Meet Your Mixologist: Karen Grill of Bestia

By Kirk Pynchon

When it comes to all things cocktails, Karen Grill of the downtown Italian eatery Bestia is just one big ball of enthusiasm. We had the pleasure of meeting her last December at The Sporting Life and were amazed at how much she loves the life of a professional tippler. We caught up with Grill recently and discussed her respect for the L.A. bar community, her new appreciation of Italian spirits and how being a bartender is a great work out for the biceps.

Obvious question first: How did you get your start in the cocktail biz?
Karen Grill: I started learning about booze in Boston, while working at the Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square. Our bar director, Aaron Butler took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew. From there, I moved out to L.A. and started working with Julian Cox and was a part of the opening team at Playa.

So, what is it that you love about bartending?
What do you not love? I love the social aspect of it. I gave up on my 9-5 life because I couldn’t sit and stare at a computer all day. I could talk to strangers for hours. The downside is the physical toll it takes on us. I’ve got bigger biceps now, but a lot more aches in my shoulders these days.

What is the vibe you’re going for at Bestia?
We’re tucked away in a really industrial and gritty area of DTLA, but once you come up to the bar, you’ll find it warm and inviting. That’s how we like it.

Bestia is quickly becoming the hot spot for Italian cuisine. Is there a great spirit that can be paired with Italian food?
Amari are the obvious choice! After working at Sotto and now Bestia, I’ve gotten really great at choosing an amaro for any flavor.

How about any future plans for the cocktail menu at Bestia?

The spring is going to bring more fresh produce for infusions and house made sodas.

Be honest. What do you think is being overdone in cocktails these days?

$20 cocktails.

Nice. Any golden rules of bartending?
Our job is hospitality. Be gracious and hospitable.

What cocktail are you most proud to call your own?
The first cocktail I ever put on a menu here in L.A .was called The Boston Proper and was a little tribute to my favorite city. It was Irish Whiskey, Gin, Averna, Mole Bitters and lemon juice, garnished with a Lillet compressed grapefruit slice.

You talked about how you love being social. How do you see the L.A. cocktail community?
L.A. has one of the closest bar communities I’ve ever seen. The city is so spread out and bars are popping up all over the place, but L.A. bartenders are always the first to support each new bar that opens up and I think that’s fantastic. There is always someone guest bartending at another bar, bringing their skills to another part of town. There’s no competition between us, unless of course, we’re participating in a cocktail competition, but even then, I think the bartenders in this city are the tightest group of professionals than anywhere in the world.

Speaking of this tight group, where else do you like to go and imbibe and which of your fellow bartenders are just killing it?

You can usually find me at my local spot, The Pikey in Hollywood, or the Spare Room getting a drink from two of the most badass lady tenders in the city, Anne-Marie Ceralvo and Naomi Schimek. [Also] checking out the R&D bar at Harvard & Stone and grabbing a cocktail from Nathan Oliver, Sassafras, Coles and Mess Hall.

Answer these next questions without thinking. Go-to spirit?
Whiskey. Always whiskey.

Favorite old school cocktail?
Vieux Carre. Rye, Cognac, Sweet Vermouth, Benedictine, Angostura, Peychaud Bitters.

Favorite song about booze?
I’ve always loved the song “Champagne and Reefer” by Muddy Waters.

Finish this sentence: Creating cocktails to me is…
…a dream job.

Bestia, 2121 7th Place, Los Angeles CA, 90021

Image by Tatsu Oiye