Kirsten Vangsness loves Orange County. You can hear it in her voice when she talks about the small but prestigious region just south of Los Angeles. Famous for its beautiful weather, pristine beaches and being the home of the first ever Disney park, Orange County is close enough to Hollywood to have some cachet, yet far enough away to have its own identity. One of the county’s oldest cities, Santa Ana, is home to a unique distillery called the Blinking Owl—a business that Kirsten also clearly loves.
We sat down with Kirsten—known to Criminal Minds fans as FBI technical analyst Penelope Garcia—to talk about her work with the Blinking Owl. We learned during our chat that she’s a passionate spirits connoisseur and an astute cocktailian.
Cigar & Spirits Magazine: Was becoming involved with a brand something you’ve always been interested in?
Kirsten Vangsness: Yes. Pre-Criminal Minds, so pre-fancy-day-job…What I love about this is that it’s a distinctly female story. I had to go see a pelvic floor physical therapist. In walks this woman with pink hair. She was the physical therapist in the sports medicine office. My therapist and I got on like gangbusters. We start talking, and we become friends by the end of this meeting. Which is really strange because I don’t usually become friends with medical professionals that are working on me. I don’t think she was like that either. At the end, she said, “You’ve got to come back a couple of times a month for a bit.” I said, “I can’t, I don’t have any health insurance. I shouldn’t be here now.” I told her I was a starving artist.
I had written a play and was doing this little theater in Santa Ana. She said, “Give me tickets to the play, and come back next week.” I gave her tickets to the play, and she treats me for probably six to eight months or something. When she and her husband come to the play I have written, and see I’m doing this tiny theater, charging $10 a ticket, and that’s how I’m making my money, she points across the street and she says, “We live right there.” That was Robin and Brian [Christenson], and we became very good friends.
Then I get a fancy day job on Criminal Minds. Seven or eight years ago, Robin says, “Brian wants to open a distillery.” By this time her medical thing has blossomed, and she’s got offices and all this. They helped me by putting some money into a movie I made that Joe Mantegna was actually in called Kill Me Deadly. I thought, “How could I say no to them. It was like a no-brainer. I said yes.”
Robin goes, “No, no, you don’t understand. We’re asking you for money.” I said “I know.” Robin says “No, Kirsten, it’s a lot of money, and you might not get it back.” I said, “Yes, I get it.” They gave money to do my independent film—talk about not getting money back! I said, “Absolutely, sign me up.” We thought we were going to have to get a bunch of other investors right then, but probably two days after that, the biggest hospital in Orange County ended up buying Robin’s practice. We actually were able to start Blinking Owl with just the three of us.
What I love about Blinking Owl is we’re grain to glass. We know where that grain comes from. We are very invested in the Tehachapi Grain Project, and have been very involved in making sure the farmer experience is good.
I love the female aspect of this because there are more women coming to the spirits industry, and the sourcing of it as well. Sometimes people jump on a trend, but it seems your team is really forthright about it.
Oh, yes. Robin and Brian did exhaustive research. It was fun research. Who doesn’t want to go to Norway and try all the Aquavit? Things bled into other things. Brian was working as a graphic designer, so our graphic design is all Brian. Our bottles are designed for a female hand because Robin was a physical therapist, and she designed those bottles herself. I do think that being in Santa Ana gives us some of the best water in the country because there is an underground aquifer here. This is the perfect climate to make bourbon because it gets cool at night and gets hot during the summer days.
Has your palate changed while working with Robin and Brian?
I don’t know if that’s true. I’m half Italian and half Norwegian, so my palate is just excellent from jump. I can’t help it. That doesn’t mean that I like fancy things though. That just means that I know something is good when it’s good. I think because we are good friends, we have a spirit of transparency, kindness and friendliness that I think bleeds through to the product line and when you come into the actual distillery. We’re very passionate about educating people. It’s like an adult Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We do tours. We explain how everything happens. It’s pretty exciting.
Consumers can tell when a celebrity is paid to be the face of a franchise kind-of-a-thing. It’s also evident when it’s actually coursing through the brand’s veins a little bit.
I think it’s a great community-building thing. When the pandemic was happening, we were one of the first distilleries to just make hand sanitizer, and we gave it away for free to any nonprofit, any place that worked with kids, any place that worked with the elderly. We gave away truckloads of it. We sent a palette of it to reservations, not just in California. We could do that because we have this giant still, and we’re passionate about what we can do with it. I just love the whole thing.
I remember receiving a Blinking Owl press release about the hand sanitizer. You guys were right there at the start.
Robin and I bought all the chemicals before everyone was buying them. It was right before shutdown, and we were talking about it. Robin said “We don’t really have the money right now.” I said, “I have the money. I just finished Criminal Minds. Let’s just buy the chemicals because people need hand sanitizer. Let’s just do it.” Then the day we did that, the day we made that decision, Orange County called and said they would get us an FDA thing right now because they wanted it for hospitals and places like that.
Nice how it came together. On another note, you have a variety of expressions. Walk us through a little bit.
