Gather, in downtown Berkeley, is known for its food, but its cozy bar serves up an impressive cocktail too. Photo: Gather

Crowd-pleasing classics and improv behind the bar: Gather pulls it all together Several weeks ago, we were enjoying a cocktail at another East Bay establishment and engaging in conversation with the bar manager, when the gentleman on the next barstool chimed in. As it happens, this gentleman is a bar chef in his own right, and suggested we visit the bar at Gather in Berkeley. We discovered in the course of our discussion about cocktails and other important issues, that he used to be the star behind the bar at Hudson, a Rockridge favorite that closed a year or so ago. We filed away his suggestion, and finally made our way to Gather.

We visited on a Saturday evening, prior to an event at a local music venue. Once we let the host know we were just planning to visit the bar for cocktails, he directed us to the rear of the restaurant and promised us an enjoyable experience. The bar is cozy, with a small number of tables and barstools inside and a sheltered patio right outside. High shelves bordering the bar area contain jars of colorful pickled vegetables.

Gather making it perfect
Legendary bar chef Alex crafts a “dealer’s choice.” Photo: Risa Nye
Legendary bar chef Alex crafts a “dealer’s choice.” Photo: Risa Nye

We examined the cocktail menu, which is divided into three parts: first, Morning Glories, Sours, and the Like. Featured here are the Gather Fog Cutter #1, which falls into the classic “hair of the dog” category, popular in the 1800s, combining spirits (in this case bourbon and rum) with  falernum  (a sweet syrup with Caribbean flavors such as almond, ginger and cloves), bitters, and lime. Also in this first group is the crowd-pleasing Victory & Brightness! which is a variation on the classic gin and tonic, featuring the snap of jalapeño and a hint of citrus.

The second list of selections is called Spirituous Mixtures. This list changes periodically, however one standard seems to be the Amaro Inversion, with poppy amaro, fino sherry, cardamom, absinthe and Yellow Chartreuse.

The third group of drinks, Classic Cocktails, includes the Old Cuban (a close relative of the Mojito), and the Lion’s Tail, a spicy bourbon drink. The classics listed on the menu change with the seasons as well. We caught the tail end of summer, and now the Arsenic and Lace (gin, violette, anisette and vermouth) has replaced the Aviation (gin, maraschino, violette and citrus).

But as it turned out, we had even more choices than were presented on the menu. It would not be boastful on our part to say that we have visited many bars in the East Bay and sampled many a fine cocktail. But we have never been invited to ask for a “dealer’s choice,” as we were at Gather. Alex, the legendary bar chef, challenged us to throw him three or four adjectives, after which he would create a unique drink — he called it bartender’s improv.

As students of theatre improv well know, the only way to respond to this challenge is to say, “Yes, and. . .”  So, in response to our request for something “like a Manhattan,” Alex created a combination of Angostura bitters, cardamom and orange bitters, a Czech Amaro Fernet, Borolo Chinato Cocchi, some bourbon, and a touch of lemon zest. This deep, ruby red concoction was garnished with a single, perfect crimson rose petal. One could describe the taste as “smooth and dreamy.”

Ms Barstool ordered up a Manhattan-ish drink that was improvised by Gather bar chef Alex. “Dreamy” was the verdict. Photo: Risa Nye
Ms Barstool ordered up a Manhattan-ish drink that was improvised by Gather bar chef Alex. “Dreamy” was the verdict. Photo: Risa Nye

During the careful crafting of my Manhattan-ish drink, Alex spoke about the two types of bitters in the world of spirits: cocktail bitters, used for seasoning; and potable bitters, which he referred to as “liquid currency and the drink of bartenders.” We learned, in no small measure, that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the art of mixing. Skillful blending of flavors, imagination, and sheer physical strength are the required tools of the trade.

Gather is located in the David Brower Center, across from the UC campus and within walking distance of  several movie theaters and Berkeley’s ever-expanding arts and entertainment district. The Brower Center is, according to Gather’s website, “the greenest building in the East Bay.” The location, the vibe, and the philosophy behind Gather— both the restaurant and the bar — are a perfect fit for East Bay aficionados of the seasonal bounty we are fortunate to have here.

From our barstool perch at Gather, we saw the passion that went into every glass — and we offer up our gratitude in response. Cheers!

The Crowd: Berkeley — always a unique blend
The Vibe: Casual, welcoming, inventive and organic
The Drink: The Ms Barstool Manhattan
Behind the Bar: Alex the Great
The One to Try Next Time: Whatever Alex wants to make, or perhaps a Victory & Brightness!
When to go: After class, after work, before/after a movie or the theater
The Deets: Gather, 220 Oxford St. Berkeley

Are you a cocktail aficionado? Read previous Ms. Barstool reviews of Tribune Tavernthe ParagonBoot & Shoe ServicePicànHopscotchFiveRevivalFlora, and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.

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Freelancer Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She spent many happy years on the UC Berkeley campus, both as a student and as an employee. She has...