Why the 100-year-old Bloody Mary is our most enduring cocktail

    WASPy country-club cooler or novelty brunch-time buzzer, the Bloody Mary has lifted us through good times and comforted us in our darkest hours. Now, the centennial celebration of this cool and complex, spicy and savory breakfast of champions is coming to a close.

    Or is it?

    Who invented what cocktail where, with which ingredients, when, is as muddled, stirred and shaken as any umbrella drink.

    A mainstream reading of history tells us it was in 1921 — that’s 100 years ago, keep up — that French bartender Fernand Petiot first mixed tomato juice with ardent spirits. Better known as Pete, Petiot was 16 when he became a garçon de cuisine at storied Hemingway haunt Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Legend has it he invented the drink on the spot for a group of Americans and it stuck.

    But like all good things, what was invented in Paris was improved in New York, according to New York and Wisconsin bar owner Brian Bartels, author of the book “The Bloody Mary: The Lore and Legend of a Cocktail Classic.”

    “[Commercially] canned tomatoes were impossible to get pretty much anywhere until 1927,” said Bartels. “Harry’s claims that they created the Bloody Mary in 1921. So I think if anything, they were taking tomatoes and muddling them to order, and adding vodka or some other spirit, and maybe citrus.”

    It wasn’t until 1934, when Pete became head bartender at New York City’s St. Regis Hotel, that a drink resembling today’s Bloody first appeared.

    If you’re not drinking onetime St. Regis (right) bartender Fernand Petiot’s (left) tomato juice and vodka concoction on Christmas morning, you’re committing blasphemy.
    From left: St. Regis / Michael S

    “He added Worcestershire sauce, sugar, pepper, Tabasco, lemon and celery salt, and created the classic cocktail that we know today,” Bartels said.

    For Bartels, we are celebrating the birth of the true cocktail in the wrong year, and giving Harry’s too much free publicity.

    But there are competing origin myths. Some say it was invented by vaudevillian George Jessel after an all-nighter called for a boozy yet breakfasty bracer, or by “21” Club bartender Henry Zbikiewicz in the 1930s.

    No recipe was published until 1939, when gossip columnist Lucius Beebe wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up which is receiving attention from the town’s paragraphers is called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.”

    His 1946 Stork Club recipe calls for vodka, lemon juice, tomato juice and Angostura bitters.
    The origin of the drink’s nomenclature is equally besotted.

    t’s said to have been named either for Mary Queen of Scots’ bloody beheading; Mary Tudor’s Protestant bloodlust; a gal named Mary who got stood up at Harry’s (which is “bloody” awful, to the Brits); or after a barmaid named Mary at Chicago’s “Bucket of Blood” bar.

    At the St. Regis, the drink was, and still is, called the Red Snapper (above) as to not offend the delicate stabilities of the Astors, who owned the hotel.

    By the mid-century the drink was as American as apple pie. But “it really took off when brunch started in the ’80s,” said Bartels. “People began to associate it with that weekend warrior mentality of, ‘Boy, I just worked really hard this whole week and then I celebrated a little too much last night, I think I really need a pick-me-up.’ ”

    Today, Bloody Marys are often made with cheap mixes. But we should be hesitant to turn up our noses at the evolution of the drink, Bartels warns.

    “What I love about the Bloody Mary is that it invites itself to be reimagined,” he said, noting he is experimenting with a clear, martini-style version made with tomato gin. “It offers almost unending complexity, no matter what rabbit hole you want to go down, you can.”


    The St. Regis Red Snapper (Bloody Mary)

    A bloody Mary at the St. Regis.
    Michael Sofronski
  • 1 oz premium vodka
  • 11 oz The Signature Bloody Mary Mix
  • 1 lemon wedge (garnish)
  • The Signature Bloody Mary Mix is:
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • 2 1⁄2 #10 cans tomato juice
  • 5 oz Worcestershire sauce
  • 10 dashes Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp ground celery salt
  • 2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • Directions

  • Fill 12 oz Bloody Mary glass with ice.
  • Add vodka and mix to a shaker. Shake well and strain into glass. Garnish with lemon wedge.
  • Courtesy of Daniel Ritacco, Director of Food & Beverage at The St. Regis New York


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