Bloody marys are one of the most popular morning cocktails and hangover cures in America. This savory mix of tomato juice and vodka has nearly as many variants as there are stars in the sky, but there is nothing quite like a classic bloody mary. So, how did that come to be? Whose idea was it to mix tomato juice and vodka and call it a cocktail? Well, just like many of our favorite cocktails, the bloody mary has a bit of a confusing history that is mostly legend and a little bit normal origin story. So come along as we dive into the not-so-gruesome history of one of the scariest sounding cocktails we know.
The Origin of The Bloody Mary
Although we would usually begin one of these historical forays by telling you where our chosen beverage came from, we’re going to change it up a little and begin this one by telling you where it didn’t come from.
Mixing Metaphors, Not Drinks
One of the reasons that the bloody mary has such a muddied back story is because of the name. If you know anything about cocktails, you have probably heard the story about how this popular beverage was named after Queen Mary I, who ruled England from 1553 to 1558. She was famously called “Bloody Mary” on account of her brutal execution of nearly 300 religious dissenters. She burned them at the stake, if you were curious… Anyway, as you can imagine, that made her pretty famous.
Queen Mary is famous enough that even people who don’t know a lot about English history recognize the name and make the connection. This led to incorrect theories about the drink being invented in the 1500s. Just in case you know someone who wants to insist that this is the true origin story, you may want to mention two key facts that disprove it. Yeah, go ahead and be that guy, this is for posterity, people.
1: Tomatoes were not eaten in Europe in the 1500s. They were relatively new, having just been brought over from South America in 1519. They were very rare and also considered poisonous.
2: Vodka hadn’t made it to England yet. In the 16th century, vodka was still in the early stages of industrial production in Poland and Russia, but that is another story.
So, it would have been very difficult to make a bloody mary in honor of the famous queen, at least during her own time. Of course, the drink could have easily been named after her hundreds of years after her death, but it is far more likely that the name has a much less historical origin.
New York in Paris
Now that we have cleared up the lack of royal connections, let’s skip forward in history to the 1920s and move from the palaces of England to a small American bar in Paris. The New York Bar, which eventually became Harry’s New York Bar, was started by a famous American jockey named Tod Sloan. Sloan wanted to create a bar where expatriates could come and feel at home and he succeeded in a big way. The bar became very famous amongst Americans visiting Paris, especially American servicemen during World War I. It was also known to serve some very famous clientele, such as Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart. Even fictional characters enjoyed The New York Bar. James Bond mentions having been there in Ian Fleming’s “Just a View to a Kill”, but that was a few decades after the invention of the bloody mary.
There isn’t a lot of solid documentation about this, but the commonly accepted story is that the bloody mary made its first appearance at The New York Bar in 1921, made by a 21-year-old bartender named Fernand “Pete” Petiot. Petiot started working for Sloan at a young age as a kitchen boy. Working his way up, he eventually became one of The New York Bar’s most popular bartenders.
According to Petiot, he was mixing drinks one night when he met a couple of gentlemen from Chicago. On a whim, he mixed up a concoction that was half tomato juice and half vodka and served it to his new American friends. One of the men said that the drink reminded him of a woman he knew back in Chicago. The woman’s name was Mary and she worked in a bar called The Bucket of Blood, so Petiot and his test subject decided to call the new drink a “Bloody Mary”. Another version of the story states that the Chicago native said that the drink looked like his girlfriend Mary, whom he had met at a cabaret called, “Bucket of Blood”. We’re going to hope for Mary’s sake that the resemblance wasn’t a literal one.
Whether Mary from Chicago had a particularly red complexion or not, this was the birth of one of America’s most well-known cocktails. I know what you’re thinking, bloody marys aren’t French, are they? How did a simple mix of tomato juice and vodka morph into the delicious spicy cocktail we know and love, let alone become an American brunch staple? Well, for starters, the inventor moved from Paris to the King Cole Room in the prestigious St. Regis Hotel in New York City.
All Mixed Up
This is where the story gets a little muddled. Petiot started bartending for St. Regis Hotel in 1933, eventually becoming the head bartender. He claimed to have introduced his famous cocktail to America at that time, but his wasn’t the only bar serving bloody marys to New Yorkers in the 1930s. New York’s famous 21 Club claims that their bartender, Henry Zbikiewicz, invented the tomato-based beverage around the time that Petiot came to America.
Another claim on the cocktail’s origin comes from an unlikely corner. New York native George Jessel, famous for his comedic career, both on the stage and in movies, claimed to have invented the cocktail. It may seem a bit odd to add the creation of a famous cocktail to Jessel’s resume, but his was the name on the first printed copy of the recipe. It was printed in a 1939 edition of This New York which cited the drink as “…Jessel’s newest pick-me-up… called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.”
What is more confusing is that far from contradicting this claim, Petiot is quoted as saying, “I initiated the bloody mary of today. Jessel said he created it, but it was nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.” So was it Petiot or Jessel who first discovered the magic of tomato juice and vodka? Perhaps we’ll never know, but there is one thing that no one has contested and that is that Petiot made the bloody mary what it is today.
