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Blinking Owl Distillery Adds Drugmaker Status to Biz

That which does not kill us …

The full sentiment of Friedrich Nietzsche’s oft-used quote could very well be the running tag line for Santa Ana’s Blinking Owl Distillery.

Its tasting room was temporarily shut down in November. The business survived the 25-day closure, bouncing back to recently file an application for a kitchen originally slated to open in April.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, shutting down all businesses outside of grocery stores, pharmacies and others dubbed essential.

Owners Brian and Robin Christenson scrambled and are switching gears again, this time to make hand sanitizer.

FDA Approved, County Biz

It’s an interesting pivot, but makes sense with the crossover in equipment and some key ingredients shared between distillers and hand sanitizer manufacturers, starting with high-proof alcohol.

When the Christensons first began seeing the headlines a few weeks ago of the shortage on Purell hand sanitizer, it dawned on Robin Christenson they were capable of making that in their facility.

Two weeks ago, they began looking into the regulations and are now classified as a drug manufacturer with FDA approval. Hand sanitizer is classified as an over-the-counter drug.

“We were debating if we wanted to go in that direction and then, as the crisis got worse, we decided to go all in,” Robin said.

“People started reaching out to us left and right. The county wants us to make it for them. Hospitals need it. There are large corporations who want to make sure all their employees are taken care of. Agriculture workers have reached out. There’s a tremendous need.”

The company, she said, has moved so quickly they’re still figuring out pricing and logistics.

They’ve already got a 7,000-unit order from the county.

“When the news broke out that distilleries were considering using high-proof alcohol to produce hand sanitizer, which is in short supply these days, I reached out to our local distillery, The Blinking Owl, to see how the county could help guide them and connect them with the FDA and Alcohol Beverage Control offices,” Vice Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and First District Representative Andrew Do said.

“I support and applaud The Blinking Owl in their endeavor to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizers for our communities.”

Survival Skills

Christenson said she sees the company making hand sanitizer on-site for at least the next six months.

“It’s so insane. There’s no way for us to meet even local demand,” she said. “We ordered thousands of pounds of grain just to get through the next four weeks” and are bringing on more distillers.

The events of the past few weeks prompted so many decisions in such a short time. Blinking Owl had to furlough its staff, save for a head distiller. However, some of the crew could be brought back on for bottling or packaging of the sanitizer if possible, she said.

“We were already on a skeleton staff because we’d just come through the [tasting room] shut down,” Christenson said. “We were closed 25 days in [November and] December, so this is our second crisis and, fortunately, we’re versed in that mode anyway of survival.”

Cash Hoarding

The California Department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control last year alleged Blinking Owl served too much alcohol to an undercover agent, a point of contention the company strongly disagreed on with the two parties differing on their interpretation of the law.

The tasting room represented 90% of the company’s income; the wholesale side of the business, manufacturing and selling bottles to restaurants and bars, made up the rest. Bottle sales have now essentially come to a halt with restaurants and bars only offering takeout and delivery where possible. Christenson said the company has enough bottle stock on hand should anyone place an order or reorder. The company prior to the pandemic counted about 400 wholesale accounts in California and had begun receiving orders from Singapore, U.K. and South Africa that have since been canceled.

Managing cash to keep the business afloat during the temporary shut down was a hard lesson Christenson learned, and it’s applicable in the current operating environment. She said she kept any cash she could for payroll, health insurance and to keep the lights on.

Some bills, she said, went temporarily unpaid during that time.

“I’ll be forthright with it, I’m still behind on rent,” she said. “We sold things. I sold my wedding ring to pay for employees’ wages. We sold a car to pay for employees’ wages. My parents helped us. I didn’t really talk about that before because I was ashamed, and I was really depressed about it and I didn’t want to feel like a loser; I wanted to keep our business afloat and not close. Businesses are going to have to make sacrifices if they want to bring their companies back. Investors need to make sacrifices. They definitely need to have strategies in place for the next six weeks of cash.”

Real Life Events

Christenson’s speechless as she thinks about the course of events for Blinking Owl in less than six months time.

“You can’t even—no writer could write this story. You can’t make it up,” she said. “It’s just so crazy the path everybody’s going to be on. This is at least giving us an opportunity to actually be able to support the community.

“It’s really nice to be needed. It’s a good feeling.”

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