Tastemaker: Christian Johnston of Tavola Restaurant, Charlottesville

by: Amy Ciarametaro

Christian Johnston: Bar Manager for Tavola Restaurant and mad genius. Don’t believe me? Look at the level of detail he put into both of his cocktail recipes for September #VaSpiritsMonth (below). Admittedly I had to Google several (read: many) of his house-made ingredients, including his Pamplemousse Orgeat, which is a French rosé that has been cut with grapefruit … just when I thought I knew a thing or two. As Christian explained, “Behind the bar, we like to make a lot of things from scratch. Whether it’s the lime cordial in our gimlet, the tonic in our gin and tonic, or capping the night with house limoncello; the only thing behind the bar that we don’t make is the Coca Cola. We strongly believe that your cocktail is only as good as your worst ingredient.


Christian’s career started out by working as a sous chef for a farm-to-table restaurant. Luckily for us thirsty folk, life intervened and he branched off into bartending! Despite a newfound focus on spirits, Christian still incorporates his culinary knowledge and techniques to find inspiration and innovation for his next craft concoction.

Christian can also be found on Sunday nights bartending at The Alley Light, Charlottesville’s first ever restaurant to be nominated for a James Beard Award (Best New Restaurant 2015). Most of his time, however, is spent running the bar at Charlottesville’s rustic Italian culinary destination in the Belmont District.


While we source the best Italy has to offer, in both food and wine, we still embrace the farm to table concept at Tavola, incorporating many local products on the menu, as often as we can,” says Christian. This includes Double H Farm for local produce, Timbercreek Organics for poultry, beef and produce, Albemarle Baking Company, Olli Salumeria for organic salami, Autumn Olives Farms for pork and lamb, Caromont Farm for fresh and aged goat cheeses, Twenty Paces Farmstead & Creamery, and more.


If you’re in the Belmont District of Charlottesville during September #VaSpiritsMonth, make sure to stop by Tavola Restaurant and, ask Christian for the Fifty Faux Pas or George’s Other Tree (or better yet, BOTH)! Or, if you’re feeling a little adventurous, try your hand at prepping these ornate cocktails at home with the below recipes.

September #VaSpiritsMonth Special Cocktails at Tavola Restaurant:
Fifty Faux Pas, featuring Virginia Distillery Company’s VA Highland Malt Whisky:
1.5 oz. Virginia Highland Malt Whiskey
2 oz. pamplemousse orgeat**
0.5 oz. fresh lime juice
0.25 oz. fennel pollen-honey syrup
0.25 oz. Punt E Mes

Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Shake vigorously. Dual strain into a couple glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist and a few dashes of fennel pollen.***

**Pamplemousse Orgeat:
3 cups of pamplemousse
8 oz. of clean and peeled hazelnuts
4 cups hot water
3 cups 1:1 simple syrup
2 oz. 1:1 honey
1 tsp. citric acid
1/4 tsp. xantham gum

Combine hazelnuts and hot water and let sit for an hour. Strain off liquid and combine all ingredients (except xantham gum and citric acid) in a vitamix blender. Fine strain blended product and place back into a cleaned blender. Blend with xantham gum and citric acid and fine strain again. Keeps for 1-2 weeks.

***Fennel Pollen Honey:
2 cups of honey
2 cups water
1 Tbl. fennel pollen
1 tsp citric acid

Combine water, honey and fennel pollen in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and steep for 15 minutes. Fine strain out the solids and add citric acid. Should keep indefinitely.

Fifty Faux Pas, featuring Virginia Distillery Company’s VA Highland Malt Whisky

George’s Other Tree, featuring Vitae Spirit’s Platinum Rum:
1 oz. Vitae Spirits Platinum Rum
0.5 oz. Luna Amara Bitter
1.5 oz. Asian pear cordial**
0.5 oz. fresh lime juice
0.25 oz. burnt honey-Madeira syrup***

Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Shake vigorously. Dual strain into a tumbler or rocks glass. Top with crushed ice. Garnish with mint, lime wheel, and nutmeg.

**Asian Pear Cordial:
4 Asian pears
2 cups of sugar
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1 cup of an old world, unoaked Pinot Grigio
1 Tbl. cardamom (ground)
1 tsp. coriander (ground)
2 whole star anise (ground)
2 oz. St. Germain

Chop and muddle Asian pears in a non-reactive container. Add all ingredients to container and allow to macerate for 3 hours at room temperature. Blend and fine strain. Keeps for 1 month.

***Burnt Honey-Madeira
2 cups of wildflower honey
1/3 cup of sugar
1.5 cup of Broadbent Malmsey Madeira
1 tsp. citric acid
2 dried koomi limes

Add honey to a pan and boil for 5-10 minutes until it turns a darker color. Whisk in sugar, Madeira, dried limes and remove from heat. Steep for 15 minutes. Fine strain the syrup and add citric acid. Should keep indefinitely.

Here’s a few of the cool #VaSpirits that you can find behind the bar at Tavola:
Virginia Distillery Co. Virginia Highland Malt Whisky
Vitae Spirits Platinum Rum (soon to add Vitae Spirits Golden Rum and Gin)
• Montedomaine Virginia Grappa
• And more!

*Rapid Fire with Christian Johnston of Tavola Restaurant*

#VaSpirits: Where were you born?

Christian: Born in Jersey (if the gelled hair and tattoos didn’t give it away), but for the most part grew up in Virginia on a farm in Albemarle County / Nelson County.

#VaSpirits: Give us a glimpse of your daily routine.

Christian: Mornings don’t happen often (I’m a bit of a night owl), but when they do I start my day by going to the ACAC gym, getting coffee at Mudhouse or Milli Joe and cooking something at home. My culinary skills aren’t bad, but my barista knowledge leaves something to be desired. When I find time between work and errands, you can probably spot me having a beer and a shot at the Whiskey Jar, enjoying one of Micah LeMon’s creations at Alley Light, or having a cider at Carter’s Mountain.

#VaSpirits: When you’re not behind the bar at Tavola, what do you enjoy doing?

Christian: I like checking out what the latest chefs and bartenders in the area have to offer, so I dine out often. I’m also quite studious and have a growing library of cookbooks, cocktail and wine books, and just about anything I can get my hands on to find inspiration and learn. Currently, I’m training for my sommelier exam and seeing where that takes me (*Breaking News: Christian has since passed his sommelier exam!*). Besides all the booze, Charlottesville not only has a great restaurant scene, but a pretty awesome music scene as well, so I’m often checking out great local bands like Ships in the Night and the Sally Rose Band when I’m not bar hopping.

#VaSpirits: When you’re not drinking #VaSpirits, what do you enjoy drinking and why?

Christian: Easy. Bottle of Budweiser and a shot of Jameson. For the lack of a better expression, it’s something I grew up on and as a seasoned restaurant worker, can appreciate. Simplicity is beauty after all. It’s also readily available at most places and pretty damn hard to screw up.

#VaSpirits: To wrap things up, give us your best PG-rated joke!

Christian: There are two types of people in the world. Those who need closure…

For more information on Tavola Restaurant, visit their website or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Photo credit: Jay Paul