Dressing It Up
If you go to the King Cole Room Bar today and grab a menu, you won’t find a bloody mary. You will find a tomato juice and vodka cocktail, but it’s called a red snapper. The story goes that when Petiot first started mixing bloody marys at the King Cole Room, the manager thought that the name ‘bloody mary’ was too edgy for the classy bar, so he changed the name to red snapper. Ironically, the name might have been too edgy, but the drink itself was considered too bland for Petiot’s patrons. After a few requests to “spice it up”, Petiot decided to try out a few new ingredients, eventually settling on salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice as the perfect additions to his original mix. And thus was born the modern-day bloody mary!
There is actually another version of the origin story that comes into play at this point. In this version, Petiot is still the creator, but he got the idea from a vodka enthusiast named Serge Obolensky. The story is that Obolensky asked Petiot to make a cocktail based on one that he had in Paris which consisted of vodka and tomato juice. Petiot simply expanded on the idea by adding his extra ingredients and that is how he developed the bloody mary. Not too many sources hold to this version though, so it is hard to say if there is any truth to it.
How the dressed up version of the bloody mary became known as a hangover cure is a little unclear, but the discovery was definitely made in the early days of the drink’s popularity. A virgin version is featured in the 1936 Hollywood classic My Man Godfrey in which the main character, played by William Powell, serves his “Pixie Remover” to a very hungover Carole Lombard. Considering that the bloody mary is the perfect mix of vitamin C, salt, and alcohol, it is no surprise that it would perk you up in the morning, especially if you had one too many the night before.
Modern Day Bloody Mary
Over the 90 or so years since the creation of the bloody mary, cocktail enthusiasts have not only enjoyed this drink, but they have created their own unique versions. These recipes have ingredient lists that include things like pickle infused vodka, olives, bacon, and even bacon cheeseburger sliders. Some restaurants offer bloody marys that work more as a meal than a cocktail. A trend that works out nice for those of us who like to say things like, “Oh, I’m just going to have one drink.”
According to Google, there are more than 11 million listings for the best bloody mary recipe, so how does one decide which one is truly the best? Well, the best one for me may not be the best one for you, but I think we can all agree that in times like this it is best to stick with the basics. Okay, maybe not too basic. We don’t want to be mixing up a vat of plain vodka and tomato juice, but we can mix up the original bloody mary as perfected by Petiot.
Petiot’s Bloody Mary Recipe
Thankfully, in July of 1964, The New Yorker printed an interview in which Petiot shared his official bloody mary recipe and that is the recipe I would like to share with you. So grab a highball glass and your cocktail shaker and get ready for a great pick-me-up.
- Black Pepper
- Cayenne Pepper
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Lemon Juice
- 2oz Vodka
- 2oz Thick Tomato Juice
- Cover the bottom of the shaker with four large dashes of salt, two dashes of black pepper, and two dashes of cayenne pepper.
- Add a layer of Worcestershire sauce and a dash of lemon juice.
- Add ice, vodka, and tomato juice.
- Shake vigorously, strain, and pour.
One thing that Petiot did not mention in his recipe but that most bloody mary fans agree on is that a good bloody mary has to be really cold, so you may want to chill your glass or fill it with fresh ice before pouring your drink. Another common addition, for those of us who enjoy some extra heat, is a liberal dash of Tabasco Sauce. You can also change your bloody mary by using different brands or flavors of vodka and you can alter the consistency by switching the thick tomato juice for a thinner version.
Make It Your Own
As you can see, Petiot’s version is pretty simple and fairly open to interpretation, but that is some of the fun of the bloody mary. You can use this as a base recipe and add your favorite garnishes to spice it up. As I mentioned, some restaurants turn their bloody marys into full meals, so don’t be shy, make it your own.
The art of properly garnishing a bloody mary has become so popular that having bloody mary bars at parties has become a serious trend. Whether you want to have your own bloody mary party or just try out some garnish options for yourself, here is a short list of some of the more popular options.
Bloody Mary Garnishes
Traditional Veggie Options:
- Celery Sticks
- Kosher Pickles
- Pickled Pearl Onions
Other pickled vegetables are also popular, such as pickled asparagus, beets, okra, carrots, or cauliflower.
- Cocktail Shrimp
- Hard Boiled Eggs
- Cheese Squares
Pretty much anything that you can put on a skewer will work, which is probably why it is not unusual to see full shish kabobs stuck into many of the more over-the-top restaurant versions of the bloody mary. You may also see a rotisserie chicken or two, so be careful to read the ingredients list before ordering, you may get more than you bargained for.
Bloody Marys: More Than Just a Hangover Cure
Bloody marys have a long history of being both a delicious cocktail and a classic hangover cure. From its humble beginning as a bartender’s random experiment to finding space on the pages of some of New York’s most popular publications, this cocktail has become an American staple. Whether you like your bloody mary with just a little Worcestershire sauce and a celery stick or Tabasco and a bacon cheeseburger slider, you are enjoying an American tradition that has spanned nearly 100 years and is still going strong.