This story is published in partnership with Bacardi’s Spirit Forward Women in Leadership series, an annual summit dedicated to championing the spirits trade community and accelerating the advancement of women. For more information, and to find out how you can attend the program’s five-city tour, click here.
Karri Kiyuna ended up in San Francisco 14 years ago, after finishing art school in Savannah, Georgia, and driving around the country with her dog, Mister T. “I was wandering around, staying in different cities, and I liked San Francisco,” she says. “I just stopped and stayed.” As a photographer who spent much of her time standing in a dark room or running around creating sets, she had taken to the physical nature of bartending while in Savannah and quickly snapped up a job in Noe Valley when she arrived.
But it wasn’t until she wandered into Absinthe one weekday afternoon while Johnny Raglin was bartending and drank a Sazerac that she decided she needed to get into the cocktail game. Training at the newly opened Comstock Saloon, she learned the ropes under Raglin and Jeff Hollinger, who were helping to broaden the general understanding of cocktails on the West Coast at the time. Though she quickly connected to the nerdery of drink-making, the Fargo, North Dakota, native has always been insistent about putting people before the craft. “The experience of a bar is more than just a cocktail. It’s important to talk about life,” she says.
Now “Head Bird” at Wildhawk, a lounge-y cocktail bar in the Mission, Kiyuna has a team that shares her enthusiasm for quirk-infused classics. As in the Ta-Da, a Bacardi banana-laced Bamboo variation, Kiyuna likes twisting familiarity into clever new shapes— perhaps only one step removed from a classic, but entirely original.
By the numbers
Current occupation: Head Bird, Wildhawk
What do want to be when you grow up? A loud, laughing bartender with big glasses.
What books are essential to have behind the bar? The Savoy Cocktail Book.
How would you describe your style of drink-making? Fun!
If you could have three women, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? I would love to have a lengthy conversation with Michelle Obama, especially after a couple glasses of wine. I adore the idea of hearing jokes and sharing laughs with Carol Burnett, and I would love to spend a night hearing stories from Patti Smith.
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? Currently, it is vermouth. There are some misunderstandings about vermouth that are easily cleared up with a quick chat and a couple of tastes.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? Education. People are more interested in the history of spirits and processes of distillation.
What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture? The shift of focus back to hospitality and kindness is so wonderful. I just want to see that continue to hold center stage.
You’re spending one final night drinking anywhere in the world, where is it and what are you drinking? Donostia in San Sebastian with my husband. We would be drinking all of the sherry and txakoli and snacking on pintxos all night.
How do you define leadership behind the bar? Leadership is providing the education, tools and a platform to encourage growth in individuals and build strong bar teams. There is so much talent and artistry within the bar community right now—leadership is maintaining a space for those talents to flourish and grow.
Which industry leaders do you admire most? Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix have these same beliefs about a providing a platform that encourages individuals to grow and build a team and community and I am grateful to have learned from and worked with them. I also admire the educational leadership of Audrey Saunders and Keli Rivers; any chance you get to learn from these women, do not pass it up.
Tell us about your drink, the Ta-Da. This is my version of a Bamboo. I added Bacardi Banana because it’s delicious. (I like to do stuff like this, throw in something slightly weird.) [I] thought it would be great with something super-rich, maybe cream, to create something like a White Russian. I ended up replacing the cream with sherry, which is also creamy and full-bodied. To me, this is a not-so-far-fetched twist on a classic, and it’s also super-funny.
Best thing you ever drank: The first time Jonny Raglin made me a Sazerac at Absinthe. It was a weekday afternoon probably a dozen years ago, and he had that bar full of people laughing and having a blast. I was going to have a glass of wine, but the Sazerac landed in front of me with a smile. It is still my favorite cocktail.
Worst thing you ever drank: Ecuadorian Chicha. It is a saliva-fermented yucca beverage that has strong roots and tradition with some indigenous groups in South America, but it is not delicious.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? Fleetwood Mac, Rumours.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I suppose bowling! I am in a Monday night league.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? Life can change at any second and so can you.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Walking around the city with my husband and our pup, Mister T.
Your favorite bar, and why: Savannah Smiles in Savannah, Georgia. The dueling piano bar holds so many good memories and great nights. If you haven’t been, it is worth the trip.
Best meal you’ve ever had: My husband is an amazing chef, so I have had many home-cooked meals that top the list. Our celebration of the crab season is a crab brunch at our house with some buddies, and it is always the best.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? I will always look at the menu to keep up with what folks are up to and order something that’s interesting—or default to a Daiquiri.
Wine bar? Sparkling rosé.
In a dive bar? Budweiser.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: Bad grammar and spelling errors.
The last text message you sent: A photo of my pup to my husband.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.