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Sound Bites: Mixing Drinks After Losing The Sense Of Smell

Bar manager Joel Clark mixes drinks at The Purple Martin in St. Louis.
Sauce Magazine

Joel Clark, who has been called one of St. Louis’ top craft cocktail bartenders, lost his sense of smell after suffering a seizure in December. Losing a sense is traumatic in itself, but losing the sense of smell also means Clark has lost his sense of taste.

“I was standing upright, looking at some gifts that I might bring from the Midwest to my nieces and nephews in the mountains and it felt like my world turned into an oil painting — two-dimensional. And the after that, I’m out,” Clark told “Cityscape” host Steve Potter. “I fell backwards and I landed on the back of my head. Witnesses said somebody looked around, thinking somebody just dropped a watermelon. That was my head.”

Clark had had seizures before. After spending a few hours at the hospital, he continued his trip to Colorado.

“The next three days are what really changed my life,” he said.

“The fall caused a severe amount of pain. It just does when you fall on your head like that. But about three days later, I woke up and had dinner with my family and realized that I wasn’t tasting effectively. There was bacon on my plate and I realized I couldn’t smell the bacon.”

Clark’s doctors say he has generalized seizure disorder and anosmia, the inability to smell. Anosmia also means Clark cannot taste. Losing both senses is difficult for a career bartender, but Clark’s career continues to grow. He is now the bar manager at the Purple Martin in St. Louis. But creating cocktails without a sense of smell has not been easy.

“There’s a whole movement called the craft cocktail movement and it’s gaining a foothold in the Midwest now finally, but it started about 15, 16 years ago on the coasts,” Clark said. “We have these training programs we can go to. A section of that training is ‘The Nose Knows’ because you don’t taste any of the glasses in front of you. You smell them, put them down, write what you smell, guess what it is. The nose does know. I used to be able to take a mixture or concoction of a drink I would make and smell it, not taste anything, and say what it was missing. Your taste is 80 percent of what you smell.”

Clark still creates new cocktails, but describes his process as more cerebral now.

“I write the recipes down and I know these ingredients on their own so I can kind of taste them in my mind and then put them together and balance them together,” he said. “I just recently did a cocktail menu for a bar on Cherokee called Blank Space. What I did was take seven classic drinks I know, and I can taste them in my mind. I can do that. But what we wanted to do was incorporate hot tea and make another version. So I had to collaborate with them. I said here’s this drink; it’s going to taste like this. Now let’s pick a tea and you guys tell me what the tea tastes like and we’ll match it together.”

Clark also said he has become more aware of his other senses.

“My sense of touch has always probably been my most sensitive but it is extremely more-so now,” he said. “When you shake someone’s hand, a lot of times we take that for granted. I don’t anymore. It means something.”

Clark said he now pays more attention to the way a cocktail looks and even sounds.

“It dawned on me that a plastic straw is kind of bland, generic, and we get them in a drink just to stir a drink,” he said. So some of his drinks are now served with small spoons. “Why not have something a little more tangible and heavy that you can hold and also make noise with? I’ve begun doing that.”

Clark said his sense of humor has helped him cope with his missing sense of smell.

“I do have an unbelievable sense of humor. I’m a Cubs fan — I have to,” he said. “It’s my path. It’s my life. What’s ahead remains open. It is what it is, but we keep going on.”

Sound Bites is a monthly segment produced in partnership with Sauce Magazine. Read more about Clark’s story.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.