Toca Madera mixology maven Charity Johnston started in hospitality at age 19 as a hostess at Katsuya Hollywood, which, at that time, was one of the hottest new restaurants in Hollywood.
Two years later, she asked to be a bartender, and though she had no experience, they took a chance on her and it paid off. She studied and worked her way up in the industry from there, notably putting out her first cocktail menu in 2016 for Roku in California. For it, she earned a 2016 Zagat 30 under 30 award.
Other career highlights include working as the mixologist on Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word” on Fox, as well as with John Taffer as his expert on “Bar Rescue.” In 2018, she came to Toca Madera in Los Angeles, and is today part of the brain trust behind the cocktail and wine program at Toca Madera Scottsdale, which opened in October.
Johnston spoke to The Entertainer! about what makes her tick—and what guests can expect from Toca Madera.
First, we have to know more about the TV work. Spill!
I feel so lucky. I actually moved to Los Angeles to work in acting and did so for years as a child, notably working on “Drake & Josh” on Nickelodeon. Eventually, however, I fell in love with the hospitality industry. Imagine my surprise and good fortune that in my adulthood my first passion—acting—would intersect with my second passion—hospitality. As it relates to Ramsey, I was at work one day and made a drink for a fellow. We got to talking. He enjoyed some great drinks, and I enjoyed a great conversation. The next day, I got a call from a casting team, noting said fellow gave them my name and recommended me for Ramsey’s new show on Fox. He and I met, I visited the “Hell’s Kitchen” set to learn more about his energy and style, we hit it off, and the show was a blast. For “Bar Rescue,” I actually earned those opportunities from a producer who messaged me on social media. I’ve filmed two that have been broadcasted and one that will in a few months. For those, I helped rescue bars in Florida, Las Vegas and Kansas City.
Tell us about the oddest drink request you’ve gotten.
I believe there are no rules or restrictions—only one’s imagination—when it comes to cocktail ingredients. I’ve use everything from wasabi paste to fire in my drinks. One that does come to mind, however, happened when Ramsey asked me to dream up a cocktail for actor Kal Penn, who is known for his intellect. The vision was to create a “smart” cocktail. So, I made what I called my “superhuman” using dry ice, fish oil, greens and spirits. It was a hit.
What is your No. 1 pet peeve when working?
If behind the bar, my biggest pet peeve is when a guest waving hands in your face. Alternatively, a good bartender will be making eye contact with guests proactively and engaging with them, so the hand waving wouldn’t happen.
What is your go-to drink—or drinks—when you’re at a bar other than your own?
I love a simple margarita with tequila or mezcal. No simple syrup or triple sec. Straight lime, spirit and agave on ice.
Tell us about the beverage program at Toca Madera in Scottsdale?
I’ve actually worked with concepts in the Valley, so I’ve explored the area extensively. I’ve been researching the Valley’s drinking culture, in fact, including the subtle differences from neighborhood to neighborhood. That really played a role in this menu. I wanted to bring together the mixology culture I’ve seen explode in Arcadia and Downtown Phoenix with the energy and vibe of Old Town. As such, our signature farm-to-glass cocktails use only fresh, seasonal ingredients and our dynamic bar program offers a vast selection of the finest tequilas and mezcals. With over 150 options there, we have among the largest—if not the largest—selection in Arizona. As you would imagine, we specialize in all things agave, and we are proud of that. We also offer a certain flair to each cocktail itself, be it with fire, ice, flavor or garnish. We want there to be an interactive entertainment factor in everything on the menu.
What is one cocktail would love for us to feature in the magazine this month?
You are making me choose between my children. If I am forced to choose one, you have to try the Alma de Sol.
What do you like about this drink?
This drink really speaks to who I am as a cocktail artist. If you look at the ingredients—tequila, red wine, agave, passion fruit puree, St. Germaine infused with turmeric and chilies, Zucca Amaro—it looks like it was made with no rules or boundaries. And it wasn’t. The only confines when dreaming it up were truly my imagination.
Alma de Sol
2 oz. Avion Reposado
1 oz. turmeric chili infused St. Germaine
3/4 oz. passion fruit puree
3/4 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. organic agave
1/2 oz. Zucca Amaro
Float of Merlot
Break down the turmeric first and infuse with herbal chilies. Add to St. Germaine and allow combining for at least 24 hours.
Then, add all ingredients to a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a bucket glass with artisan ice cube. Garnish with edible flower petals.
Toca Madera, 4736 N. Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480.478.0157, tocamadera.com.