The bloody mary is a revolutionary cocktail
The bloody mary started with simpler Parisian roots before becoming an extravagantly embellished beverage.
What has become an American brunch staple has a cosmopolitan backstory. The bloody mary’s origin begins in Paris on Thanksgiving Day in 1911 when American jockey Tod Sloan opened New York Bar — later known as Harry’s New York Bar after bar manager Harry MacElhone bought it in 1923. The spot soon became a welcome destination during Prohibition for liquor-deprived Yankees. In the ’20s, the bloody mary became popular with Russian expats who flocked to Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Bartender Fernand “Pete” Petiot began tinkering with vodka in order to please them. Finally, he hit upon mixing it with tomato juice, and the resulting cocktail soon became all the rage. As one story goes, visiting American entertainer Roy Barton christened it “bloody mary” after his favorite server at the Bucket of Blood nightclub in Chicago, though some sources say he called the drink “Bucket of Blood.”
Multimillionaire Vincent Astor stole bartender Petiot away from New York Bar and installed him at the King Cole Bar at the Hotel St. Regis in New York. His sanguine concoction, now touted as a hangover cure, became the Red Snapper (as it is still called there today). But bars all over town were already dispensing the bloody mary. Some suggested its name paid homage to the Tudor queen best remembered for her gory persecution of Protestants. In a 1939 Smirnoff advertising campaign, comedian George Jessel claims he named the drink after his friend Mary Geraghty.
Ingredients for a bloody mary include, of course, tomato juice, but the added spices and condiments are a matter of taste. Citrus, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco are frequent additions. Horseradish is also a must in Wisconsin. Butch McGuire’s Bar in Chicago claims credit for being the first to garnish the drink with a simple stalk of celery. In recent years, however, seemingly anything and everything goes when it comes to embellishment. What began with pickled Brussels sprouts and bacon rashers now knows no limits, and complete dinners are now perched on the glass. Case in point, Madison’s own The Nitty Gritty and its Brunchzilla, a full liter of bloody mary topped with a sausage link, beef stick, cheese curd, a piece of bacon, a pickle, an olive and a mini Gritty Burger. There is no shortage of places around town to savor this libation.
Not surprisingly, The Old Fashioned serves up an ode to Wisconsin that adds a spicy pickled egg, beef jerky, cheese curds and a beer chaser. Graze doesn’t skimp on the garnishes, but what sets it apart is the homemade tomato juice mix that will kick-start any comatose morning. For the hopelessly jaded palate, Short Stack Eatery fits the bill. Its 25-ingredient, award-winning bloody includes (among other things) garlic, beets, jalapeños and pickle brine finished with a rim of Sriracha salt. If all you seek is a classic quaff, meet the no-frills bloody mary served with a bit of pickled accouterment at Mickey’s Tavern. Like it or not, one impact this meal in a glass has had on American culture is to make drinking at 10 a.m. seem not so bad.
Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.