Charity Johnson is beverage director of West Hollywood’s modern Mexican restaurant Toca Madera.
What was your first bartending job?
My first bartending job was at Katana Hollywood. It was such an incredible time to be a part of that team because the restaurant was really at its height—one of the best in LA at the time.
What is your favorite spirit to work with at the moment?
Of course, working with modern Mexican cuisine at Toca Madera, I always love working with mezcals and tequilas. I am also really into sotol right now, which is an agave-based spirit—something exciting to mix up the menu from the typical spirits.
As part of your “farm-to-glass” philosophy of using only fresh, seasonal ingredients, what have you been working with lately? My focus is always on what is seasonal—we are so lucky to have such abundance produce in California. For fall and winter season I love using fruits like apples and permissions. I also like using chocolate and cinnamon during the holidays.
Your cocktails are known for their visual appeal; can you share a few tips for enhancing the appearance of drinks? Same as with food, you eat with your eyes first, then your noise, then your mouth. With adding elements to a cocktail, I always like there to be a purpose with the visual component.
I love any interactive garnishes that guests can capture on Instagram, like smoke or honey wands or a toasting marshmallow on top. To get those aromatic elements, rimming a glass or zesting is the key.
I create these little “birdies” from citrus peels where I make a little cut in it so that it can sit on the glass. That way, with every sip you get the smell—it makes a difference in the overall balance and flavor or a cocktail.
Where do you get inspiration for new drink recipes? From everywhere! For example, I will have a dish at a restaurant and a certain spice or vinaigrette will give me an idea for a cocktail. It can be inspired by what the ingredient looks like, smells like, or sometimes even how it grows will give me inspiration.
Also, anything from a color I want to incorporate or a character I want to channel can inspire me. We once did an Alice and Wonderland themed drink. I will also get inspired by certain spirits: I will say “I want to design a whole menu around mezcal” just to get really creative.
What’s been your most popular cocktail at Toca Madera? We are definitely known for Margaritas, so the Toca Margarita is always a classic. We just put out a menu of 22 new cocktails and truly it is hard to tell what is most popular.
My proudest moments as a beverage director are when a group will all order different cocktails and then they are all dying to sip each others. It sparks a conversation and gets excitement going about the drinks I created!
What’s your go-to cocktail at the end of a shift or long day? Tequila (preferable reposado), neat.
Would you share one of the most popular or one of your favorite drink recipes? Alma De Sol is one of my favorites we have on the menu right now.
Alma De Sol
2 oz. Avion Reposado tequila
1 oz. Arbol chili and tumeric-infused St. Germain
¾ oz. Passion fruit juice
¾ oz. Lemon juice
½ oz. Agave
½ oz. Zucca Amaro
Combine all ingredients together, shake, finish with merlot float.