on a blind date and fell in love over a shared passion for craft beer—in UTAH, of all places! We have been married for 16 years, in May.
We met our dear friend and business partner, Kirstsen Vangsness, in 2003. We used to go to her one-woman shows at Grand Central Arts center in Santa Ana; she is now in her 11th season as the much-loved tech analyst Penelope Garcia on the CBS crime show, Criminal Minds.
Finding Ryan: We decided from the beginning that we wanted to hire a head distiller, so we could focus on building the other parts of the business. After our interview with Ryan, we knew immediately that his passion and philosophy about spirits made him the perfect person for our team.
RF: I was a distiller working in southwest Michigan looking for a new opportunity. I reached out to the Christensons in early 2014. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What is your beverage of choice?
RF: My beverage of choice is the next crafted spirit I get to try, and I get it from the people who make it. Next best is from a retailer or bartender who has a good grasp of what they are selling/pouring me.
RC: I look at the food experience as a whole and often pick my meal around what sounds good to drink. Habitually, I'll start with a Chablis or Sancerre. I do love my Japanese whisky to end the evening! I trust Mark McDonald from Old Vine Cafe, as well as Roger from the Wine Lab, to curate our wine collection. And we are slightly addicted to Gabrielle and Chris Dion's spirit collection at the Mixing Glass.
BC: I like a bit of everything. I can spend hours at Hi-Time Wine Cellars. And my new secret spot for whiskies—you're welcome, Orange County—is SOCAL Wine and Spirits in Tustin.
Will you push consumer education at any level?
RF: Education is everything for us. Not only is an educational component required for our tastings, but it's also something in which we enjoy participating. Craft distillers get great questions both from people who have never experienced craft spirits and connoisseurs alike. Helping people understand what we do and how we do it is an integral part of our success. The story of our work is the story of who we are.
Best tip for the home distiller/brewer:
BC: For the home distillers, don't get caught, as it is illegal.
RF: For the distiller, what Brian said. For the brewer, get to your local home-brew shop and start brewing. There's nothing like the taste of the first beer you made yourself, regardless of what it actually looks like.
RC: Don't underestimate the value of quality ingredients and what they can bring to your drink.
Favorite places to eat:
RF: See my previous food answer.
RC: We dine out A LOT. Our neighborhood in Santa Ana has a fabulous food scene, and we frequent our local favorites; Lola Gaspar is our second home. When we venture out of our own 'hood, we love Old Vine Cafe for any and every meal. Hangin' with the lunch bar gang at Marche Moderne, ARC, Taco Maria, Provenance, Juliette, Zov's, Broadway, Anepalco's . . . There are so many! Now if we could get Suzanne Goin's AOC and Darn Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Hill Barns in the OC.
When you're not in the distillery, what are you doing?
BC: Tasting many spirits for inspiration, catching up on office work, scribbling in one of many sketchbooks, and dreaming of traveling and sleeping.
RF: Travel, travel, travel. My fiancée and I love to see new places, have new experiences and learn about new people. And if I can squeeze in a distillery visit on the trip, all the better.
Where did you grow up?
RF: I was born and raised in northern Indiana, where I went to a small liberal-arts college. I mostly stuck around with a few sidekicks living or working in China; New Zealand; Michigan; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago. When the opportunity came to move to Santa Ana, the timing was right. I never expected to land in Southern California, but Santa Ana is a great town and the perfect place for what we are doing with the distillery.
RC: I'm a mutt and have lived on the East Coast, West Coast and a couple of places in the middle. In 2001, we moved to the OC from Utah [where Brian was born and raised] for Brian to attend Laguna College of Arts and Design. In 2003, I remember telling one of my patients we were moving to the new artists' lofts in Santa Ana, to which he replied, "Well, everyone has to start somewhere!" I shocked him when I said, "As a city girl, this is the only place I'd choose to live in Orange County!" We are still in Santa Ana and proud to call it home.
Hardest lesson you've learned:
RF: Life is full of hard lessons. Maybe the hardest is learning how to take something positive away from those tough situations. If I can do that, then the discomfort was probably worth it. If I don't, then I'll probably need he lesson again.
RC/BC: How to open a distillery, period.
Will you be doing any barrel aging?
RC: We will be barrel aging gin, aquavit and several types of whisky.
RF: If you want good brown spirits, e.g. most whiskies and aged gin/aquavit, you need good barrels. The marriage of whisky and wood is a complex and fascinating process. What comes out, given enough time, is a vastly different drink than what went into the barrel.
What other professions would you like to be doing if you weren't in this business?
RF: Is traveling whisky taster a job?
RC: My former company was devoted to specialty integrative therapies for women's health, and I'll always have a passion for finding ways to heal. I do love business—conceptualizing and designing them, doing financial and strategic plans for them, and making them valuable and impactful. I plan to continue doing business/consulting/mentoring and perhaps some interior design once the Blinking Owl is soaring.
BC: Spending a lot more time on my snowboard in the backcountry.
Blinking Owl is located at 802 E. Washington Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 852-3947; www.blinkingowldistillery.com.