Article and photos By Mary-Justine Lanyon
As a national brand ambassador for a couple of spirits companies, Nathan Hazard considered himself an educator.
“I would educate consumers at tasting events, staffs at restaurants,” Hazard said. He would give them the history of rum, tell them about the different types. “I was passionate about it,” he said. “I loved the job.”
Hazard continues that education at his retail shop, Littlebear Bottleshop in Skyforest. “This is kind of the same thing – I spend most days educating people about what I have on my shelves.”
What Hazard offers on his shelves is a diverse variety of spirits, beer and wine. “What you’ll find here is not the obvious choice, what you see everywhere,” Hazard said. “My goal was to bring diversity to the mountain. Give people a world-class experience in an unexpected place.”
Hazard moved to Crestline in March 2020, just before the lockdown took hold. He had spent the previous 15 years in Los Angeles, working first in the music industry and then shifting gears to the beverage industry. He consulted on bars, opening some in Central America and Italy.
“I traveled constantly,” Hazard said. But all that stopped with the pandemic, causing Hazard to shift gears again.
“I had already invested in the mountain community by purchasing property,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why not do something cool here?’”
As the pandemic extended, Hazard lost his job in the beverage industry. “The second I got laid off,” he said, “I gave Chip (Anzalone, the owner of the Skyforest building) a deposit check. I felt like I was crazy but I loved the space and thought I should grab it.”
Hazard spent the next few months fine tuning his concept and getting ready to open, which happened in June 2021.
The mountain communities appealed to Hazard because he had grown up in Arizona, where he spent time with his grandfather at his mountain cabin. “It was not unlike these mountain communities so I had a soft spot for here,” he said. “It reminded me of great memories.”
Hazard said a lot of folks come in looking for advice on which spirits to buy or they may be looking for something they’re not seeing. “Once I have knowledge of what their taste is, I can expand their horizons. More often than not, they come back and ask what I recommend next. I love that process,” he said.
The fun part of the shop for Hazard has been the beer and wine. “It’s a new frontier for me,” he said. “I’m a lover of wine but I never had to work in a professional space with it. Putting together this shop was a new challenge I took on with excitement. I have really enjoyed exploring and learning.”
He leans toward stocking wines from small producers with old-world natural practices who produce sustainably made wines. “It’s a space that’s growing globally,” Hazard said. “It falls in line with my moral guide when it comes to spirits. I am enjoying learning alongside my customers. Discovering new vintners has been so much fun.”
As we talked, Hazard went and got a bottle of wine produced by Hermann York – two brothers and a friend in Redlands. They are using, Hazard said, old vines from the Inland Empire. “They are diving deep into the history of the Inland Empire. It shows a lot about where we are today in the wine world and geographically as a winemaking region.”
Hazard noted a big focus of his is high elevation wine “because we’re in the mountains. I think wine made at elevation will taste better at elevation. Just as our bodies are affected by altitude, our palates could be, too. If a wine tastes great in the Alps when it’s cold, it will taste better at a similar altitude on a cold day.”
In fact, before Littlebear Bottleshop opened, a friend of Hazard’s from the beverage industry came to visit on a snowy day. “I had just gotten the keys,” Hazard said. “He tasted an Italian liqueur and said it tasted different up here. In Los Angeles, he tasted chocolate and dried fruit. Here he tasted herbs and pine needles. It’s interesting his palate pulled out different things.”
Take a look in the beer fridge and customers will see that Hazard is focusing on local beers. “There are amazing beer makers in Southern California.”
He describes the craft beer market as being like a rotating door. “My beer fridge will look different every week,” he said. He does have a house beer – Little Bear Brown Rice Lager that, he said, works in all seasons. “It drinks like a Japanese lager – it has a crisp character and is clean and refreshing.” The whimsical bear on the can was designed by a customer, he noted.
“What convinced me I could do the shop was Lake Arrowhead Brewing. Seeing them open during the pandemic and do so well gave me hope,” Hazard said.
The shop itself is a treat for the customers’ eyes, with bottles of different shapes, sizes and colors and labels that make the space resemble an art gallery. Listening to Hazard describe a variety of vodkas to a customer is like listening to poetry – he brings each bottle of spirits to life.
“I wanted a space that felt cozy,” he said. “It needed to be somewhere I wanted to be. I wanted it to fit the environment.”
Hazard feels he has been embraced by the local community because “it felt in tune.” He has included some old signs from Santa’s Village in the shop as well as old postcards.
In addition to the spirits, beer and wine, Littlebear Bottleshop also offers a wide variety of snacks, garnishes, mixers, syrups and items to make up a charcuterie board or picnic basket – salamis, cheese spreads, mustards, anchovy-stuffed olives, sardines, smoked salmon, even duck pate. Need a gift basket? Just give Hazard a call and he’ll make one up.
Pointing to a display of premade cocktails, Hazard said they are perfect for folks who are camping.
Littlebear Bottleshop offers both a wine club and a whiskey club. For the wines, Hazard chooses seasonally available wines for members either monthly or quarterly. The wines, he said, are from producers he loves and wants to share. He includes a page of notes on the wines and a playlist to enjoy while savoring the wine. The whiskeys are unique – “You will only get them here,” he said.
For more information on Littlebear Bottleshop, located at 28578 Highway 18 in Skyforest, visit www.littlebearbottleshop.com. They are open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.