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Rethink That Drink: San Antonio bartender blazes path for imbibers with food sensitivities 

click to enlarge COURTESY OF KAREN TARTT
  • Courtesy of Karen Tartt
After years of suffering debilitating migraines, San Antonio bartender Karen Tartt decided she’d had enough.

Dizziness, nausea, motion- and color-sensitivity — among other symptoms — plagued her daily work as a craft cocktail bartender and Texas whiskey brand representative. Finally, she found a professional who offered a diagnosis.

Tartt learned that she suffered from vestibular migraine, a neurological condition that presents itself to sufferers after experiencing triggers that can include altered sleep patterns, stress and certain food items. After her 2019 diagnosis, she embarked on a research journey that bore bad news.

She discovered that red wine, champagne and dark liquors are a big no-no for VM sufferers. Those libations tend to contain more sulfites — pesky preservatives the American Migraine Foundation considers possible triggers for headaches.

So, what was a craft cocktail bartender with a VM diagnosis to do?

Armed with nearly two years of research, she launched Tartt Drinks, a blog packed with knowledge gleaned from other leaders in the food-sensitivity world, including Heal Your Headache author Dr. David Buchholz and Texas-based VM blogger The Dizzy Cook.

Tartt Drinks also offers cocktail recipes aimed at folks with common food sensitivities such as citrus, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, beers and dark liquors, all of which may cause residual side effects for VM sufferers.

We spoke with Tartt about food sensitivity-based diet changes, making zero-proof cocktails and the future of modified and boozeless cocktails in San Antonio.

  • Courtesy of Tartt Drinks
What interest have you seen in sensitivity-based cocktails since you started working on them for yourself?

I used to have a regular guest that would sit at my bar and drink a really beautiful rhum agricole, neat. I never understood why he drank it that way, because it’s so much better when it’s mixed with something, and when I finally asked him about it, he told me that he was severely allergic to citrus. Citrus is also an issue for me and a lot of other VM sufferers, so I would always have him try my new citrus-free recipes. Now, I focus on requests that I get from people who are looking to enjoy a cocktail without the side effects from ingredients their bodies are sensitive to. I am currently working on a pineapple-less piña colada recipe for a lady who can’t have pineapple, using Granny Smith apple, ripe peach and ascorbic acid to pump up the acidity. It’s actually really beautiful, and now this person can enjoy her “vacation in a glass!” Taking requests has been really fulfilling for me, because I miss having that connection with people, which is such a huge part of what I love about bartending.

Back up. Ascorbic acid in cocktails? Just how easy is it for folks to create these cocktails at home?

It’s really easy! A lot of the products I use to adjust acidity levels in cocktails are readily available online, so I usually tell people to make sure it’s food-grade before they purchase it. I like to approach this from a very transparent and empowering place, sharing exactly what’s in that glass and what has been changed so that people know what is replacing the ingredients that are harmful to them.

In terms of the pandemic, what are your thoughts on adopting modified cocktails as a facet of a larger health and wellness program?

I feel like the current state of things is so emotionally taxing for people, and I’m really glad the culture surrounding using alcohol as a coping mechanism is changing. Five years ago, it wouldn’t have been as accepted to order a boozeless cocktail. Sometimes you just need a break, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What are you most looking forward to in this space that’s being created for people who are making wellness-driven cocktails?

I’m glad you say that, because I feel like I’m seeing it, and am never sure if I’m just being hyperaware of it because it’s my focus. I really, truly hope that it gains legs and takes off. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of other folks in the VM community, even having one of my zero-proof cocktails featured by the National Headache Foundation for their New Year’s Eve cocktail, and that wouldn’t have happened without the support of others who are working with modified diets just like I am. I’ve had conversations with people who I think could be considered cocktail purists, who have issues with my trying to make modified versions of classic cocktails like a Manhattan. I feel like, if someone couldn’t enjoy this cocktail in its classic form, but now can enjoy something similar without painful side effects, what’s the issue here? How much purer can you get?

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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