On Minding the Bar and Finding Your Spirits Animal with Kristi-Leigh Akister

Kristi-Leigh Akister is a longtime local bartender and recent industry activist, officially as one of the founding members of Mind the Bar.

Since launching in the summer of 2018, Mind the Bar has become an invaluable resource for food and beverage workers dealing with mental illness and harassment in the workplace. On Monday, April 29th, the organisation will be holding its first MTB Talks panel discussion at the Charles Bar in Gastown, and we encourage all our readers to attend. For more about the remarkable woman who’s devoted to making everyone’s drinking experience as pleasurable as possible, read on…

Where are you working these days? You can find me slinging classics and contemporaries at PiDGiN.

Now that we’ve tracked you down: What are you making us? For me, the largest gratification I receive in my job is cultivating a pleasurable guest experience. I am here to create whatever libation one is in the mood for. Whether someone wants a classic Manhattan or a cheeky East Vanhatten spin, I will always endeavour to put the best drink in front of our guests. And that includes Amber Bruce’s famous gin and milk.

If you had a namesake drink, what would be in it? Tequila. And lots of it.

How has your approach to your craft evolved since you started? And speculating on the future, where do you envision Vancouver’s bar culture and the culture at large going in the next five to ten years? I got into hospitality immediately out of high school. Back then, pouring beers and whiskey was the apex of what I considered bartending to be. Over the years I have been incredibly fortunate to work under and alongside some of the most talented industry professionals I have ever met, and they have taught me a wealth of knowledge. I have realized over the years that there’s one thing I know for sure: I know nothing. I think that as the bar is constantly raised by both our community and our guests (who come in every day more and more knowledgeable about the ingredients and techniques employed) that the natural path forward is that of sustainability — not just environmental, but personal.

“I found myself having repeated conversations with my colleagues about the remarkably high levels of addiction, depression and suicide within our community and how the coping mechanisms we had come to collectively install were simply not acceptable anymore.”

From where do you draw your cocktail inspiration? What ingredient is most exciting to you these days? What seasonal ingredient are you most anticipating on using this spring/summer? My cocktail inspiration comes from all sorts of crazy places. Sometimes it is born from an odd ingredient or technique. Sometimes it’s from a scent or a memory. Occasionally it’s from a chat with a stranger. I love putting out seasonal menus because it gives me the chance to try and capture different elements that excite me about the changing seasons. Spring for me is always triggered by the blooming of cherry blossoms, so bright floral cocktails are always a hit. After a dreary winter, I like to add an exotic fruit beverage that whisks you away to the ideas of sun and sandy beaches. I love creating cocktails that take you on a journey, where ever that may be.

Flavours can be incredibly evocative of time and place. Tell us your most memorable drink experience. I love to travel. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy some pretty special beverages in some unbelievable settings. From sipping Brennivin and watching the northern lights dance across the sky on the rocky cliffs of northern Iceland, to consuming Aguardiente (also known as “pox”) in the jungles of southern Mexico, my most memorable drink experiences are always the ones that are shared with others.

You’re on the Board of Directors for Mind the Bar. If you feel comfortable telling me, what was your personal inspiration to get involved with this particular association? My involvement with Mind The Bar came very organically, and from the very beginning. I have been in the hospitality industry for almost two decades and over that time I have battled considerably with my own mental health. I found myself having repeated conversations with my colleagues about the remarkably high levels of addiction, depression and suicide within our community and how the coping mechanisms we had come to collectively install were simply not acceptable anymore. I was tired of watching my friends and peers struggle. I was tired of making excuses for myself, and for my industry. I was tired of waking up and finding out that another industry professional had passed away prematurely. Shoel Davidson (our founder) and I have had many long, honest conversations about our own dark conflict with mental health and when he approached me about starting this initiative I was immediately on board.

It’s still a relatively young organization…what sort of impact have you seen MTB make on the local industry, so far? What is your longterm goal for MTB? Although MTB began as a grassroots round table discussion about breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health within the hospitality industry, within the year that we have been formed we have won the Tahona Society Collective Spirit grant, which we will use to help finance assisting those who are struggling with their mental health, as well as provide education and community support. One of our primary focuses is upon the back of house, and the unique struggles they face. Although the vast number of chefs, line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, etc., work the longest hours within our community, their compensation tends to be lower than that of the front of house. Combine these elements with high stress environments and easy access to alcohol and it becomes a volatile mix. Our goal, both short and long term, is to be able to provide support through access to the appropriate resources to help our community change the baseline, so the next generation of hospitality professionals (hopefully) will have a better set of tools to navigate this industry with.

What can non-industry people who are at the bar – not behind it – do to support MTB? And are there any other associations or endeavours that you’re involved with it that you think we should know about? I think the best thing anyone can do is recognize that there is a problem and be open to a conversation about it. The landscape of the culture surrounding mental health is shifting in general, and I believe it is important that each of us arm ourselves with compassion and understanding moving forward. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we also accept donations to our not for profit at www.mindthebar.com. Also, we have collaborated with Russell Brewing and they have created a low-alc Belgian Table beer that is available all over the place, and proceeds from the purchase of that beer goes directly to MTB as well.

Lastly, besides the upcoming MTB Talks series kickoff – so exciting, by the way, congrats! – what else is in the near future for Kristi-Leigh? I’ve been so fortunate to be invited to participate in so many amazing projects over the last year, from International Women’s awareness week to launching MTB and taking over the bar program at Pidgin. It’s been a real whirlwind 12 months. I’m looking forward to concentrating on progressing MTB, growing community involvement and slinging those tasty beverages.

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