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Features

The History Of The Bloody Mary

The famous red cocktail appears on drinks menu all over the world. But who first thought of mixing vodka and tomato juice?

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Food writer Élodie Nöel explores the history of one of the most famous cocktails, and hangover cures, in the world. 

What better way to cure a hangover than a beautiful plate of Eggs Benedicts and a large glass of boozy spicy tomato juice?

Alongside the Bellini and the Mimosa, the Bloody Mary proudly stands on most brunch menus and is considered a classic "hair of the dog" drink. It also shares with the aforementioned beverages the fact that even the most inexperienced bartender could throw the ingredients together and manage to pull off something fairly decent.

A Bloody Mary usually mixes vodka and tomato juice, with the addition of various spices and flavourings such as Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, herbs, horseradish, black pepper, lemon or lime juice, celery salt or olives. As it is the case for quite a few internationally praised dishes and drinks, the origins of the Bloody Mary are quite foggy - some would say like the brain of those who enjoy drinking it on a Sunday morning. A multitude of claims have been made for the paternity of the drink, the most popular one being from Fernand “Pete” Petiot, bartender at the New York Bar in Paris (now known as ‘The Harry’s Bar’), which regularly welcomed the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or George Gershwin in the 1920s.

According to the bar manager Alain Da Silva, the Bloody Mary was invented at Harry's in 1921. "The story is that there were a few customers, a few friends, and the bartender, Pete Petiot, made a cocktail for them with tomato juice and vodka," he said in an interview with BBC News in 2011. As for the name of the cocktail, it was supposedly given after one of the clients said it reminded him of his girlfriend named Mary who he had met at a cabaret called the Bucket of Blood.

The history

Another version of the story attributes the creation of the BM to comedian George Jessel. In 1939, American journalist Lucius Beebe wrote in his gossip column This New York that Jessel's “newest pick-me-up” was called a Bloody Mary and was made of “half tomato juice, half vodka".

This is where things get confusing. Fernand Petiot later claimed to have invented the modern Bloody Mary in 1934 at the King Cole Room in New York's St. Regis Hotel, as a refinement to Jessel's drink. To this day, the hotel’s website claims it is the “home of the original Bloody Mary”. In 1964, Petiot spoke to The New Yorker magazine and said he initiated “the Bloody Mary of today”: "Jessel said he created it, but it was really nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over. I cover the bottom of the shaker with four large dashes of salt, two dashes of black pepper, two dashes of cayenne pepper, and a layer of Worcestershire sauce; I then add a dash of lemon juice and some cracked ice, put in two ounces of vodka and two ounces of thick tomato juice, shake, strain, and pour. We serve a hundred to a hundred and fifty Bloody Marys a day here in the King Cole Room and in the other restaurants and the banquet rooms."

Alongside the “Mary from the Bucket of Blood” version, the name of the cocktail is also linked to Mary Tudor, Queen of England, who executed hundreds of Protestants during her reign and
won herself the moniker of Bloody Mary, but no viable proof can support the claim.

Spicing things up

Over the years, many variations of the cocktail have been created, like the Bloody Bishop, with the same proportion of sherry and vodka, the Bloody Caesar, with clam juice, the Bloody Molly, with Irish whisky instead of vodka, or the Red Snapper, with gin instead of vodka. The Virgin Mary is the alcohol-free version of the drink. Yet the drink has remained as one of the most popular classics.

“It can be very refreshing and tasty”, says David Chawke, owner and manager of the Bank Bar on College Green, who believes that the nice kick to it makes it a good alternative to other cocktails, which can be sweet or quite potent. “A wide range of people order them, usually people who like spicy things are drawn to them.”

Practically anything can be added to the drink itself or as a garnish, depending on the client's wishes or the bartender's creativity. Some bars and restaurants now offer massive garnishes under the form of skewers inserted into the glass, such as bacon, ribs, mini burgers, fried shrimps, kebabs, meatballs, or even fried macaroni and cheese – turning the cocktail into a full meal.

Some of these extravagant creations can be seen on Instagram under the hashtag #MonsterBloodyMary. According to David Chawke, garnishes and presentations are fun but shouldn’t be the main focus. “At the end of the day it’s all about the liquid”, he says. “You don’t want style over substance so it’s important to try and get both right.”

In the Drury Buildings in Dublin, the cocktail is made with Absolut Vodka, a “Drury Spiced Mix”, tomato juice and lemon juice. In Bellucci’s, it is a mix of Absolut Vodka, tomato juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and lime juice. At the Stella Cocktail Bar, it includes amontillado sherry and celery salt. As for The Virgin Mary Bar, the alcohol-free cocktail bar on Capel Street, they make their sans vodka version using freshly pressed tomato juice, a Dublin made hot sauce, lime, celery pickle and a secret spice mix.

At The Bank Bar on College Green, the bartenders make a mix consisting of tomato juice, lemon juice, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, horseradish, paprika, ginger, salt and pepper three times a week. Making this mixture in advance allows for consistency; having the right mix of spices prevents it from being too overpowering. As for the garnish, they use pickle, cherry tomato, pearl onion and lemon. Not exactly a meal, but a lovely addition to highlight the flavours of the drink.

Author: Élodie Nöel

Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on  Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.