Meet Kirsten Holm, a pioneer in the Copenhagen cocktail game and all-round industry legend.
When she started out in the mid 80’s, Kirsten wasn’t allowed to serve customers at the bar. As a woman, this simply wasn’t allowed. Fast forward a few years, and Kirsten single-handedly opened K-Bar, Copenhagen’s first ever modern cocktail bar. Quite the story of hard work, talent and defiance.
This International Women’s Day, we chatted to Kirsten about her journey in the industry, what led to the opening of K-Bar, and all the things she’s learned along the way 👇 👇.
How did you get started in the industry?
I started out in the mid 80’s at a traditional nightclub. All the bartenders were male, females were out serving on the floor and clearing tables. I did that for some time, until I was eventually allowed to help out in the bar. But because I was a woman, I wasn’t allowed to serve any customers. It was all very traditional back then.
Despite that, I quickly fell in love with the industry. I loved all the things you’re not supposed to love – the rock and roll of it all. No two hours were ever the same, you never knew what was going to happen next. I also loved that you could decide how good you wanted to be, how much you wanted to know. I knew if I worked hard, I could make it. I just couldn’t let it go, so I dropped out of university to focus on it full time.
When did you see these gender rules and biases start to change?
It all started to change pretty quickly from then. I moved to a hotel which had several bars, a nightclub and a casino. The bosses were younger and wanted to see females behind the bar. They realised we could do it just as well if not better, and that we could put our own touch to it. Which, as you can imagine, we did.
What led to the opening of K-Bar, Copenhagen’s first modern cocktail bar?
I noticed that my bosses were getting younger and younger. I started to think that they probably would rather see 20 year old girl behind the bar instead of me.
I felt that times were changing, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I had worked behind the bar most of my adult life and had learned so much along the way, so I thought, why not? One thing led to another and I was offered the location where K-Bar is now, and I instantly saw the potential in it. It wasn’t too big and was in a beautiful location, right in the centre of Copenhagen. So I went for it.
I opened in 2002, 19 and a half years ago now!
When K-Bar first opened, people thought I was so strange. It was very different to the cocktail bars that were in Copenhagen at that time.
I had travelled a lot in Japan and had been inspired by things like the very low bar top – I wanted to bring this style to K-Bar so that people could follow the process of making a cocktail. Most cocktails at that time were frozen or blended, I wanted to stir and shake.
I really wanted craft to be at the heart of everything. My travels in Japan, London and New York had shown me the importance of aesthetics and attention to detail. I saw so many bars full of personality and wanted to bring that to K-Bar.
I had come straight from a 5 star hotel, so I brought all that hospitality experience with me too. I worked six days a week for the first 2 years, mostly alone, with some extra help on Fridays and Saturdays. It was very hard work!
What makes K-Bar so special?
First of all, it’s so old. Most people are stunned when I say how old it is. K-Bar is the oldest cocktail bar in Copenhagen of its style, and I’m so proud to have helped bring that to this great city.
K-Bar has its very own DNA which we stick to in everything we do. It’s very important to me that the customers can feel that too. I’ve always felt that when people step into K-Bar, they know exactly where they are. They couldn’t be anywhere else, because there’s nowhere else quite like it.
Would you say you have defied convention to get where you have?
I’m not sure about that, but I certainly had to work harder and be smarter than most of my male colleagues. It has been very tricky at times.
A lot of people ask me how I survived. The truth is, you just have to work a bit harder than everyone else, and don’t take things personally. Brush it off, as my father used to say. There are a lot of idiots out there, you just have to be smarter, more knowledgeable. That has been my survival kit.
In your experience, have you found that bartenders are more likely to be male at high-end cocktail bars?
Yes. In my experience, I would say very few females stay in the industry long-term. It’s a very tough business, it really takes its toll on you. And it can also be very hard on relationships too, you have to have a partner who’s okay with your long and late hours.
I know this year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias, and I think we’re very privileged here in Scandinavia. There has been a lot going on in schools about gender equality, gender biases and how to resolve the issues.
With the older generation, I still notice that annoying old-fashioned attitude, but I really sense another tone and attitude coming through with younger people. I feel times are changing, which is great.
Do you ever wish you’d gone down a more traditional route?
Never. I’ve been so fortunate to work in great places and then open my own bar, which has been doing well for nearly 20 years. I’m one of the lucky ones.
What’s the best thing about doing what you do?
There are so many things I love about this industry, it’s hard to pick just one. During lockdown, I suddenly had time to reflect and it has completely reenergised me.
Just to be back in business now is amazing. I am so thankful for all the support and comments. It makes me really appreciate the bar, my life, everything. This is my passion, I love it. I’m ready to attack a few more years now!
And, finally, what would you say to others looking to pursue a career in the industry?
Read! Make sure you know the difference between a rye and a bourbon whisky. Learn all the different kinds of tequila. Understand how gin is made, why it’s made like that, and how people make it differently. And then keep reading, keep learning.
I hear bartenders say they know almost everything there is to know. Rubbish! I still learn things every day, new ideas, new angles. It’s so important to understand what’s going on. There’s no way you can know everything in this industry. You never can.
Travel, see the world. See how others do it, and why that way works. We need that in our business, we need to be out there. We need to get the smells, the taste, the language. Everything. It’s good for us. Good for the soul.
It's also so important to be interested in other things. Don’t put 100% into your work, read magazines, go to exhibitions, it’s so important that you have a life on the side. It’ll enrich your business. And your life, too.