Karen Tartt wants it all: a successful career, a way to empower people, better bar lighting, but most of all, a delicious cocktail that won’t leave her sick or hungover the next day. After being diagnosed with vestibular migraines (VM), a condition of the nervous system that can cause extreme equilibrium issues, nausea and other maladies, the San Antonio, TX-based bartender decided to adopt the Heal Your Headache diet. The only catch? Its biggest offenders include dark liquors, red wine and citrus. Not exactly ideal for a working bartender.
“It was a lot of mixed emotions,” Tartt said about her diagnosis. “It was devastating because I knew that I was going to have to change a lot of things about my life. But at the same time, while I’ve been waiting for so long to figure out what was going on with me, it kind of came as a relief.”
During the height of Tartt’s illness, she stopped drinking entirely for 18 months. Luckily, she found solace in an online community of people living with VM, namely food blogger and fellow migraine sufferer ‘Dizzy Cook’ Alicia Wolf. Wolf, along with others in the community, helped mentor Tartt through her new diet, giving her opportunities along the way to flex her VM-oriented bartending muscles. “The first [migraine-proof] cocktail I ever made actually was a feature for the Dizzy Cook’s website.”
Where other bartenders might have seen a near impossible obstacle, Tartt saw an opportunity. With her newfound awareness of the lack of cocktail options for people with ingredient sensitivities, she launched Tartt Drinks, a website dedicated to creative cocktails for people with VM and other allergies. Armed with new techniques, some pH strips and a long list of pop culture references, she began creating migraine-proof concoctions. Some of her cocktails include a butterfly pea flower hot toddy, sage smoked bees knees with acid adjusted grape juice and a strawberry licorice sour inspired by the iconic 80’s movie “Heathers.”
Working without citrus and other bartending mainstays created the possibility for experimentation and innovation. How do you make a piña colada without pineapple? Peach juice and ascorbic acid. A daiquiri without lime? Star fruit and citric acid. With every unique challenge came an even more clever and delicious workaround. “It’s almost rebellious in a way, because I’m sitting here as a person with this chronic illness. And I’m dealing with it and I keep telling people we want all the things.” But never compromising was not always an option for Tartt.
“Right after diagnosis, I ended up working at a place and I told them that I have a light sensitivity and they decided to just keep adding lights.” A blue rotating disco ball was the nail in the coffin for Tartt. The experience left her with a better understanding of what so many others like her had gone through. “I meet a lot of people who are like, ‘I just quit going out because I felt like I couldn’t.’ And I got it.”
Largely inspired by the incident, Tartt launched a new segment of her website entitled “Cocktails in The Wild,” where she helps people with VM navigate the bar scene. “I want people to be empowered to go out. I want to go back to work, be full-time behind a bar again and meet people who have worked through this.”
As a brand ambassador to a local gin and bourbon distillery, Tartt is responsible for visiting cocktail bars and buying drinks with the two liquors. This often requires bringing her own modifications, something she encourages others like her to do. “I call it bring your own ‘mods’.” One modification Tartt is seeing more of as a bartender is the demand for better non-alcoholic cocktails.
“I think people are becoming more empowered to make their own health decisions. They’re taking the option to maybe take a break from drinking. I’m seeing that a lot,” she said. Many of Tartt’s own creations are zero-proof including her Hibiscus Kiwi Cooler and Blackberry El Diablo. While the pandemic has undeniably hurt bars, Tartt is hopeful that the bar scene will be more accepting of VM and allergy-sufferers moving forward.
“I want to hear the success story of when I went out to a bar and had a good time and felt normal again because I got to work through these steps with you.”
Interested in other female bartenders? Read about the Cocktail Bandits here.
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