If I asked you of the few “classic” cocktails that bartenders even know how to make anymore these days, none has a more storied past than the Bloody Mary. In fact, if it weren’t for the 18th Amendment and the Russian Revolution there would be no Bloody Mary.
The bloody Mary was invented somewhere in the region of the 1920’s or the 1930’s. Many have a different name for the drink and even a different story of how it came about it can be called the Red Snapper, the Virgin Mary, the Michelada or the Caesar.
While its original name and recipe may be disputed, its birthplace is not—except by one man, Colin Field of the Hemingway Bar at The Ritz Hotel in Paris, who happens to be the world’s best bartender but who refuses to believe the Bloody Mary originated around the corner at Harry’s New York Bar at 5 Rue Danou. Harry’s (which is in no way associated with Harry’s Bar in Venice) opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1911 by Harry MacElhone after an American jockey had a New York bar dismantled and shipped to Paris. This novelty of a New York-style bar became such a welcoming destination for liquor-starved Americans during Prohibition that they learned to tell the Parisian taxi drivers “Sank Roo Doe Noo!”—which for a long time now has been painted on the bar’s window. Around 1920, émigrés escaping the Russian Revolution began arriving in Paris, bringing with them vodka and caviar, so Harry’s bartender, Ferdinand “Pete” Petiot, began experimenting with the new spirit, which he found tasteless.
At the same time Petiot was introduced to American canned tomato juice, which back in the dry days of Prohibition was called a “tomato juice cocktail” on menus. Over a year’s time, Petiot made vodka drink after vodka drink until he mixed it with the tomato juice and some seasonings, and, voilà!, a new cocktail was born, called the Bucket of Blood, christened by visiting American entertainer Roy Barton after a West Side Chicago nightclub of the same name. The drink was popularized by Americans, so in 1933, Vincent Astor brought over Petiot to man the King Cole Bar at the St. Régis Hotel in New York, famous for its 30-foot nursery rhyme mural by Maxfield Parrish. The drink caught on—particularly as a supposed cure for hangovers—but under the less sanguine name “Red Snapper,” which is what it’s still called at the just-restored King Cole Bar. (Originally, a pint of black peppercorns was steeped in vodka for six weeks to create a mixture called “liquid black pepper,” a dash of which gave the vodka itself a real blast of flavor.)
Just when other bars around town began calling it the “Bloody Mary,” with reference to Mary Tudor, Mary I of England and Ireland, known for her bloody reign against Protestants, is vague, but in a 1939 ad campaign for American-made Smirnoff vodka, first made in 1934 by Russian émigré Rudolph Kunnetchansky, entertainer George Jessel claimed to have named the drink after a friend, Mary Geraghty. Recipes under the name Bloody Mary date are in print at least to the year 1946. Butch McGuire’s Bar in Chicago claims to have added the celery stick as a flavorful stirrer.
Ernest Hemingway, who likely knocked back a few Red Snappers on his visits to Harry’s New York Bar in the 1920s, wrote in a 1947 letter that he had introduced the Bloody Mary to Hong Kong in 1941, an act he said “did more than any other single factor except the Japanese Army to precipitate the Fall of that Crown Colony.” (Hemingway also claimed to have “liberated” The Ritz in August 1944, actually arriving a few hours late.)
In modern times the Bloody Mary is often used as a common hair of the dog drink, it is believed to cure hangovers with a combination of a heavy vegetable base to settle the stomach, salt to replenish lost electrolytes, and of course alcohol to relieve the head and body aches.
Traditionally the Bloody Mary is served in a highball or pint glass over ice. Always using tomato juice and vodka, but never by themselves, some common additions to the mix are salt or celery salt, cracked pepper, hot sauce, citrus, Worcestershire sauce, celery seed, horseradish, clam juice, olive brine, even bitters. All of the ingredients can be mixed by hand on the spot by a great bartender or made ahead of time in a pitcher. In addition to the aforementioned more traditional ingredients, practically anything can be added to the drink itself or as a garnish according to the drinker’s wishes or the bartender’s or establishment’s traditions. Some variations of the Bloody Mary served today are designed to be a meal as well as a drink, coming with over the top “garnishes” on skewers inserted into the glass, including ribs, miniature hamburgers called “sliders”, grilled or fried shrimp, kebabs, sandwich wedges, fruit slices, and even candied bacon strips.