It doesn’t seem that complicated really. You mix some tomato juice, vodka, add a dash of this and that, stick in a stalk of celery stalk, and there you have it: The Bloody Mary. It's the world’s most iconic hangover drink. It's socially acceptable to drink any time of day, but where did it come from, and who makes the best one?
Most historians believe that French bartender Fernand Petiot created the drink at Harry's New York in Paris, and brought the recipe with him when he eventually moved to New York City to work at the King Cole Bar—also adding salt, pepper, lemon and Worcestershire sauce to the drink—where it became an even bigger hit. The recipe worked its way down south and mutated again into something quite different.
During my travels, I've sampled Bloody Mary cocktails in New Orleans, New York, and Paris to settle the debate once and for all. Who makes the best Bloody Mary? The answer might just surprise you.
Stingray's, New Orleans
Over the last few years, I’ve made my way through several top ten Bloody Mary lists in New Orleans, and all I can say is NOLA bars are serious about their garnishes. You’re likely to get pickled okra, green beans, olives and some other preserved greenery in your drink. For some reason, the drink seems to be more at home in an old New Orleans courtyard than in Paris or New York.
One of the most interesting bloodies has to be at Stingray’s Seafood, which serves a giant soft shell crab on top of the glass. Even though the presentation looks more like a displaced crustacean than a garnish, the green bean antennae sort of ties it all together.
The King Cole Bar at The St. Regis Hotel, NYC
The King Cole bar is a nice, cozy old-school place frequented by the kind of people who drink Manhattans, smoke pipes, and talk about the weather. But this landmark hotel bar isn’t exactly known for cheap drinks. A Bloody Mary, which was renamed the Red Snapper when Petiot brought it here in 1933, costs about $25 and doesn’t even have a crab on top.
When I arrived, the place was just opening for business. The bartender iced up some large wine glasses, poured a generous helping of vodka, then added the mix that had been made with a secret recipe that couldn’t be divulged even through torture. A lime was added. No bells and whistles, just two ingredients and a wedge of citrus.
I wasn’t blown away. I tried to get my money’s worth out of the bar snacks, but my drink didn’t last long.
Harry's New York, Paris
Established in 1911, the establishment got its name from an actual bar in New York that was dismantled and reassembled in Paris. Around 1920, Petiot reportedly mixed tomato juice with vodka, which was just gaining popularity in Europe. It was a big hit with the Parisians and the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Upton Sinclair, all regulars at Harry’s.
In fact, legend has it that Ernest Hemingway’s wife Mary didn’t approve of his drinking binges and was very vocal about it. According to the tale, while drinking the famous libation at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, Hemingway would tell everyone he was hiding out from “bloody” Mary.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in the French capital and decided to go straight to the source. As I ordered a Bloody Mary and waited for the magic to happen, the bartender told me he was certain the Hemingway “wife” story was just a myth. He did recount the story of the Bloody Mary's invention, and it was a little more exciting with the French accent, I must admit.
The drink wasn’t quite as spicy as American versions, but there was definitely a little zing beyond plain tomato juice. This Bloody Mary was served in a straight glass with three ice cubes, vodka, the magical secret mix, and then something brown (maybe Worcestershire sauce) and no garnish. So that’s it. The original drink has none of the vegetables, fruits and other flourishes that we’ve come to know with the American version. It was considerably cheaper than its New York cousin at 14 Euros.
Not only was the Bloody Mary invented at Harry's New York, but so were many other drinks, including the Sidecar and Pink Lady—I recognized a few of the old school names from a recipe book when I’d first learned to bartend, but I rarely ever had anyone order one of them.
The bar is a timeless piece of history, and it’s kept its nostalgic charm for over 100 years—the old building seemed out of place compared to the places around it. It's intimate and definitely has an American feel to it. No wonder it’s been such a popular place for expats. The bartenders here are touted as expert mixologists and there’s undoubtedly a precision to their stirring and shaking. Even Ian Fleming’s literary hero James Bond describes Harry’s as “the best place to get a solid drink in Paris.” If it’s good enough for Bond, then I guess it’s good enough for me.
So, Where is the Best Bloody Mary?
Everyone has their own opinion, but I’ve just decided on mine and it’s not in Paris, New York, or New Orleans. It’s in Houston. A few months ago a Bloody Mary aficionado friend told me about a place in Humble called 1886 Humble Backyard. I didn’t think much of it until I arrived and ordered the drink. Jason Kersey was tending bar and was busy stabbing various food items onto skewers.
This wasn’t just a drink. It was a masterpiece. It was a drink and brunch. The garnishes were strategically placed as to not cheat you out of any of your drink. The mix is a big secret, of course, but Jason did let on that he used a lot of different barbecue spices. There are three skewers of pickled vegetables, blue cheese-stuffed olives, pickle-stuffed olives, salami, half of a hard-boiled egg, maple-smoked bacon, cheese cubes, asparagus, pickled carrots, beets, pickles, shrimp, peppers of all shapes and sizes, and, of course, a hamburger. It’s a very delicious hamburger, too, with a Hawaiian sweet roll bun and a patty to die for. A bite of hamburger and a sip of the Bloody Mary?
Now that’s a great way to kick off a Sunday.
Where’s your favorite Bloody Mary?