I am your girl for this. We’re going to start with our gin. It’s a California Gin. It’s got a little bit of sage in the mash. It’s not super juniper. For gin lovers, it is lovely, elegant. Then we move into our vodka. It’s a neutral grain, but a little bit of malted barley in it. It’s a really good vodka.
Then there’s our OC Orange. None of us were fans of flavored vodka, but felt like, “We should have one that’s Orange County.” We take 150 pounds of oranges, the whole orange, the peel, the pith, the whole thing and slice it all up. We soak it in the vodka. Then we pull it all through the still. I don’t know if it’s because they’re Orange County oranges, but it feels like an orange took you to Sonoma, Calif., in that part where you’re going through the orange groves. It’s like the whole orange just lives there, and it is a lovely thing to have on just a rock.
Then there’s our Aquavit, which we went to Berlin for a spirits thing there.
The Berlin International Spirits Competition?
Yes, it was. They have a whole section of just American brands, and we got invited, in 2019. A bunch of Norwegian people kept coming by and stealing tastes of our Aquavit. One of the guys came by and finally said to me, “We’re not telling anyone we’re doing this because you’re not supposed to make Aquavit this good.” It’s a nod to Brian’s Scandinavian roots, my Norwegian roots. I didn’t even know what it was before Brian and Robin shared it with me, but it was something that we could sink our teeth into and say we love, but also be distinctly a little strange and cool. That’s our Aquavit. It’s taken off the still at a different temperature than the vodka. It’s got a bunch of botanicals in it, and cardamom, caraway and dill. We put hibiscus in ours, which is the official flower of Santa Ana. We also put lemon peel. It’s an adventure in your mouth. We use fennel, not anise, so it’s not super licorice. It makes an amazing French 75. It makes a really fantastic Bloody Mary, and it’s a great digestive just to keep in the freezer.
How about your bourbon and our rye?
Our bourbon is a wheated bourbon. We realized that was just what we used to put more rye in it. Then we realized people were more attracted to just the wheated one. We’ve won a ton of awards on it. It’s super-smooth. I think the minimum of how long it’s aged is two years, but we’ve got longer now. Then we have a rye. Both of those are equally delicious, although I think I’m partial to the bourbon.
Pick one that you prefer neat, one that you like with a couple of rocks and one that just makes an awesome cocktail.
Oh gosh. Okay. Neat would be our bourbon, on the rocks would be our OC Orange or Aquavit. I think it’s a tie depending upon my mood. Cocktail…
You mentioned that French 75.
I’m a French 75 with Aquavit girl. Now I’m thinking about it, I do a lot of that.
I’d like to try that ginger beer. It sounds really unique.
Oh, it’s lovely. Some ginger beer, some OC Orange and some fresh mint you can slap in there. That is a delight.
Women have been coming to the cigar and spirits world in droves recently. Can you appreciate a good pairing–a cigar and a spirit–or is that not on your radar?
Truth be told, the only time I ever smoked a cigar is twice, and it was both times with Joe Mantegna.
Joe is a friend of our magazine. I know he’s passionate about Arturo Fuente cigars.
Yes. He had to talk me through it. I had no idea what was going on. I do find it very exciting to have more female representation of these things. What we gravitate toward, and I don’t even mean we gravitate more feminine things or not, or anything like that, I just think that the internal feminine in us gravitates towards the aesthetic, gravitates towards the beautiful, gravitates towards the balanced. That’s feminine energy, whether it’s in me or in anyone.
I think that’s something we bring into the world. I think it’s a great, cool honor to be part of that group of people.
Are there similarities between collaborating on an entertainment project and a project like the Blinking Owl?
I love making things. I am a maker of things. The fact that I get paid to be on a television show and do that, it’s very exciting. A lot of times because I have something creative that I want to say, I end up doing things like making an animated film, directing the whole thing, or writing a play and taking it to Scotland myself. I tend to do those sorts of things because there is a part of me that loves to work. I love the work. For me, with the Blinking Owl, I get to participate.
What I love about it is much like art; it should be for everybody. The Blinking Owl is for everybody. Where the Blinking Owl is, we see all walks of life, all ages. Yes, we’ve got the Instagram-worthy cocktails, and people come and they do that, but we also have teachers who are getting off work, and we’ve got guys who work at the garbage place next to it. All different kinds of people, all congregating in one place. Everybody gets to experience that. It’s not just exclusivity. That’s where I feel like it’s the same as entertainment because that is what is important to me about both.
It’s the amalgamation of all these different things that makes the experience for the consumer…
It’s community building.
What’s on the horizon regarding entertainment projects, writing projects, anything like that that we should know about?
I made a short film that I finished in 2020, but the pandemic happened, called Curtains. I think I might get back on this show called Criminal Minds if they end up doing it, but who knows?
Audrey Pavia has authored twenty-three non-fiction books. She is an award-winning writer and editor living in Southern California. Audrey is a frequent contributor to Cigar & Spirits Magazine.