Behind the Bar

How to Serve Gluten-Free Customers

White wine being poured from a bottle to a glass.
With rare exceptions, U.S. made wines are a solid choice for gluten free drinkers. Photo via iStock/John Shepherd.

By now, gluten-free products have spread into every corner of daily life. Gluten-free Girl Scout cookies? Check. Gluten-free dish soap? Yep, it’s a thing. Gluten-free lipstick? Available in shades from Cotton Candy to Cayenne. This year alone, the U.S. is expected to sell $15 billion worth of gluten-free products. And now, the gluten-free world is coming to your bar. As the number of people following a gluten-free diet continues to grow, more and more customers are coming to bars with a new set of drinking needs.

It may seem simple — they can drink everything but beer, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. But fear not: with just a few easy tips and things to remember, you’ll quickly become better equipped to handle the business of your gluten-sensitive and Celiac customers.

Treat these customers with respect.

The first thing you need to do to be a helpful bartender to your gluten-free customers? Recognize that their needs are valid. Maybe you think the number of people claiming to be gluten-sensitive are just blind followers of the latest weight loss trend. Or maybe you think the issue isn’t gluten, but other harmful food choices. And sure, that Jimmy Kimmel video was silly. But, no matter what your beliefs may be, they shouldn’t creep into how you treat your guests—no matter how much you love carbs. “Even if it’s just a lifestyle choice, a bartender’s job is not to judge somebody,” said Jeff Burkhart, Barfly columnist and author of "Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender." “It’s to figure out how to make the customer happy.”

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are real conditions that come with a variety of painful gastrointestinal problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Those suffering deserve a drink or two to ease their pain.

Learn the general guidelines.

There are a few general rules of thumb to follow when a customer tells you they’re gluten-free. According to the NIH, spirits — even those made from wheat products — are rendered gluten-free through the distilling process. (And what exactly is gluten? It’s a mix of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains.) However, since the FDA doesn’t require spirit makers to list the ingredients in their alcohol, hidden sources of gluten slip in. Certain whiskeys have flavorings or food colorings added after distillation. Rums can contain added sugars made from gluten products.

While distilled spirits will be okay for most people avoiding gluten, for those who are severely gluten sensitive, your safest best is to pick something that’s explicitly labeled gluten-free, like Tito’s, or something that contains 100% of one ingredient, like all-agave tequila. Choosing an all-organic spirit is generally a safer choice since it lessens the chance of it having additives that contain gluten.

Keep it simple

Once you’ve settled on an appropriate spirit, don’t add much. When crafting a drink, keep it as close to the original spirit as possible — this isn’t the time to show off a cocktail with ten ingredients. Unless you know every single ingredient in something, don’t include it. Liqueurs are full of hidden sources of gluten — just think of amaros and their dozens of mystery ingredients. Orgeat syrups can contain barley. Bitters are generally thought to be safe, but sodas can be suspect.

Even your Bloody Mary isn’t safe: some types of Worcestershire sauce contain malt vinegar. The best path is a simple combination of a spirit and one or two mixers that you know the ingredients of: “It’s always good to just stick with fresh mixers like fruits, which will never have gluten in them,” said Erika Lenkert, Gluten-Free Forever magazine editor-in-chief, who said she always Googles every ingredient when making cocktails for the magazine to ensure they’re gluten-free. “If it’s not on their website stating very clearly that it’s gluten-free, we call them. Or we don’t include them, because one little misstep is a painful experience for someone.”

Know the rules of wine and beer

U.S.-made wines — with rare exceptions — are generally a safe choice for gluten-free drinkers. Ciders, which are seeing a resurgence and increasing number of craft producers, are also good options.

Gluten-free beer seems like an obvious option, but can be somewhat complicated. There are entirely gluten-free beers, made from ingredients that have never contained gluten, and then there are reduced gluten beers, made from traditional beer ingredients but containing an enzyme that breaks up the gluten. And while it’s a slim chance, there are people who are sensitive enough that the small amount of gluten would cause a severe reaction.

“The problem with [gluten-reduced beer] is that there are no tests on the market that accurately exactly how much gluten is left in these product, so they can’t really 100% guarantee that the gluten-reduced beer is actually gluten-free,” said Lenkert. “Gluten-reduced does not mean gluten-free. There are people who react to that, so as a bartender, if you want to keep your patrons safe, you educate them on the difference.”

And if you’re looking to stock one of the gluten-free or gluten-reduced beer, there are an increasing amount of options. “I like Omission. My favorite is the pale ale,” said Brian Vincent Weber of The Bartender Journey Podcast, and the official podcast producer for Tales of the Cocktail. Weber is gluten sensitive and has avoided gluten for 15 years. “Something that’s really cool is that you can go on their website, look at the information on each bottle and actually see the report for that batch.”

Lenkert also recommends checking out the options in your local craft beer scene, many of which — from Portland to Minnesota — are producing excellent small batch gluten-free beers (and if you’re looking for more info, the April issue of GFF will feature a roundup of the best new gluten-free beers).

Accept that the customer is always right

Since gluten allergies exist on a spectrum, everyone will have a different reaction to different products. While the information in this article is a good primer for the majority of gluten-free customers, it’s no substitute for talking to them and finding their specific needs.

Always ask the customer how severe their allergy is, and if they’ve had reactions to any particular alcohols in the past. Depending on their sensitivity, you might need to steer them to a spirit that’s never contained gluten in any form. While one person can handle whiskey made from rye, another customer might tell you it’s off-limits.

Sometimes, it may seem nonsensical or unscientific — for example, all distilled vodka should theoretically be gluten-free — but like hearts, the gastrointestinal tract wants what it wants. “I know that vodka distilled from wheat is gluten-free,” said Burkhart. “But if someone feels that they have a sensitivity to that, I have to be sensitive to that as a server.”

Overall, try to learn as much as you can within reason. Show them the bottles, confirm the drink ingredients before you make it, and be upfront about what you don’t know. And most of all, don’t treat their condition like a burden, but instead, a fun challenge.

“If somebody takes the time to tell a bartender that they’re gluten-free, there’s a reason for that. The most important thing [a bartender] can do is be educated about the products they're using behind the bar,” said Lenkert.

“Be knowledgeable about your product, so that when you’re helping someone to make a decision, you can help them make the right one. They’re going to feel special and cared for. And that’s a bartender’s job, really — to make everyone feel like they’re looked after”

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