Lovers of fine spirits from around the world will get a taste of Central Coast creativity next month in New Orleans in the form of a simple, fresh jasmine-infused whiskey highball.
“Like food, you can create amazing cocktails anywhere there is amazing product to be had and creative people to do it,” Robin Wolf, who created the drink’s recipe, said Tuesday afternoon as customers began to stream in at The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar in Paso Robles.
Wolf has been a familiar face in San Luis Obispo County’s bustling hospitality industry for some time, having worked at several high-profile establishments and founded a locally produced small-batch organic bitters company. She currently oversees the bar program as “cocktail czar” of The Hatch.
Though she comes up with new concoctions almost weekly, this month, one of Wolf’s most recent creations — her take on the classic whiskey based highball she named “Night Gardens” — was awarded “Official Cocktail” in one of the global food and beverage industry’s largest annual gatherings.
The annual event, Tales of the Cocktail, is hosted by the nonprofit Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, which hosts the annual conference and festival in New Orleans.
Spokeswoman Gia Vecchio said the organization expects the event will draw roughly 30,000 attendees this year over its six days of more than 300 workshops, tastings and special events.
The conference will commence with a ceremonial toast featuring Night Gardens.
Cultivating the unique
A native of the Central Coast and Arroyo Grande High School grad, Wolf moved to Manhattan to pursue acting, which also means she did her share of bartending and waiting tables. After a decade, she said, it was time to move back home, taking her big city experience in the food and beverage industry with her.
“I’ve definitely found that a lot of the creative outlet and joy that I got from being on stage, I get behind the bar,” Wolf said. “Because a good bartender will do more than fix you a drink, they’ll create an experience.”
After re-establishing herself in the local industry, Wolf said she had difficulty finding the flavors she wanted in bitters — alcoholic spirits infused with botanical ingredients that are essential in traditional cocktails — so she began making her own.
A little publicity, a few local partners, and a Kickstarter campaign later, SLO Bitter Co. was born. Today, Wolf’s locally produced bitters are used in restaurants and bars across the county.
“I like to stay as local-centric as possible, which is incredibly easy here on the Central Coast,” she said. “I’m a big champion of the return to regionality of cocktails, as well as food.”
After meeting owners Maggie Cameron and Eric Connolly, Wolf took over the bar program at The Hatch, which she called a perfect fit.
Since then, she’s continued to hone her craft through competitions and educational opportunities such as Tales of the Cocktail, which she’s attended three times.
When she heard about the cocktail competition, Wolf said she had already been toying with an idea for a highball thanks to The Hatch’s grand selection of Asian whiskeys.
This year’s competition solicited an original highball recipe, with the theme of “Cultivate.”
“The cool and challenging thing with the highball is it’s a very simple drink, so everything you do has to be purposeful to make it unique,” Wolf said. “Eric and Maggie had some awesome jasmine in their garden, and that got me thinking about doing a jasmine tea syrup. The rest is just history.”
‘Always a friendly rivalry’
Vecchio, spokeswoman for Tales of the Cocktail, said Wolf beat out 129 individual drink submissions this year.
As winner of the Official Cocktail competition, Wolf wins a $1,000 cash prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans to attend all six days of the conference.
Along with other special seminars and events, Wolf will take the stage for a charity event with several Tales of the Cocktail lifetime achievement award winners.
“It’s going to be very daunting, but I’ll be on stage with them making cocktails,” she said. “It’s pretty rad.”
Wolf said she wanted to thank Cameron and Connolly for their support (and garden-fresh jasmine), as well as her husband, local bartender and restaurateur Matt Hanson.
“Also, the cocktail industry on the Central Coast, where there’s always a friendly rivalry, but it’s really to make sure we’re all on the top of our game,” she said. “It’s a family.”
Wolf can be found behind the bar between four to five nights a week at The Hatch, where patrons can also saddle up to the soon-to-be-famous Night Gardens.
Here’s how to make your own Night Gardens at home:
▪ 2 oz. Suntory Toki Whiskey
▪ 1/2 oz. jasmine tea syrup
▪ Mix equal parts cane sugar and hot jasmine tea
▪ Brew the tea strong
▪ 1/2 cup dried jasmine to 4 cups water, steeped for 15 minutes and reheated to melt sugar (turning it into a 1:1 simple syrup)
▪ Pour 2 oz. Suntory Toki Whisky over ice in highball glass
▪ Add jasmine tea syrup and top with Q Club Soda
▪ Gently stir with bar spoon
▪ Express lemon rind over top and around edges of glass
▪ Garnish with lemon