Spirited Sanitizer: Blinking Owl Distillery Owner Shares Experience Switching Gears

Orange Coast shares stories of how people in our county connected and coped in the early days of COVID-19: tales from the helpers and heroes, tips for surviving stay-at-home orders, shifts local businesses made to adapt, advice going forward, and a community displaying hope and resolve. You’ll find plenty of reasons to be proud of where we live and how we’re rising together.

Brian and Robin Christenson, co-owners of Blinking Owl Distillery, show off the new product. Photographs courtesy of Blinking Owl

Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana switched gears to make hand sanitizer. Co-owner Robin Christenson, co-owner tells us more about their whirlwind experience.

Where did the idea come from?
There was a shortage of Purell. I remember I woke up in the middle of the night wondering what was going to happen if we got shut down. I ran to our distiller the next morning and said “We can make hand sanitizer! That’s what we’re going to do!”

Was it easy to make the transition?
It was a lot of logistics in the background, but then the actual production was not that hard for us. I got registered to become a drug manufacturer with the FDA. The joke now is that we do alcohol and drugs.

What goes into making the hand sanitizer to World Health Organization specifications?
Fortunately, we produce the spirit ourselves already. Basically, we make vodka first. The high-proof neutral grain spirit is how we start our vodka. We use multiple avenues to make this high-proof spirit. We’ll distill the spirit like we normally do. The 96 percent alcohol is then blended carefully with hydrogen peroxide and glycerin. The bottles will have the Blinking Owl logo. It’s called Dirty Bird hand sanitizer.

Who has reached out for Dirty Bird sanitizer?
I’m getting so many orders for hand sanitizer. We’re actually hiring people to help us bottle and package. (Orange County Supervisor) Andrew Do first reached out to us, and we’ve also been approached by the California Highway Patrol, UC Riverside, a hospital, multiple manufacturers, food growers, restaurants, and more.

Can people buy individual bottles, too?
Yes, we have different sizes, including 16-ounce bottles and 1 gallon and 5 gallons that will last your family a while.

How has this experience been?
It feels absolutely amazing to be needed, especially in a time of crisis. I come from (the field of) medicine, and I feel like I’m back in health care.

As a business that was shut down temporarily last year by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, what’s your advice to others who are struggling?
Last time, I had to sell my wedding ring, and we sold our car to pay our employees’ payroll. I worried so much last time covering for people even when there wasn’t work. I learned that it doesn’t help anybody when you can’t survive later. Get people on unemployment. Don’t get heroic with your funds. You need it later to be able to help them again. I would ask for every bit of government help that you can to get through because you deserve it, and it’s not shameful.

You’re donating some product?
Yes, to local and statewide restaurants that need sanitizer to stay open. We also gave to CHOC, Huntington Beach Home Care, United Way, plus other L.A. hospitals and more.

Need sanitizer yourself? Head to blinkingowldistillery.com to be notified when individual bottles and gallons of Dirty Bird sanitizer are restocked and available for pick-up and shipping.

Read more from this issue at orangecoast.com/together.

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