Blinking Owl? Never heard of it? Well lets change that.
The American Whiskey Masters is an annual blind tasting conducted by prominent spirits writers in the UK. What would folks in the British Isles have to say about American whiskey? Well, for one—England, specifically, is one of the top export markets for bourbon and rye. In fact, it was the top, until it lost that title in 2019 to Japan, in the wake of an ongoing tariff battle. Further, the judges sampling through this spirit do it for a living and are among the most noted professional sippers in the industry. Last week they published their results.
When looking at that list, some very predictable producers emerge. Namely: the allocated bourbons and ryes of Buffalo Trace. The Frankfort, Kentucky-based distillery is responsible for some of the most sought after American spirits on the market today—including the notorious Pappy Van Winkle range. Surprise, surprise, their Eagle Rare 10 Year Old and EH Taylor Small Batch bourbons were awarded top distinction. The EH Taylor rye performed equally as well in the ultra premium category.
Out of a full 34 total medals, nearly a full 50% went to labels produced at Buffalo Trace. And if this were the end of this article it probably wouldn’t be at all newsworthy to anyone who drinks American whiskey.
But in fact, the real story here is another distillery that cropped up multiple times on the winners list. It’s one that many stateside drinkers of bourbon and rye might have never even heard of, let alone sampled: Blinking Owl, out of Orange County, California.
The producer took home a silver for best bourbon aged up to 7 years. And its rye was awarded gold, out of all ryes up to 7 years in age. As if the underdog victory wasn’t impressive enough on its own—the distillery only started laying down its whiskey in February of 2018. In fact, it represents the first ever American whiskies ever distilled in this part of Southern California.
Utilizing all organic grain sourced from within the state—including award-winning barley from Admiral Maltings—these whiskies drink way more mature than their age statement would suggest. The bourbon swells with vanilla and caramel, joined by delicate swirls of cinnamon in the finish. It’s also a ‘wheater’, a whiskey which includes wheat in the mash bill. Many of the most coveted of those aforementioned Buffalo Trace labels also rely on the grain to impart soft, sweet tonalities. But unlike its Kentucky counterparts, you can easily score this one for under $60 a bottle.
The distillers at Blinking Owl attribute a lot of their success to the quality of the water in their hometown of Santa Ana. In 2018 the community won its own award: gold medal for best tasting municipal water in the United States at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. Maybe there is something in the water. Yes, it plays an oft-overlooked role in the end quality of a whiskey. But to build this level of liquid—and attain this level of recognition—in less than 3 years? Something special is happening here. And it’s only going to get better with age.