While living with severe allergies is a hassle for the everyday drinker, it can be even more of a challenge for those working behind the bar. According to Brooklyn’s Hunky Dory bartender Sofia Present, who’s allergic to shellfish, nuts, peanuts and legumes, “the biggest challenge with allergies hasn’t been the actual visible reactions but the constant exposure to ingredients your body can’t handle, the lack of energy they cause and the ‘invisibility’ that makes people not take you or your condition as seriously.”
From managing prep to communicating with co-workers, Present and other top bartenders with food allergies share their strategies for creating drink menus and a safer bar environment for all.
1. REDUCE OR ELIMINATE ALLERGENS FROM THE MENU
Jennifer Sandella, the co-owner of Barter Detroit in Hamtramck, Mich., and a beverage consultant, recommends removing drinks with potential allergens from the menu altogether. “In my case, I’m allergic to high-fructose corn syrup, so if I’m in charge of a program, it’s very easy to tell people I’m going to cut it,” she says. “Given that craft cocktails are all about using real ingredients and all-natural products, no one gets upset about it now, but that hasn’t always been the case.”
If eliminating hazardous ingredients isn’t feasible, Amie Ward, the beverage director of r. Bar in Baltimore, recommends trying alternatives. For example, her bar uses coconut cream instead of whipping cream and oat milk instead of nut milks—substitutions that allow her to taste drinks in spite of her lactose intolerance and make drinks safer for guests with potential allergies, as well. “I aim to be more inclusive in all aspects of hospitality, and ingredients can be a big part of that,” she says.
2. PROTECT YOURSELF
Extensive allergies, including tree nuts, pitted tree fruits, melons, berries and pineapple, haven’t stopped Jon Mateer, of Denver’s Adrift and Death & Co, from pursuing a career as a bartender. While he has worked in places that have had color-coded, allergen-free equipment like strainers and tins, he also recommends using tweezers and gloves when handling dangerous ingredients. “I work at a Tiki bar, and it’s impossible to avoid pineapple altogether, so I always wear gloves when cutting and garnishing drinks,” he says.
3. KNOW WHEN TO DELEGATE
Mateer also says he relies heavily on co-workers to help him prepare drinks. “For example, if I get four tickets for a drink with pistachio-infused bourbon, I’ll team up with another bartender, and he’ll knock out my drinks,” he says.
Living with celiac disease has also taught Kellie Thorn, the beverage director for Hugh Acheson, how to delegate. “I’ve given up on tasting beer altogether,” she says. “I used to to taste it and spit it, but I can’t risk it anymore. So I smell them, read up on them, trust my team and have given that part of the bar program over to them.”
4. PUT YOUR NOSE TO WORK
Eighty percent of your sense of taste comes from smell, so Mateer relies on his nose when preparing and creating drinks. “I obviously don’t get to taste too many of my drinks, but I make them based on smell and can usually tell when I’m missing something,” he says.
Present does the same. Instead of feeling limited, she says, allergies have taught her to approach drink creation and memorization in a different way, not solely reliant on flavor memory. “I listen to how my co-workers, bosses and guests describe drinks, and this helps me paint a flavor picture in my mind when creating and preparing drinks,” she says.
5. SPEAK UP
Bartenders agree the most challenging aspect of living with allergies is being proactive and up front with co-workers, managers and even guests. And while Mateer says talking about allergies “can be super awkward, in the end, you have to be open about it and do your best to keep yourself safe, because it’s literally a matter of life or death.”