Home-Field Advantage Leads Robin Kim Win

The East Bay Spice Company mixologist competed with six others in three rounds to earn bragging rights as The Best Bartender in Berkeley.


Berkeley's best bartender is Robin Kim.

Photo by Kristan Lawson

The East Bay Spice Company recently hosted The Battle of the Berkeley Bars, a competition to crown the town’s best bartender. On Feb. 18, seven challengers representing major local watering holes went head-to-head in a no-holds-barred mixological showdown. While the winner got bragging rights, all four top finalists advanced to a later area-wide contest to determine the best bartender in the East Bay.

Of course, ascertaining what counts as “best” in something subjective like bartending requires the acumen of experts, so three judges sampled and ranked each drink, while a crowd of about 75 merrymakers cheered the contestants.

Sitting in judgment were former Haas business school culinary club manager Julia Silbergeld; city events planner and DJ (and Berkeley native) Orlando Williams; and Berkeleyside’s “Ms. Barstool” columnist Risa Nye. Each contestant approached the bar to concoct a new cocktail from scratch in under eight minutes, each using a unique predetermined mystery ingredient, a la Iron Chef. Like Olympic gymnasts, they also got to choose the background music for their performances. Each contestant exhibited his or her own distinctive cocktail-making flair.

First up was Dan Miranda of Acme Bar, who concentrated intently, like a bespectacled mad chemist, over his secret formula (based on vintage Hine Cognac), barely acknowledging the judges as he deployed atomizers and precise measurements to an unexpectedly raucous punk anthem by The Cramps.

Next was Michael Nguyen of Gather, whose drink-making style was the opposite, an extroverted performance choreographed to entertain the audience. “I’m putting only local and seasonal ingredients into my cocktail,” he announced over the din. “I want to infuse it with terroir.” He then used his mystery spirit — El Silencio Mezcal — in an elaborate tea ceremony, pouring his finished cocktail from a teapot into small earthenware cups.

Contestant No. 3 was Alejandro Vazquez from Comal, who danced to blasting reggaetón as he utilized a complicated array of eyedroppers, flasks, snifters, and more to transform Royal Dutch Rutte Celery Gin into a visually stunning masterwork in a classic cocktail glass.

Next up was Robin Kim of East Bay Spice Company, with the home-field advantage. She quickly wowed the crowd by using her panda-tattooed biceps to flamboyantly shake Chinaco Tequila into flashy glasses garnished with watermelon cubes and rosemary sprigs.

The fifth contestant — Tupper & Reed’s laid-back Dan Sheel — introduced a more relaxed vibe, leisurely stirring a tea-based cocktail with a long metal spoon as he chatted amicably with the judges, finally decanting it into tiny traditional sake cups.

Following him was Bobby Berry of Revival, who politely shook hands with each judge then went wild with the cocktail shakers, fusing Belle Meade bourbon with crème de cacao and what looked like banana liqueur, and then (as a soul singer crooned in the background) precisely stirred one final drop of bitters into each glass.

Last up was Rachel Merlo of Western Pacific, who deployed strawberry-infused sugar as her secret weapon atop Denizen Rum, finished with a twist of tangerine peel spritzed several feet above the glass, letting the citrus oil drift down like a whisper onto the finished drink.

Vazquez, Kim, Sheel, and Berry moved forward to the second round, in which these four semi-finalists got to choose their own spirits from the sponsoring brands. Vazquez and Kim emerged victorious for the third and final round. For their climactic battle, they had to include two shocking secret ingredients in the night’s final cocktails: fish sauce and dried shrimp. Robin Kim was declared The Best Bartender in Berkeley. Kim’s second-round potion, “Liquid Swords,” was deemed the best drink of the night and recorded for posterity.


East Bay Spice Company, 2134 Oxford St, Berkeley, EastBaySpiceCompany.com


Liquid Swords

1.5 ounces Rutte Celery Gin

.5 ounce Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto 

.5 ounce house-made turmeric cordial

.5 ounce lemon juice

1 drop cardamom bitters