Whistler, situated on the fringe of the British Columbia wilderness, an area rife with black bears, seemed like a fairly unlikely place to find inspired cocktails. However, given the influx of interest generated by the recent Winter Olympics, the wealth of local ingredients and waves of culinary specialists that flock to the resort town, the idea probably makes sense after all. Hailey Pasemko is a Vancouver Island native who got into a seasonal, contemporary groove at Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino and now works as beverage manager of Nita Lake Lodge, where she draws from the rooftop garden and relies on ingenuity to produce unique cocktails, some of which are even available with food pairings. We recently met at the lodge’s lobby bar, Cure, where Pasemko explained her background and demonstrated her approach.
What’s the approach with the menu, and what’s the criteria for something that goes on the menu?
The criteria for something that goes on the menu, mostly should be delicious and creative. Also, try to put lots of homemade ingredients or herbs from the garden, things that are unique to here, and give the guest an experience they’ll never have somewhere else. So we don’t have any classic cocktails on the menu except for the hot toddy. You can’t get away from that in a ski town, but otherwise, everything is designed here. This is all original.
There are some food and cocktail pairings as well, which has been really fun. The Smokey Robinson, for example, the drink is inspired by barbecue sauce. The oranges are roasted, which gives the juice a nice savory flavor. We use brown sugar simple syrup to simulate the molasses portion of barbecue sauce. The chipotle brings out a little smokiness, a little bit of spice. And a bit of lime, a bunch of bourbon – Jack Daniel’s specifically – as that goes in barbecue sauce all the time. The drink is to taste like barbecue sauce and comes with grilled pineapple and cured pork, which has no flavoring to it whatsoever. The idea being that the barbecue flavors come from the cocktail.
Who comes up with the food and cocktail pairings?
Chef and I work together. Sometimes I’ll tell him that I want duck to go with my Oriental Elixir, because the drink has been inspired by duck a l’orange, orange juice, five-spice, yuzu and Asian things. So I’ll say, I want duck. So he’ll make me a little duck dish of some kind. Or sometimes I just give him a drink and say, “I think this would go well with food. And he’ll create something for me.”
This is Owen [Foster] or Tim [Cuff]?
Both of them. Tim’s done most of them. Also, the pastry chef, his name is Nick, but his nickname, for some reason, is Gary. One day he said “I’ve got this great dessert going on our five-course tasting menu. I want you to make a cocktail for it.” So it was sort of the reverse role. It ended up being a great combination with the dessert, so it ended up on the pairing section. And it’s called Hail Gary. So the two of us combined. Unstoppable.
How did this opportunity come about for you?
I used to work at the Wickaninnish Inn. Management from there took over this property. I was already living in Whistler at the time. I was already planning to go back to Vancouver Island. Then they asked if I would stay up here and run their bar. At first I said no, I would like to go back to Vancouver Island. I had such a great experience working with them before that I decided I would give it another go. My direct boss, Ryan Dick, he was the one who asked me to get creative the first time I worked at the Wickaninish. It gives me full freedom and trust to do whatever I want. “Okay, we’ll try that again.” And it’s going very well. Lots of encouragement.
You make your own bitters here as well?
Yeah, Ryan inspired me with a little poking and prodding to start my own bitters program, as well as my own pickles, lots of our own syrups and garnishes. Super, super fun. Lots of our own salts and sugars. Lots of infusions as well.
Oh yeah? Tell me about the bitters and salts and infusions.
We’ll have a tasting. Can I make you a cocktail?
Sure, whatever you think.
We were talking about the chimichurri cocktail before, that’s really fun. And a signature drink has become the Cedar Sour.
Which is a whiskey sour made with lemon thyme simple syrup, and the rye is infused with cedar. So I just stick the wood in the bottle and wait and wait and wait, and it comes out delicious.
That sounds interesting.
Cedar Sour appears on on Pasemko’s Proprietary Cocktails menu and features cedar infused Weiser’s De Luxe rye, fresh lemon, lemon thyme syrup, egg white and twin garnishes: an orange slice and French cherries soaked in brandy and Kirsch.
[Pasemko pours bitters into four shot glasses]
I’ll just pour a bitters flight for you. I’ve got cherry vanilla. We have an oaked bitters, put all kinds of spices in there, as well as dried orange peels and chunks of oak, and it’s a really nice one. This one is a cabernet sauvignon inspired bitters, so taking the classic flavor profile of cabernet sauvignon – cocoa, blueberries, currants, vanilla, mint – these are all classic things that you’ll find in cabernet sauvignon wine. So I just put them all in a jar, wait a little while, voila. This one is chile lime, and it is quite spicy, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend tasting it, but the smell is fantastic.
What inspired your initial interest in cocktails?
I’ve been bartending since I was 19. Initially just to get a better job than the one that I had, and to make a decent amount of money. That kind of inspired me to just start bartending.
Where was your very first bar related job?
It was at a seafood restaurant in Victoria called Nautical Nellies.
I walked by there last night.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?