If you had been to Santa Ana’s Blinking Owl Distillery in 2019 B.C. (Before Covid), you were limited to a tasting flight consisting of several tiny plastic cups pessimistically filled per strict government regulation OR one cocktail. If you opted for the drink, it was composed of spirits made only on-site, as further laws prohibited any other alcoholic mixer to be sold on-site. It was still great, but one drink meant the spot was usually a pre-game diving board for the rest of the night. You enjoyed your one drink, and you quickly bounced.
It’s 2021, and the Owl is insanely different. The outdoor area is packed with reservations, people are enjoying more than one Instagram-worthy cocktail, and the vibe is electric. Why? Because of one thing: a kitchen. Once a distillery offers food, it levels up to boss-level restaurant territory, and it’s not just good, it’s S-tier.
“We’ve always wanted to open a kitchen here, and here it is,” beams head-hooter Robin Christenson. “The bites are simple, yet elevated … like our little piggy in a blini: It’s not just a pig in a blanket, it’s Electric City Butcher Merguez sausage bound in soft pancake blini topped with freakin’ caviar, creme fraîche, and chives.”
The fun really begins with the Hootie Pizza Pies, where the dynamic duo of chefs Luis and Eddie Pérez, both from nearby Lola Gaspar, sling some expert-level dough. Eddie focuses on the pies, which are built from scratch daily using farm-fresh ingredients and flash-cooked in tiny ovens a few steps away. If you’re in the mood for something bold, absolutely try the Cacio e Pepe pie with bacon; crunchy bits of fresh cracked pepper and chunks of grated Parmesan are something I find myself daydreaming about with those hunky strips of crispy smoky bacon. Drizzle it with a little bit of the I-didn’t-know-I-needed-this-until-I tried-it spiced local honeycomb with Calabrian chiles, that is, if you’re in the mood for a higher level of mind-blowing pizza consciousness.
The summer cocktail menu rolls a dozen deep and focuses on how fresh and fruity ingredients play with Blinking Owl’s spirits, which are made with 100 percent California grains. Of course, there are staples, like an Old-Fashioned, Negroni, and Spanish-style Gin Tonic, but I find the real fun begins when you mix anything with Blinking Owl’s Aquavit, a spirit born in Scandinavia that has notes of caraway and dill. 20/21 Vision is a must for any Aquavit-curious drinker, not only because it might make your vision better, it can help you have a better outlook on 2021.
Blinking Owl Distillery is at 802 E. Washington Ave., Santa Ana. Reservations recommended.