Start of a Trend? 3 Husband-and-Wife Teams Run Distilleries in Orange County

Robin and Brian Christenson run Blinking Owl, Orange County's first distillery. Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

When Brian and Robin Christenson opened Blinking Owl in Santa Ana in 2016, it was the first distillery in Orange County. It was soon followed by Ryan and Lesli Winter at Drift Distillery in San Clemente, then Josh and Elena Kornoff at Surf City Still Works in Huntington Beach. We talked to these teams about the joys and challenges of being pioneers in O.C. distilling.

What led to a distillery, and what were the major challenges?

BRIAN CHRISTENSON: Robin ran a very successful physical therapy clinic for more than a decade. I was an art director at a small advertising agency. Before Blinking Owl, we had an art gallery in our live-work loft in Santa Ana.

ROBIN CHRISTENSON: We were the very first distillery in Orange County, so the county fire department in particular didn’t know what to do with us. They approved one set of plans, then, after we broke ground, pulled back and changed what had been approved. That probably cost us an additional $25,000.

BRIAN: I had seen regionality in food, wine, beer, and distilling. It was intriguing that nobody was distilling in our region.

ROBIN: The past two years have felt like we are pushing a monster, the biggest rock, up a hill. I believe this year the ball is going to start to roll, and we won’t have to work so hard.

At Drift Distillery, Ryan and Lesli Winter, below, run a family farm-to-bottle operation. Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo


RYAN WINTER:
Lesli and I owned an advertising agency we’d started out of our garage. I said, “Screw it; let’s make our own whiskey.” She researched and said there were no distilleries in Orange County (at that time). We said, “We’re jumping ship; we’re putting all our eggs in this basket.”

LESLI WINTER: We were ready to be open for months and months. Not being able to do anything while we waited for all the permits, that was the toughest thing. The federal permits took 10 months!

At Surf City Still Works, Elena and Josh Kornoff experiment with small batches to get flavors just right. Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo


JOSH KORNOFF:
On a road trip to the Rockies, Elena and I would always stop in breweries in resort towns. We popped into a distillery … and the idea of a little distillery struck our fancy.

ELENA KORNOFF: Sales are the biggest challenge. Craft distilleries are new in Orange County, so restaurants and bars are not used to the idea. They’re used to local beers but not to local spirits. The education process has been difficult.

JOSH: I’m from an engineering background. To me, stills are pretty awesome. Jack Daniels makes whiskey, Tito’s makes vodka—we thought if those guys can do it, we can. We didn’t think too much about it except to jump right in and do it.

ROBIN: We started with our first architect in January 2014, and it ended up being too big a project for her. We didn’t get a set of plans until fall of 2015. The build-out was supposed to be finished by New Year’s—it took until September 2016 for us to open. Architecture wreaked havoc on our lives.

Who does what, and has it been difficult to divide up the work?

JOSH: Elena is in control of making sure the paperwork is in order. There is so much paperwork—taxes, regulatory stuff.

ELENA: We were both working full time when we started—building the facility on the side, at night and on weekends, burning the candle at both ends and pretty exhausted.

Elena Kornoff at Surf City Still Works says she is excited about launching a new product: canned cocktails. Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

JOSH: She also handles Surf City’s social media, marketing, and advertising. Elena’s the brains, and I’m the brawn. Head distiller. Design and construction during the build-out. Day-to-day operations. Bottling. Distribution. If the day ends and I haven’t made or built something, I don’t feel fulfilled.

RYAN: Lesli handles the back-end stuff, reporting the monthly taxes, making sure the government is happy.

LESLI: There are such strict guidelines regarding facilities and tasting rooms. We’re really limited on what we are able to do. And our work hours have changed. Before, we worked Monday to Friday 9 to 5. Now we’re working every day of the week, weekends included.

RYAN: I’m the distiller—and janitor. I clean the still, do the dishes, and take out the trash. We have two daughters who help around the tasting room and do dishes. Drift is a family-run business.

BRIAN: My title is chief executive owl. I oversee day-to-day production, sales, and some supply-chain management, plus facilities maintenance, and janitorial if needed. Robin is chief financial owl and works with our beverage director to oversee front-of-house and hospitality. Robin is also Blinking Owl’s chief interior designer.

