The Great Bloody Mary Search

TRAVELING THE GLOBE FOR THE PERFECT BLOODY MARY

It doesn’t seem that complicated really. You mix in some tomato juice and vodka, a dash of this and that, and stick in a celery stalk; the world’s most iconic hangover drink is socially acceptable to drink in the morning or whenever. But where did it come from?

Hemingway. 

Hemingway Pouring a Libation

Well not really. Hemingway gets blamed for a lot of things related to alcohol. He didn’t exactly invent the Bloody Mary, but he drank more than a few and had a little something to do with it’s creation… maybe. There’s a legend that Hemingway’s wife Mary didn’t approve of his drinking binges and was very vocal about it. According to the tale, while drinking the famous libation in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, Ernest would tell everyone he was hiding out from “bloody” Mary. Was this story true? There was only one way to find out. Take a trip to Paris. 

Harry’s New York Bar claims to have invented the famous drink and many experts agree that it’s the most likely story. Established in 1911, the establishment got it’s name from an actual bar in New York that was dismantled and reassembled in Paris. Ten years later, a bartender there named Fernand Petiot  reportedly mixed tomato juice with vodka which was just gaining popularity in Europe. It was a big hit with the Parisians and the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Upton Sinclair who were regulars at Harry’s. When Petiot  moved to New York, he brought his recipe with him, but added salt, pepper, lemon and Worcestershire sauce. He served this incarnation at King Cole’s Bar at the Ritz Carlton. It became even a bigger hit. The recipe worked it’s way down south and mutated again into something quite different.

Soft Shell Bloody Mary, Stingray, NOLA
Photo: Yelp

In my quest for the perfect drink, I have sampled some of the best Bloody Mary cocktails I’ve ever had in New Orleans. NOLA bars are serious about their garnishes and you’re likely to get pickled okra, green beans, olives and some other preserved greenery in your drink. For some reason, the drink seems to be more at home in an old New Orleans courtyard than in Paris or New York. Over the last few years I’ve made my way through several top ten Bloody Mary lists in New Orleans. One of the most interesting has to be Stingray’s, which serves a giant soft shell crab on top of the glass. Even though the presentation looks more like a displaced crustacean than a garnish, the green bean antennae sort of tie it all together. I could name a dozen other honorable mentions, but it was in New Orleans where I first heard about King Cole’s in New York. I was intrigued with the origin of the drink and knew that I had to see if the New York version could hold up to the ones down south.

Bloody Marys at King Cole’s Bar, New York
photo: Bill Wiatrak

The Ritz Carlton isn’t exactly known for it’s cheap drinks.A Bloody Mary there costs about $25 and doesn’t even have a crab on top. The King Cole bar is a nice cozy old school place frequented by the kind of people who drink Manhattans, smoke pipes and talk about the weather. When I arrived, the place was just opening for business. The bartender iced up some large wine glasses, poured a generous helping of vodka, then added the mix that had been made with a secret recipe that couldn’t be divulged even through torture. A lime was added. No bells and whistles, just two ingredients and a wedge of citrus. I wasn’t blown away. I tried to get my money’s worth out of the bar snacks, but my drink didn’t last long enough. I wondered if the Paris version was any better.

Last week I found myself in the French capital and decided to go straight to the source and settle the debate once and for all. The old building seemed out of place compared to the places around it. It’s a timeless piece of history and it’s kept it’s nostalgic charm for over 100 years. Not only was the Bloody Mary invented there, but lots of other drinks such the sidecar and pink lady were created at Harry’s. I recognized a few of the old school names from a recipe book when I’d first learned to tend bar, but I rarely ever had anyone order of them. The bar is intimate and definitely has an American feel to it. No wonder it’s been such a popular place for expats. I ordered the Bloody Mary and waited for the magic to happen. I must admit, there was a little more fanfare than I had gotten in New York. The bartenders are touted as expert mixologists and there’s undoubtedly a precision to their stirring and shaking. Even Ian Fleming’s literary hero James Bond describes Harry’s as “the best place to get a solid drink in Paris.” If it’s good enough for Bond, then I guess it’s good enough for me. The bartender told me he’d never met James Bond, but that he was certain the Hemingway “wife” story was just a myth.

Harry’s New York Paris Bloody Mary
Photo: Bill Wiatrak

This Bloody Mary was served in a straight glass with three ice cubes, vodka, the magical secret mix and then something brown (maybe Worcestershire sauce) and no garnish.
So that’s it. The original drink has none of the vegetables, fruits and other flourishes that we’ve come to know with the US version. It was considerably cheaper than it’s New York cousin at 14 Euros. The bartender recounted the story of it’s invention and it was a little more exciting with the French accent, I must admit. The drink wasn’t quite as spicy as the American versions, but there was definitely a little zing beyond plain tomato juice.

1886 Humble Backyard Bloody Mary
photo: Bill Wiatrak

So where’s the best Bloody Mary in the world? Everyone has their own opinion, but I’ve just decided on mine and it’s not in Paris,New York or New Orleans.It’s in Houston. A few months ago a Bloody Mary aficionado friend told me about a place in Humble called 1886 Humble Backyard. I didn’t expect that it would be all that until I arrived and ordered the drink. Jason Kersey was tending bar and was busy stabbing various food items onto skewers. This wasn’t just a drink. It was a masterpiece. It was a drink and brunch. The garnishes were strategically placed as to not cheat you out of any of your drink. The mix is a big secret of course, but Jason did let on that he used a lot of different barbecue spices. There’s 3 skewers of pickled vegetables, blue cheese stuffed olives, pickle stuffed olives, salami, half of a hard-boiled egg, maple smoked bacon, cheese cubes, asparagus, pickled carrots, beets, pickles, shrimp, peppers of all shapes and sizes and of course a hamburger. It’s a very delicious hamburger too. Hawaiian sweet roll and the patty is to die for. A bite of hamburger and a sip of the Bloody Mary….. now that’s a great way to kick off a Sunday.

Jason Kersey’s Signature Bloody Mary
Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I can only order one. If I need another drink, I get it sans-buffet or switch out to something else. My body can only handle so much pepper, vinegar and Tabasco on a Sunday morning. Where’s your favorite Bloody Mary?

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