In Europe, cocktails started hitting the big time in most hip capitals around 2010-2012 and if you read about the pioneers of this renaissance, you read about people who have launched their businesses round those dates. But actually, in many places, there were pioneers before those pioneers; entrepreneurs who opened a cocktail bar when cocktails were not cool yet. Copenhagen’s Kirsten Holm is one of them.
In the late 90’s, Kirsten was working the bar in a 5 star hotel and the Copenhagen scene, if you can call it that, was sort of depressing. « There were three 5 star hotels with successful cocktail bars », she recalls. « Outside of hotels, everything was frozen, nobody stirred or shook drinks. It was very 70’s and 80’s ». While the other two hotel bars were, according to Kirsten, on the traditional side, at hers she was trying to be modern. « I was looking at the London cocktail scene — they were using chilies, fresh vanilla, ginger… Ingredients from all over the world. I was trying to bring those ideas to the hotel bar and they gave us free hands ».
Observing what was being done in the UK also led Kirsten to notice an anomaly: « Wallpaper had just declared that Copenhagen was a capital for design especially furnitures but it didn’t have a single cocktail bar outside of the hotels. It felt so bizarre. » A watershed moment, she says, was a visit to Japan where she discovered diminutive bars, operated by a single bartender / owner. « There you have those places with six barstools only… I thought to myself that this could work in Copenhagen and that I could operate a small place on my own ».
She made the big leap into the unknown in 2002, opening K Bar. Although she thought it would fill a void in the city hospitality landscape, there was always a risk. « Friends my age thought I was cuckoo », she now says. To her surprise, though, kids loved it. « Social networks were not a thing back then and I saw that sms and word of mouths were more more effective than I thought. I had a very young crowd, they thought what I was doing was very exciting ». From the first days, Kirsten also benefited from the support network she had built ove the years, her bar becoming a magnet for people working in the restaurant scene.
Reflecting back on the early years, Kirsten attributes her success to two factors, one financial, one philosophical. She thinks would-be entrepreneurs’d be well inspired to keep them in mind. On the money side, she was very conservative. « I started in small shoes », she explains. « My private finances were on a very reasonable level and that helps. You have to keep the costs of your private life down so you don’t have to worry about them. I have made money in all of our 17 years of operation ». Equally important is knowing what you are about. « What I say to people who want to open a bar is that they have to find what’s their own DNA so they don’t have insecurities, they know what they’re about. »
Over the course of 17 years, K Bar has evolved — as has its owner, obviously. « It sounds banal », she explains, « but it’s very important to keep yourself informed on the cultural side of society and be aware of the trends. Who’s saying what and why… Not because one should change to become trendy but because you want find out what’s right for you to adopt and what is not. » The clientele has changed too, with new, hip cocktail bars now drawing the young crowd. Today K Bar caters to a very mixed crowd, which Kirsten finds very amusing. A self-described control freak, she also thinks part of her job is to set the tone: « I try to keep it not formal, but I’m a bit strict. There’s no dress code, no rules but you don’t want people to get loud or put their feet on the table. As a client told me, ‘the best way to keep the idiots out is to renovate them out’. I try to keep things sane. And some people love it ».
They certainly do — you don’t stay in business that long if you don’t get the balance right. K Bar resilience is all the more admirable given the huge change of landscape in the city’s cocktail scene. Kirsten have stayed relevant in part thanks to cocktails she describes as ‘edgy’ for the tastebuds. « I don’t have subtle cocktails, it’s not part of my style », she quips. When asked to reflect on her city’s evolution, she underlines the considerable impact of the culinary revolution led by Noma. « It changed everything. The chefs set standards and they keep us on our toes. Copenhagen is so small that what they do is contagious ». She also reckons that collaborations between chefs and bartenders can only be a good thing but is perplexed by the direction some bars are taking. « It’s become very technical and nerdy », she says. « But you still have to think that even tough it might have taken you 20 hours to make that cocktail, it still has to taste good ». And even then: « I hate to admit it but cocktail are still a minor piece of the jigsaw. The total experience is the star of the place ».
This focus on the total experience is one of the reasons why it’s hard to imagine K Bar without Kirsten. Although she wants to cut down on her hours behind the bar — something she has found hard to do because there’s a fierce competition for staff — and focus more of her time on drinks development, she also feels she has to be physically present. « I need to be there, to show my face. I want thing to be done a certain way and I think that’s part of my success ». In the era of the travelling bar owner, barely present in his own business, Kirsten reminds us that hospitality is a face to face business. Something to keep in mind, if longevity is part of your plan…