Classic Cocktails in History: the Bloody Mary

photo by Davide
photo by Davide

Sunday morning. Your stomach is a little delicate, your head is pounding, and every noise sounds like a thunderclap. You get out of bed, shower, and head out for brunch with friends, rocking the darkest glasses you have. It is not clear when the sun became so bright, but it certainly feels like someone turned up the intensity. Perusing the menu of your chosen brunch spot, you are looking for something that will sit well in your stomach. It all sounds a little dicey, until you get to the cocktail menu and see it: the Bloody Mary. No matter how rough the night was before, a Bloody Mary sounds great the next day. It is a cocktail that has risen from a curiosity in a Paris cocktail bar to a staple of brunch around the world. You would be hard pressed to find this cocktail excluded from any book of classic cocktails. You would also be hard pressed to find any two bartenders that use the same recipe. This is where the Bloody Mary gets interesting.

Two fronts that converged on Paris during the 1920’s contributed to the creation of this flexible cocktail. Bartenders were fleeing the now bone-dry United States, especially the elite ones. They wanted to continue to practice their craft, not hustle toxic liquor hidden in strong mixers to die hard drinkers. Many set up shop in Europe and the Caribbean, some returning when the 21st Amendment was passed. They carried the American spirit of ingenuity with them, including canned juices. Russians were moving into Paris as well. They were escaping the transformation of their home country from a monarchy into a laboratory for the ideals of Marx and Lenin. They took with them all of the trappings of their home country and fled with a different spirit, vodka. Vodka was not a popular spirit outside of Russia, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries. Its move into Paris gave the new bartenders there a fresh ingredient to experiment with. That blank canvas is what Ferdinand “Pete” Petiot started with at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. His experiments with the Russian spirit and the American canned tomato juice gave him a cocktail he was pleased with. It was a half vodka, half tomato juice concoction he named the Bloody Mary. Though if you asked him, he had a little help from Vaudevillian star George Jessel. Petiot, in a 1964 interview with The New Yorker, states that “George Jessel said he created it, but it was really nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.”

George Jessel ctsy Stage Door Canteen
George Jessel ctsy Stage Door Canteen

That changed really occurred once Petiot came back to the U.S. to take over bartending duties at the King Cole Room in the St. Regis Hotel. According to the King Cole Bar and Saloon’s website, Russian prince and businessman Serge Obolensky wanted a Bloody Mary, but wanted it spiced up. Petiot added salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice. He shook it into the original half and half mixture Jessel suggested, and a star was born! Looking at the King Cole Bar’s site, you won’t find a listing for the Bloody Mary. You will find one for the Red Snapper, which is what the cocktail was renamed by the owner, Vincent Astor. He thought that the name was too vulgar for an upscale establishment. The name change also led to speculation there was a change in the base spirit. Gin was far more common in the United States at that time, but vodka was not as scarce as we’d like to imagine. Cocktail books from the era, notably the 1941 Cocktail Guide and Ladies Companion by Crosby Gaige, listed the Red Snapper as made with vodka, not gin. Lucius Beebe wrote about it several times in the New York Herald Tribune around 1940, mentioning vodka as well. The confusion may come from the fact that gin is used in the modern Red Snapper variation of the Bloody Mary.

photo by Jill G
photo by Jill G

The attraction to the cocktail, for bartenders and consumers alike, is the flexibility of what goes into it. There is a tomato-based component to the mixer, but that is generally the only consistent piece of the puzzle. The International Bartenders Association lists the ingredients as such:

  • 1.5 oz. (45 ml) vodka
  • 3 oz. (90 ml) tomato juice
  •  .5 oz. (15 ml) lemon juice
  • 2 to 3 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
  • Tabasco Sauce
  • Celery Salt
  • Pepper

Stir gently, pour all ingredients into a highball glass. Garnish with celery and a lemon wedge (optional).

The King Cole Bar and Saloon still sells hundreds of Bloody Marys, and this is the recipe they currently use:

  • 1 oz. (30 ml) vodka
  • 2 oz. (60 ml) tomato juice
  • 1 dash of lemon juice
  • 2 dashes of salt
  • 2 dashed of black pepper
  • 2 dashes of cayenne pepper
  • 3 dashes of Worcestershire sauce

Garnished with a lemon wedge and stalk of celery

King Cole Bar, photo by My Life in a Bungalow
King Cole Bar, photo by My Life in a Bungalow

Dale DeGroff, in The Essential Cocktail, has the following recipe:

  • 2 oz. (60 ml) Vodka
  • 4 oz. (120 ml) Sacramento tomato juice
  • .5 oz. (15 ml) Fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 dashes of Tabasco Sauce
  • 2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  •  Pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Dash of celery salt (optional)
  • Freshly grated horseradish to taste (optional)

In a mixing glass, combine all the ingredients. Add ice and roll back and forth to mix. Strain into an iced goblet and garnish with lemon and lime wedges on a side plate.

