The Bloody Mary

How to make a simple, elegant brunchtime cocktail. (Resist the urge to garnish it with a hamburger.)

Bloody Mary

Might need one on New Year’s Day.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for NYCWFF

The ritual excesses of New Year’s Eve give way to clammy sleep, uneasy dreams, and the ritual hangovers of New Year’s Day: klaxons ringing in the cerebellum, troubles roiling the gut, aches throbbing in the body and the spirit. The best course of action is to follow the Kingsley Amis anti-hangover plan—hydration, a hot bath, a close shave, and if at all possible, a 30-minute flight in an open airplane. But Amis also advises staying in bed as long as you can, and you’re not in bed, are you? No, you’re at brunch, and must resort to the down-home homeopathy of the hair of the dog. Here, have a bloody mary.

In the beginning, someone invented canned tomato juice, and someone else put vodka in it, and it was good but not great. Then—ah, Progress!—humankind discovered that this drink should be spiced with cayenne pepper (or hot sauce), enlivened with lemon (or lime) juice, and—a sine qua non—perfumed with a vinegarish bit of Worcestershire sauce. Such was the bloody mary that entered the public record in the 1940s, when Esquire asked, “Ever tried the interestingly complicated drink … that’s going the rounds before meals and in the dim of mornings?” Over the decades, the drink has become more complicated yet, with every sauce in the cupboard and every vegetable in the garden incorporated to express the whims and dogmas of a million souls.

There are any number of reasons that your hangover may want to commune with a bloody on Jan. 1 (which, inevitably, is National Bloody Mary Day). The tomato juice (or, better, V-8) supplies a cleansing vibe to people feeling guilty about their intake of toxins and some semblance of nutrition to people feeling uncertain about their ability to keep solids down; likewise, the healthful excess of vegetation decorating so many brunchtime bloodys—olives and capers, fronds of dill and stalks of celery—is a kind of psychic counterweight against the excesses that drove one to a brunchtime bloody in the first place. Then there’s the vodka which, being vodka, does not offend a sensitive tongue. Vodka’s lack of personality really shines here, when it mingles with tomato juice at about a 1:2 ratio. (Drinkers who want the taste of alcohol in their bloody know to ask for a supplemental splash of Guinness or dash of sherry.) Then there’s the sodium you receive by way of a celery-salted rim or a dribble of pickle brine—a great aid to a hydration project that may approach WPA proportions. And of course there is spice, which can help you get up a sweat, which will help decontaminate your pores, which are fucking filthy. And if you add enough fresh horseradish or wasabi paste or Sriracha to your glass, you can take the heat up into the penance range of the Scoville scale. An extra-spicy bloody mary mortifies the flesh like a hairshirt for your mouth.

I will further say that the very act of preparing one of these drinks—and especially of working with a full-on bloody mary buffet, with celery bitters and balsamic vinegar and A-1 laid out for all to use—introduces a sense of purpose that clears a befogged mind. Also, after a late night of questionable behavior, making a bloody mary gives a houseguest a convenient excuse for avoiding eye contact with his unquestionably unamused spouse.

It is my belief that bloodys are best made one at a time, but better writers with bigger livers have had their own ideas. Hemingway only made bloodys by the pitcher. “Any smaller amount is worthless,” he wrote in a letter advising a friend to “stirr” the mix. “Stirr (with two rs),” Papa said, siccing himself somewhat purposefully. The extra R translates the delirious opulence of a drink that people see fit to garnish with crab legs and lobster tails and oysters en brochettes.

The bloody mary is, in sharp contrast to hungover bloody mary drinkers, extremely flexible, it should be clear. Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail, a key text of the cocktail renaissance, lists 17 related recipes, including one for the Bloody Caesar (which depends on clam juice). Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, the most fashionable cookbook published in the outgoing year, lists 12 bloodys, including the Bloody Bullshot (which involves beef bouillon). A couple of nights ago, a friend of mine said of the bloody mary, “Here’s an opportunity to figure out who you are as a bartender,” and I did not disagree. But also this friend hadn’t tended bar since putting himself through grad school by slinging drinks in a pub. On the craft-cocktail scene, people tend to detest the beverage. A couple of years ago, a highly regarded bartender described to me the revulsion he felt at watching his brunch date order her second: “OK, one, I can see. But it was like, What did you do to yourself last night that you need two of these rich disgusting beverages? I walked out.”

It bears mention that the bloody mary is not only a great way to cope with the hangover but also a fun way to incur one. Or so it seemed Monday afternoon in Manhattan, at the St. Regis Hotel’s King Cole Bar. The most plausible bloody mary origin myth—more persuasive than the competing claim made by George Jessel, one-time star of the vaudeville stage and a Smirnoff ad campaign—has it that the King Cole Bar is this drink’s proper home. Bartender Fernand Petiot supposedly began working on a primitive bloody in the late 1920s at Harry’s Bar in Paris and perfected it when he moved to the St. Regis after the repeal of Prohibition. (The King Cole calls a bloody mary a Red Snapper, offering the story that ownership found the common name way, way too common. Everywhere else in the world, if you ask for a Red Snapper you get either a bloody mary made with gin or else a kind of blank-stare/eye-roll combo.)

On Monday, the barman built the drink in a wine glass. He used one part Stolichnaya, which on the one hand was a superfluously good vodka for the job but on the other was the crappiest vodka they had. He used two parts house Red Snapper mix spiced to delight with a smoky simmer. He garnished the drink with a simple strong wedge of strontium-yellow lemon, thus offering an implicit reproof of those vulgar bloodys decorated with, for instance, hamburgers, in an ever-escalating race to go over the top. I fear it won’t be long before someone garnishes a bloody mary with another bloody mary.

That drink cost $25—$32, with tax and tip—and well worth the price, partly because it is merry to bask beneath the King Cole’s namesake mural, partly because the complimentary snack mix was mostly cashews and almonds, partly because of the beverage’s quiet elegance. If we ever launch a space capsule documenting the drinking traditions of Earth for the benefit of extraterrestrial lushes, we should choose this one to represent the bloody mary. Of course, a drink in a wine glass wouldn’t fare too well in zero gravity, and so I suggest we take a page from a West Hollywood restaurant called The Church Key, which serves its bloody mary sealed in a can.