Owners Jason Herrick and Brian Brunello with a bottle of Casa Dragones tequila
Carolina Starin

An invitation I cherish every winter is to gather family style with French friends over a warm caquelon of melted gruyère and raclette. However, to avoid cheese-induced indigestion, lore suggests kirschwasser (and a few white wines) should be the only drink consumed with fondue. Four frustrating attempts to find the German cherry brandy finally brought me to The Liquor & Wine Grotto in Montecito.

“People come to us when they are looking for something they can’t find,” said Brian Brunello of the dedicated shop on Coast Village Road that he co-owns with fellow enthusiast Jason Herrick. “We are the anti-mainstream box store.” The shop, which was opened in 1976 and taken over by this pair in 2009, was also spared the worst of the slide, with just some minor mud intrusion and landscaping damage.

Wine is in Brunello’s blood (not to mention his name!). He started making it with his father around the age of 8 and is now a certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers. He admits that wine is a moving target that requires a lot of tasting but explains that with the cocktails craze, liquor offerings are now also tremendously complex.

“You’re now seeing the early innings with the micro distillers,” Brunello said, while explaining that an interest in mixology is driving new labels. He mentions Ian Cutler’s apple pie liqueur, made in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, as a perfect example of the trend. “The possibilities with mixed drinks are mind-boggling.”

American whiskey has also seen an impressive resurgence. A worldwide bourbon boom has increased the quality and quantity of Kentucky spirits labels. “You’re getting the best of the best now,” he said of his bottle of cult-followed Pappy Van Winkle, which he calls “the unicorn of all bourbons.”

The Grotto has many special and unique allocations, and carries a wide category of storied European amari like the classic Italian Fernet-Branca, award-winning Japanese whiskys, vermouths, liqueurs, and rare tequilas.

“If I were going to give a most improved alcohol award, it would go to tequila,” explained Brunello of the blue Weber agave spirit often associated with bad experiences. “You can now use sipping and tequila in the same sentence.” He mentions that his bottle of Casa Dragones has made the official list of Oprah’s favorite things.

“We try more than anything to provide a real value to customers,” he said about the Grotto’s reputation for knowledge and recommendations. “Forget about the score and the hype and all of that.”

So if you, too, are looking for the hard to find, or the next big, or bitter, thing, then Brunello and Herrick are sure to give you their best shot.

1271 Coast Village Rd., 969-5939; montecitovino.com


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