And there the deviations begin. It is a small one, but shows that every Bloody Mary offers the opportunity for the bartender to leave their own imprint on it. There are variations where you can substitute the tomato juice for tomato water. Epicurious has a nice base recipe for tomato water, and all you need is 10 medium tomatoes, some salt and time. There are many tomato water recipes that include spices in them, but this one is an excellent base. If you are going with traditional tomato juice, the ingredients you can add cover the spectrum. The list includes, but is not limited to: bitters, pickles, pickled peppers, fennel, Creole seasoning, Cayenne pepper, sriracha, mustard, steak sauce, barbecue sauce, lime juice (substituted for lemon juice), orange juice, vinegar, cilantro, molasses, balsamic syrup, soy sauce, and a variety of beers. You can make it sweet, savory, blistering hot or relatively mild. There is no limit to how many ingredients you can add.

There are a few additions you can make to the Bloody Mary that changes the name and the flavor profile entirely. Adding clam juice to the tomato juice will create a Bloody Caesar, which is extremely popular in Canada. Adding beef broth brings a rich taste to the drink and creates a Bloody Bull. Along with the variations in the tomato juice, there are several variations in the base spirit you can use. Much like a martini, some connoisseurs will consider it a Bloody Mary with either gin or vodka. There are some fine establishments that make their Bloody Marys with a nice whiskey. Almost universally, adding tequila changes it to a Bloody Maria. In some Bloody Marias you can find equal parts tomato and either orange or pineapple juice, turning the mixer into something resembling a sangrita.

If you go with vodka for your base spirit, there are still many options to consider. It should blend into the cocktail and disappear, so don’t think the well vodka is going to cut it! Rarely will you see a specific vodka called out for the creation of a Bloody Mary, but few flavored vodkas marry perfectly into the rich mixture. Bakon Vodka offers a savory and meaty undertone to the cocktail, especially if you have a crisp slice of bacon as a garnish. UV released a spicy and sweet Sriracha vodka at the end of 2013 that will add a little extra kick to you morning drink. Stolichnaya offers Hot, their jalapeno tinted vodka for the Bloody Mary set. And if you are really looking to sear the taste buds off your tongue with heat, 100,000 Scoville Naga Chili Vodka is the spirit for you. The granddaddy of all pepper vodkas goes to Absolut, and their Absolut Peppar. They saw the direction the cocktail culture was going in the 1980’s. It was embracing the Bloody Mary with gusto. This made it easy for Absolut to make it the first flavored vodka they released in the United States.

ctsy Sobelman's Pub and Grill, Milwaukee
ctsy Sobelman's Pub and Grill, Milwaukee

There are some bars that pride themselves on what goes into the Bloody Mary mix. There are some where the cocktail is not the story, it is entirely about the garnish. There are garnishes that, over time, could be considered legendary. They are not garnishes as much as they are sculptures, monuments to what you can do with time, wood skewers, a wide ranging menu, and ingenuity. They are meals in and of themselves. Or they are pieces of Bloody Mary lore. O’Davey’s Pub in Fond du Lac, WI, offered a limited edition Bloody Mary garnished with sausages, popcorn, mini-burgers, nachos, and more. Score on Davie in Vancouver, BC also has a menu featuring over the top Bloody Caesars, including the Grilled Chaesar (complete with a grilled cheese sandwich), and the Luongo, which would be served in a large silver chalice, but just could not quite make it there. Sunda in Chicago makes some off-the-chart Bloody Mary garnishes, including ones with Wagyu beef, soft shell crabs, herb roasted potatoes, tocino (Spanish bacon) grilled cheese, and a variety of other gourmet treats. Lest you think only the north goes out of their way for garnishes, The Nook in Atlanta, GA offers the Bloody Best, covered with tater tots, steak, eggs, bacon, and other savory toppings to a spicy cocktail. The undisputed champion, though is Sobelman’s in Milwaukee, WI. They have made headlines before with The Masterpiece and The Beast, but what they did in August this year set a new bar. They deep fried a four pound chicken and set it on top of a jug of Bloody Mary. Then they added cheeseburger sliders, bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, mini-sausages, and just for some traditional flair, some celery and olives. It sold for $50, and 10% of the proceeds went to a local hunger task force. There is a bar out there right now figuring out how to outdo that garnish.

What DOES make that great Sunday morning Bloody Mary? Is it the spicy concoction in the glass? Is it the extreme garnish, some may say meal, that sits on top of the glass? Or is it just the tomato juice and food combination that works to help shake off that hangover? Like the cocktail itself, the real reason is open to interpretation. It is one of the few recipes in the realm of bartending that allows the person mixing it to translate it into whatever they want it to be. No matter how you assemble it, the Bloody Mary is a labor of love and a wonderful drink to spend a Sunday morning with.

Editor's note: While we at Alcohol Professor always encourage you to make your own cocktail mixes over buying pre-made ones, there are some exceptions on the market that offer high quality alternatives with unique ingredients. In this case, homemade BBQ sauce! Ubon's Bloody Mary Mix came to market when two nice Jewish boys from NJ dabbling in BBQ discovered the rich, natural texture of this Bloody Mary mix. It's based on a family sauce recipe that was used in the morning BBQ pre-competition Bloodies served up by the BBQ circuit's most hospitable third generation pitmaster, Gary Roark.