Behind The Bar: Christian Johnston of Tavola’s Cicchetti Bar
March 9th, 2016 | published by Belle Isle Craft Spirits
This week, we talk with bar manager Christian Johnston of Charlottesville’s Cicchetti Bar (located in Tavola) about the city’s rising food and cocktail scene.
For a cocktail fix, check out Johnston’s “Gimlet” made with pineapple & pink peppercorn infused Belle Isle. Cheers!
INTERVIEW: CHRISTIAN JOHNSTON
Quite a lot has happened to the Charlottesville food scene in the last few years. Over five years ago, getting a craft cocktail was a lot harder than it should have been and there was a lot of mediocrity obscuring the talent on the food scene. These days it’s hard to throw a rock in any direction and not hit a restaurant with an ambitious bar program. In regards to food, I’m pretty happy to be working in a James Beard nominated restaurant with a James Beard nominated chef.
Cicchetti are Italian smalls plates, eaten at all hours of the day and more often than not, accompanied by an alcoholic beverage. Though the concept of small plates isn’t a foreign idea in Charlottesville, the food and the bar itself are fairly unique. The chef and his kitchen staff put out great new dishes every week from rabbit liver mousse with a zinfandel gelee to smoked scallop sausage with fennel-bay leaf aioli. Therefore, it’s my job to have a drink program that compliments the quality and style of the food. Italian bar ingredients are abundant and diverse, such a citrusy vermouth that will water the palate to a savory, rich amaro that’s an excellent way to cap the night. As a result, the bar features several Italian influenced cocktails, either classic, modern, and seasonal that utilize these ingredients.
What is your favorite part about being a bartender?
My favorite part of being a bartender is definitely the people I’ve met over years that I’ve learned from and the ones that I’m teaching now. Originally when I stepped out of the kitchen and behind the bar, I feared that the ideas and techniques I had spent years developing would stagnate and go to waste. Luckily, with the rise of craft cocktails in restaurants, which had originally started in New York over a decade ago, had begun to make an impact in Charlottesville at that time and I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals who go on to be great colleagues and even better friends.
Which cocktail do you hope people ask for?
Honestly, I hope people ask for any cocktail that is out of their comfort zone. We have a few cocktails that may come off as a bit odd such as a brown butter washed bourbon with cider shrub, amaro syrup, lemon and yellow chartreuse, but they definitely don’t disappoint. The staff behind the bar is overflowing with talent and great ideas, so I usually encourage customers to roll the dice and try something new, even if it’s not on the menu.
What is your guilty pleasure cocktail?
While I wouldn’t exactly call it a cocktail, and I’m sure as hell not ashamed to order it when someone is looking, a Budweiser and a shot of Jameson have been pretty standard in my diet for years. It’s a drink order that even the most naive bartender can’t mess up and anyone who has been in restaurants long enough can appreciate the nostalgia between the two.
It’s pretty funny, but the chef we have now, Caleb Warr, worked with me several years ago when I was still sweating behind a stove in the kitchen and is a great friend and extremely talented chef. This makes him easy to work with and we bounce ideas off each other from time and taste each others creations which usually ends with a smile on both of our faces. Definitely happy our paths have crossed again.
Do you have a pro-tip for new or home bartenders?
Read. Read. Read. There are so many great cocktail books out that weren’t available a few years ago. A lot of them promote consistent and great techniques, which is important in any job. Ideas, ingredients and recipes are worthless unless you have the correct techniques to utilize and understand them. I’d start with The Bar Book by Jeffery Morgenthaler for basic bartending 101, the Savoy Cocktail Book for understanding the classics, and The Flavor Bible which is a must have for anyone trying to develop a palate and appreciate flavor combinations (I own two copies; one for work and one for home). Once you’re ready to get more technical and have the basics, Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold, The Nomad Cocktail Book by Leo Robitschek, and Kindred Spirits 2 are the way to go.
What’s the question you get most often while bartending?
Usually what an ingredient in any given cocktail is. It’s easy for a bartender to get jaded and give an eye roll when asked a question, but that’s a terrible habit to develop since someone is clearly trying to give you their money and enjoy your bar. This is where that reading thing comes into play. Nothing makes me happier than geeking out on a bar ingredient and talking shop or teaching someone something new.
What’s the best food + cocktail pairing at Tavola?
I generally enjoy our burrata dish, a classic and simple dish, with a Corpse Reviver #2, a classic and simple cocktail. Both together are a great way to start a dining experience. If you’re looking to mix it up, try going with the daily cocktail special; it usually features an ingredient the bartender behind the bar has finished perfecting, and something off the specials board which changes daily. Last week I was tweaking my Meyer lemon oleo saccharum for a bourbon cocktail, but I could’ve sworn I heard one of my bartenders talking about developing a soy sauce cordial this week which could be delicious… or end in tears… I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
- 2 1/4 oz. Pineapple + Pink Peppercorn Infused Belle Isle Premium Moonshine
- 1 1/2 oz. Cardamom Lime Cordial
Combine all ingredients, shake, dual strain into Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with peppercorn.
Cardamom Lime Cordial Recipe
- 1 1/2 cups of sugar
- 1 1/2 cups of fresh squeeze lime juice
- 1 tbs of ground cardamom
- 1/2 tsp of citric acid
Combine all ingredients and allow to macerate for at least 3 hours. Blend in vitamix, fine strain, and bottle.
Recipe by Christian Johnston
Photography by Alexander Kreher.