In this recurring series, your intrepid spirit reporter goes straight to the source—the spirits buyers from your favorite L.A. liquor stores—for the best deals, hidden gems and what bottle is THE one to have.
Who better to stock a liquor store than a craft cocktail bartender? What about one who also happens to help run one of the most acclaimed cocktail programs in the city at Bestia? Yeah, we think our booze choices are safe in their hands. Having worked with restaurant cocktail director Jeremy Simpson on the downtown eatery’s cocktails and spirits inventory beverage director, Nick Krok knows which quality bottles are flying under the radar. And fortunately for cocktail enthusiasts, he now stocks them at his brand-new liquor shop Courage and Craft in downtown’s Grand Central Market.
“There are so many bartenders and folks who appreciate finer spirits, wines and beers but not a lot of places to go to get them [in downtown],” says Krok. “This is a way for me to share my passion with my community and the community of bartenders that surrounds me.”
The 400-square-foot space, created by Gorbals’ designer Ashley Hohmann, currently carries 40 spirits, 25 wines, and 12 different beers/ciders and that’s just for starters. Krok is also designing bar tools as well as his own line of spirits to sell in the store. “I feel that being on all sides of my craft, creating not only the end product (cocktails) but understanding and creating every aspect that goes into making cocktails is the only way I can truly, fully understand and share my craft,” he says.
Here are his picks you can find at Courage and Craft.
Belle Meade sour mash bourbon ($45): “It’s got a high rye content and a 90.4 proof. Maple and citrus aromas with a nice caramel-vanilla palate. The high rye content really balances it all out and you get nice cherry and cinnamon notes on the finish with very little hat considering the proof.”
McKenzie Rye Whiskey ($45): “Thing I love about these guys is they’re the epitome of grain to glass. Local grain, they go through the entire process start to finish and they even end the aging process in sherry barrels from local wineries. It’s spicy and full of character. Use this in any of your favorite Manhattan variations. My favorite is putting it in a Bensonhurst if I want to taste the spice, or a Carroll Gardens if I want to sweeten it up and really taste orange peel and butterscotch undertones.”
Siembra Valles Blanco Tequila ($48): “My agave spirit animal. Get that little play on words there? It’s the lowland tequila from Siembra which has long been known for its incredible highland offerings. This guy is very mineral rich from the volcanic soils of Arenal, Jalisco. More floral and feminine than other tequilas but what it doesn’t have in terms of packing a punch, it makes up for with deep complexity.”
Bang for Your Buck
Oola Vodka ($20 for 1-liter): “Another real grain to glass distillery, these folks are turning out some incredible spirits. The vodka is crystal clear and crisp with just the right amount of character on the finish. My number-one for mixing in cocktails and you just can’t beat $20 for a liter bottle.”
Cimarrón tequila ($25 for 1-liter): “It has got to be the best inexpensive 100 percent agave spirit on the U.S. market. This is why you see it in so many respectable wells behind the bar. It’s got very nice, bright agave flavors that work wonderfully for mixing or enjoying on the rocks. $25 for a liter bottle of respectable 100 percent agave tequila.”
Old Overholt ($22): “It’s in just about every bartender’s well as the rye of choice for mixing. Give me this in a Manhattan or as a shot over rye whiskeys at twice the price any day.”
Perfect Pappy Stand-in
Breckenridge Bourbon ($56): “It’s got more gold medals than Michael Phelps and infamously beat out Pappy 23 year at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. To be honest, I’d recommend all but a couple bourbons on our shelves over Pappy, but Breckenridge has the pedigree to prove it.”
Money No Object
“We don’t carry too many super expensive things but, I would probably go for the Longrow Red 12 Yr Red Pinot Peated Campbeltown Single Malt ($115) finished in fresh Pinot Noir Casks. Perfect night cap for these chilly L.A. winter evenings.”
Next Big Thing
“I think amaro is the next big thing just from what I’m seeing people getting into. Before, the only amaro I sold was Fernet Branca. Now it’s Fernet Jelinek, it’s Cio Ciaro, Meletti. People are starting to catch onto how delicious, diverse and versatile it is as a spirit.
“Fernet Francisco ($46) is proof it’s being done and it’s being done well by American distillers. I think if you asked me five years ago if a good Fernet could be made in the U.S., my response would be no, just stick to the Italian stuff. Obviously, anything is possible, it just doesn’t always seem attainable or that it will be respected because it’s such a deeply rooted tradition in another culture. It feels like we could never make it as good. But we have made it and it is just as good.”