Imagine selling the Bloody Mary to a focus group today: “Say, you know what goes well with vodka? Tomato juice!”
Well, someone was the first to make the leap, and according to Brian Bartels’ new book The Bloody Mary, the drink could be attributed to New York comedian George Jessel in the 1920s—who claimed to have combined vodka, tomato juice, and Worcestershire sauce as a hangover cure—or Fernand Petiot, a French-born New York bartender who added lemon, cayenne, and black pepper to the tomato juice cocktail. We can thank both pioneers for introducing us to the most savory way to get warm and fuzzy on a Sunday morning.
Bartels, beverage director of the Happy Cooking Hospitality restaurant group in New York, is a man obsessed with uncovering every facet and nuance to the Bloody Mary. He grew up in Wisconsin, a state known for its supper clubs and an unrivaled Bloody Mary culture. Written with humor and Midwestern conviviality, Bartels’ book (out March 28) is a comprehensive look into the cocktail’s backstory and best practices for mixing one up, and includes 50 recipes, which range from straight-ahead (here’s his recipe for the Bloody Caesar) to the slightly deranged (see the PB&J Bloody Mary on page 85). The Takeout spoke with Bartels about the venerable cocktail, its regional identity, and which Bloody Mary innovations do and do not work.
The Takeout: There’s incontrovertible evidence that the Bloody Mary originated in New York City. So how did it become a thing in your home state of Wisconsin?
Brian Bartels: One of the first things that got me into writing this book was studying the subject itself, and coming to term that the Bloody Mary is, arguably, the most social cocktail. It breeds a certain kind of public camaraderie in the Midwest and in the way I grew up around social gatherings. There’s this Wisconsin mentality where everyone’s hard-working during the week, and on Saturdays, you got together, maybe drink a Bloody Mary. My parents threw parties all the time.
TT: I’ve been fascinated with the proud Wisconsin tradition of turning the Bloody Mary into a visual spectacle. There’s one famous Milwaukee restaurant, Sobelman’s, where they garnish the cocktail with a three-pound whole fried chicken. What does that say about the Bloody Mary, and what does that say about Wisconsinites?
BB: To answer the first part of the question, it’s the versatility that you can’t get in a lot of other cocktails. It provides everyone a platform for creativity; there’s an unlimited amount of rabbit holes you can discover in mounting garnishes on top of that glass. You’re raising a flag about what makes yours unique and special, and that breeds a certain eye-popping awareness. You know, we love our snacks in the Midwest. We love our smorgasbord of variety. With [Bloody Mary garnishes], it speaks to the personality of Wisconsinites. We jump in the lake when it’s 20 below—we’re proud to wear our wackiness on our sleeves.
TT: Your book lists 50 variations on the Bloody Mary. What are the essential common denominators?
BB: The original Bloody Mary takes tomato juice and vodka into immediate inclusion, along with lemon, salt, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco. Just those core ingredients create the fabric and foundation of the Bloody Mary. That hasn’t wavered since the 1930s and after it received publication in the 1940s. I was in Europe when I started writing this book, and everywhere I went, the Bloody Mary almost always used those core ingredients with just a small amount of flair.
TT: Was there a curveball ingredient that made you initially skeptical but then realize was a genius addition?
BB: I loved the way mezcal brought an added smokiness, and that elevated the drink in a totally new way. It’s a great substitute spirit for vodka.
TT: What didn’t work?
BB: Scotch doesn’t work with Bloody Marys. I so badly wanted to do something with Scotch. But brown spirits and classic Bloody Marys are not the best of friends. You can work with bourbon and whiskey and find a somewhat agreeable, well, long-distance relationship, but it isn’t cut out for everyone. I felt like it was a match better made elsewhere.
TT: What’s the proper relationship between the alcohol and juice? I’ve seen recipes where it’s equal parts each, which seems excessive. Personally, the vodka is secondary and there to provide the boozy undertow. What’s your ideal balance?
BB: I’ve found crazy variances in quantity of alcohol to tomato juice. It rests largely on the texture of whichever tomato juice you’re using, and that can dictate the consistency. Most of our pint glass recipes use 2 oz. of vodka, then anywhere from 4 to 6 oz. of Bloody Mary mix or tomato juice. Personally, though, I like 1.5 oz. of vodka. That extra half ounce lends itself a bit too thinning for the texture, and I’d rather have the seasoning and spice come out than the vodka thin it. I’d say a 3.5-to-1 ratio of tomato juice to vodka.
TT: What temperature should Bloody Marys be served?
BB: There’s nothing wrong with serving room-temperature tomato juice over ice, just be mindful of the ice’s dilution quality. So it’s just better practice to chill the tomato juice in advance.
TT: Do you have a preference for tomato juice?
BB: Depends on the situation. I like Campbell’s for regular tomato juice. Big fan of R.W. Knudsen’s, and Sacramento’s we use a lot at our restaurants. I love Sacramento’s consistency—not too viscous, not too thin. I love how earthy Clamato is. With V8, they’ve gotten really creative with new flavors. I used to hate it as a kid, but I have a soft spot for V8 now.
TT: How important is the umami component in a Bloody Mary? Is that something you want to accentuate?
BB: I’m a geek for soy sauce. Soy is my secret umami love. Maggi Seasoning, I love, love, love. Those two things are options that surprisingly a lot of people don’t use.