ROBIN: We’re partners in crime. We absolutely love working together. We balance each other really well. Our joke now is, we’ve heard that one of the top causes of divorce is when people do a kitchen remodel. We could get through a kitchen remodel, no problem!

What sets your distillery apart from the others here?

BRIAN: Blinking Owl is the county’s very first craft distillery, and one of the first in the state licensed to have a tasting room and to sell bottles. We use only certified organic California grain, fruits, and botanicals. We are locavores—our oranges come from Santa Ana and Tustin.

For Ryan Winter at Drift Distillery, the first taste from a barrel is especially rewarding. Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

RYAN: Drift Distillery is a family farm-to-bottle operation. We get 99 percent of everything from my parents’ farm in Kansas—grain planted and harvested by our parents. Not many distilleries can say that. We bring supersacks of wheat in on an 18-wheeler. We mill, mash, ferment, distill, and bottle handmade small-batch spirits right here. We distill our rum from sugar cane instead of molasses.

JOSH: Surf City might be the county’s smallest. That allows us to experiment and to be nimble. A small team, doing what we love, and small batches. The vodka is 100 percent organic corn. It took four months to get the botanicals on the gin right, lots of trial and error, but people love it. Most gin is characterized by evergreen, pine needles, or juniper. We play that down and punch up the lemon, orange, and cardamom. We use a lot of citrus—it’s very California and Orange County.

How has working together affected your relationship?

ROBIN: The first year, we were almost destroyed. It was so hard; the stress was so high. But year two, we couldn’t have survived without each other. It brought us so much closer.

BRIAN: I said to my wife, “I think I want to be a craft distiller.” I thought she would say I was out of my mind—but she was intrigued, too. Now that we’ve done it, she probably would say I am out of my mind!

ELENA: What’s funny is that we’ve been married 10 years, and we’ve always worked together—so it’s not any different. Obviously, there are struggles, but I think we’ve got it down! A lot of friends say they couldn’t see themselves working with their husbands. That’s an odd thing for me to hear—I think it’s pretty awesome.

LESLI: Honestly, we have worked together for so many years. We are just one of those couples; it’s something we’ve always been able to do since the beginning, 22 years ago.

What’s next for you?

ROBIN: We are moving into the China and Japan markets and a few more states. It’s all starting to come to fruition.

BRIAN: We’ve already designed a second still!

RYAN: When we applied, there were 40 of us in the state. Now, it’s double that in the state, and I think there’s still plenty of room for craft distillers.

LESLI: I hope that we are able to open our kitchen here in the next few months, get national distribution, and eventually global distribution.

ELENA: This year is going to be a big year. We’re coming out with canned cocktails—launching with four flavors—that should be a game changer for us. We recently got picked up by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the biggest distributor in the country. Our hopes and dreams are actually happening.

What’s your favorite part of the process?

LESLI: Our customers—meeting all the amazing people who come through the door. Everybody is so different! Also, I come up with most of the cocktails we serve, and Ryan and I want to put out the best product. Having people come up and say, “That’s the best vodka I’ve ever had,” or “I love that cocktail”—that feels pretty darn good.

RYAN: Using the whiskey thief, pulling a little out of the barrel and tasting. That is the most rewarding. Not really knowing 100 percent what it’s going to do, tasting it for the first time, and being super stoked—thinking, “This is so good, thank God!”

JOSH: The part at the start of the distillation called stabilizing the reflux column is a challenge but also enjoyable; you are operating the still, you are driving it. It has to be done live. Everything needs to be fine-tuned according to a number of variables, the environmental conditions at that moment.

BRIAN: My favorite thing is sitting there with only Robin, looking through the large windows onto the still. We look at each other and say, “What have we created? This is beautiful! And insane.”

Signature Cocktails

Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

Blinking Owl
Aquavit and Tonic

 

Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

Drift Distillery
Leaving Early Shirley: vodka, agave, lime juice, muddled cucumber, and mint

 

Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

Surf City Still Works
Tiffany Twisted: gin, lemon juice, and violets

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