When a cocktail recipe calls for a bizarre flavor of bitters, an esoteric kind of Portuguese brandy or a brand of tequila unavailable outside Mexico, there is only one thing to do: head to Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa and ask for Forrest Cokely.
Cokely describes himself as a “liquor specialist,” which understates the vast amount of information he has at his disposal. While he has 130 cocktail books fighting with an extensive bottle collection for space in his apartment, he doesn't need to refer to them very often; the man is a walking encyclopedia of liquor and incredibly generous with his knowledge. He's on the board of the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet and conducts liquor tastings inside the store and out.
Rum from Mauritius, unknown wild agave spirits from Mexico, Tasmanian whiskey—Cokely can tell you what it tastes like, what it'll taste good with and whether it's worth the price. There's not a bottle in there he can't handicap.
“Here, try this,” he says to someone about to buy a tequila mixto. “It's about the same price and twice as good.” He hands the person a bottle of La Puerta Negra reposado tequila. While that bottle isn't going to set any hipster cocktail blogs on fire, Cokely is adamant its appearance and lack of popularity don't matter. “If it's good, it's good.” He turns away to explain to a thirtysomething man the difference between a real margarita (tequila, lime juice and triple sec only) and the tequila sour most people call a margarita; he does it kindly, with recommendations for the triple sec, and the man promises to try it “the Forrest Cokely way”—which is to say the correct way.
The information he carries in his head accumulated when he was a musician, traveling and playing in different bars. Every chance he got, every unusual bottle he saw, he'd ask for a taste. His memory somehow manages to keep up with the overload of facts he absorbs. “I am obsessed with information,” Cokely admits. His love for liquor and a connection in the store got him started at Hi-Time, the place every liquor-lover dreams of working and the hardest job interview to obtain in Orange County. He kept tasting and storing those notes in his head, and eventually, he gravitated into the position he's in now, though he admits he does a bit of everything, including janitorial work.
As Hi-Time's liquor selection grows—the owners are remodeling the area to make more room for their alcoholic juggernaut to expand—Cokely's help will be needed more than ever; without it, the aisles will clog with dozens of people struck mute by a thousand kinds each of vodka, tequila and whiskey.
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• “I'm a vegetarian,” says Cokely, “and there are only a few places with truly amazing vegetarian menus.” One of those places is The Golden Truffle, the old standby on busy Newport Avenue. On a visit earlier this year, he ordered the five-course vegetarian tasting menu. “Three of those plates are the best dishes I've ever eaten,” he says, then consults his brain and rattles off a squash blossom tamal, a cold spring-pea soup, and vegetable carpaccio with Russian rye and homemade pickles. 1767 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-9858; goldentruffle.com.
• Even someone with bartending skills, a huge liquor selection at his disposal and an imagination sometimes wants to go sit on the client side of a bar. While Cokely loves the food at Broadway By Amar Santana, “[Bar manager] Gabrielle Dion is infatuated with amari, like I am,” he says. “Cocktails, location, food and atmosphere, and I don't have to make it myself.” 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8234; broadwaybyamarsantana.com.
• Eva's Caribbean Kitchen is a favorite of just about every South County chef, and Eva Madray has captured Cokely's heart, too. “The rum selection is awesome,” he says, “but I love the food. It's spicy, layered, just out of this world. The service is just like walking into a well-loved cousin's house.” 31732 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-6311; evascaribbeankitchen.com.
• Farmers' markets don't fit well into Cokely's busy schedule, so he buys his fresh produce up the street from Hi-Time at Growers Ranch Market. “The hours are weird,” he says, “but at least it's not all on one day. The produce is farm-fresh, and the people are friendly.” 2016 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-6025; growersranch.com.
• “I live halfway between Seal Beach and Laguna Beach, and I love the focaccias at 320 Main,” Cokely says with a chuckle. Of course, those have to be washed down with a cocktail or two. “The cocktails are a different style at 320 Main than at Broadway; Jason Schiffer is a master of citrus and freshness and is elevating social awareness one cocktail at a time.” 320 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-6246; 320mainsealbeach.com.
• Cokely has never set foot in the Newport Theatre Arts Center, but he professes his love for the parkland surrounding it. “So many meals there, so much sitting and chatting, such an amazing view,” says Cokely. “Some of the best dates I've ever had were there with my love.” 2501 Cliff Dr., Newport Beach.