Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

A Bartender’s Guide to Customers with Severe Allergies

Make your bar a safe space for the allergy-ridden.

Cocktails illustration

 Elena Resko

Anyone with a food allergy can attest that traversing a bar menu (or any menu at all) can be a difficult anxiety-inducing feat, especially if the allergy is serious. A rogue peanut can turn a night of revelry completely on its head. 

Allergies affect a whopping 32 million Americans a year. Some suffer from common triggers, like gluten, nuts and seafood, while other Americans suffer from more unusual allergies—say, red dye No. 40 or latex. These allergies are only going to get more common: The CDC has reported that the number of children with food allergies grew 50% between 1997 and 2011. 

Regardless of whether a knock with an allergen will cause a mild rash or full-blown anaphylactic attack, bartenders are a crucial link in making sure a guest makes it through the night healthy and happy. These tips will help you gauge the severity of an allergy, identify what spirits are safe and, in a worst-case scenario, know how to react. 

1. Know Your Menu

Most guests with allergies are accustomed to flagging an allergy when they arrive, but asking a guest if they have restrictions will cover your bases. If they do, food safety expert Katie Heil recommends walking the guest through the menu to help them find safe options. 

Jason Allmond, the bar manager of Savannah’s Broughton Common, maintains a nut-free facility and has his staff devote a full day to allergen training. “We also maintain a rotating checklist of all common allergies for every item on our food and beverage menus,” he says.

After the guest orders, make sure your team is aware of the allergy. “You should personally talk with everyone who will be working on the guest's order, from cooks to bartenders,” says Heil. 

2. Know Your Backbar

Being able to asterisk allergy-safe items means knowing your cocktail menu beyond flavor profiles and ingredients; it requires knowing how the spirit is made. For gluten allergies, Drew Hairston, the beverage director of Washington, D.C.’s Dirty Habit, says, “All spirits distilled at or above 80 proof are gluten-free by design, so all the wheat product is distilled out.” But nut allergies should heed caution. Hairston points out that while allergens can be distilled out of a spirit, some brands add flavoring after distillation. “Bombay Sapphire gin is distilled, then infused with botanicals; allergens like almond and rose will still be present in the spirit,” he says. 

But many spirit and liqueur brands simply won’t disclose their processes, claiming it’s a proprietary secret or an elusive “unique blend of botanicals” and leaving drinkers with allergies to wade into dangerous territory. Melissa Caroll, the bar manager of Chicago’s Fisk & Co., doesn’t take any risks, using only spirits that are transparent about their ingredients. “This has its hindrances, because if we don’t know all of the ingredients, we will not offer that product to someone with an allergy,” she says. “I really appreciate transparent companies that allow their consumers to imbibe without risk.”

3. Have a Backup Plan

For guests with dairy allergies, oat milk has become a favorite among bartenders. “Brands like Califia Farms make great versions of these products that even foam like milk for cappuccinos and lattes,” says Hairston. 

If you choose to make your ingredients in-house, says Hairston, “Be aware of allergens present in your batches and house-made concoctions. Even if you’re using high-end, wine-fining agents and clarification techniques, you can never be sure if you pulled all the milk proteins out of your kick-ass milk punch.” 

For nut allergies, look at alternative brands that distill, not infuse, with nuts. “Crème de noyaux has a nutty almond and vanilla-like flavor but is distilled from apricot kernels and almond,” says Hariston. “If you can play around the bright red color, this can be a good stand-in for amarettos.” Chickpea provides an easy alternative to peanut oil. 

4. Make Each Drink with Care

When a drink is ordered, take the time to be scrupulous. In the middle of a rush or slammed service, this may not be ideal, but it may be a life-or-death call. Hairston recommends washing tools thoroughly (not just rinsing), from bar spoons to the blender to every single thing the liquid will touch. “P.S.: Your hands are tools,” says Hairston. 

“If we’re using or making an orgeat or a cocktail that has potential allergens, we keep sanitizer on hand for tools and have a particular set that’s used only for that cocktail,” says Lauren Mathews, the lead bartender of Washington, D.C.’s Urbana. “This special set of tools is marked with bright tape.”

So what if you assume a guest may simply not like an ingredient? It may be a nuisance, but “there’s a reason the person felt the need to tell you,” says Allmond. 

5. Get Ahead of It, but React Fast if It Goes Wrong

To avoid emergency situations, “Always let the guests know the risks,” says Heil. “If you have reason to believe that you will not be able to prepare an allergen-free order without cross-contact, you should apologize and let the guest know. It's better to be honest and potentially lose business than to put the guest's life at risk.”

In the worst-case scenario, “know how to recognize and respond to an allergic reaction,” says Heil. Hives, swelling of the face or lips, coughing, a hoarse voice, watery eyes or pale skin can all be indicators. “If everything goes well, you shouldn't have to deal with an allergic reaction. But mistakes can happen, and it's important for your employees to know how to respond to an allergic reaction.” 

“Be knowledgeable of the whereabouts of your first-aid kit and what’s in it,” says Hairston. “While you can’t legally administer an EpiPen to a guest, having Benadryl or an antihistamine can buy you time if a guest is having an allergic reaction.”