The History of the Bloody Mary
The “Monstrous Mary” at Caffe 11th Avenue in Washington’s Yakima Valley cannot be captured in one photograph.
“We kept adding—local asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, a buttermilk biscuit, a Belgian waffle with Ghirardelli chocolate, a ham roll-up, smoked Applewood bacon, breakfast sausage, pepperoni, cheese, black olives, hard boiled eggs, grapes, blueberries, oranges, a dill pickle, green olives and a Tootsie Pop,” says Debbie Holm, the café’s operations manager. “We’re having a really good time, as are our customers.”
Holm is describing what many restaurant owners and bartenders have noticed: When a Bloody Mary defies proportion and logic, everyone wants one. It’s a drink with the power of attraction.
The Bloody Mary might not exist at all without Chef Louis Perrin’s invention of tomato juice at Indiana’s French Lick Springs Hotel in 1917. Nor without the subsequent mass distribution of canned tomato juice by Chicago business titans who “tasted it and saw dollar signs,” says Joshua Emmons, chef de cuisine at French Lick Resort in Indiana and a culinary historian.
But first, how exactly did we get here—to two Cornish hens perched on skewers in a fishbowl goblet at Nashville’s Party Fowl? Or to a $995 (not a typo!) Ultimate Bloody Mary at LAVO in Las Vegas?
Many look to two forces for the genesis of the showstopper Bloody Mary: Milwaukee-based restaurateur Dave Sobelman and social media.
The Power of Attraction
Sobelman opened his first namesake location in 1999 in Milwaukee. His goal was to level up popular Wisconsin bar food—a better burger, a better fish fry and, yes, a better Bloody Mary. As business took off, Sobelman noted that many other restaurants offered Bloody Marys topped with jumbo shrimp only on Sundays.
“I thought, I won’t wait until Sunday,” he says. “I’ll put shrimp on [the Bloody Marys] every day. I then started thinking, ‘what else can I add to it?’”
Sobelman bought pickled eggs, sausages, olives, asparagus, mushrooms, brussels sprouts and onions from his neighbors at Bay View Packing Company. Around 2012, he posted a video to Facebook of himself crowning an already top-heavy assemblage of garnishes with a cheeseburger slider.
“I asked everybody, ‘Am I going too far?’ There was such a response, we knew we were onto something,” he says.
Lauren Whitman, who launched the Instagram account @bloodymaryaddict in 2015, observes that Sobelman later posted a Bloody Mary topped with a whole fried chicken, which “went viral.”
After this, over-the-top Bloody Marys became a certified trend.
“Social media plays a huge part in this,” says Liz McCray, who began @bloodymaryobsessed more than six years ago along with a companion blog. “An over-the-top Bloody Mary makes your establishment stand out, which brings in customers.”
Samantha Scott, marketing director for Anduzzi’s Sports Club in Green Bay, Wisconsin, also observes that photographing these wild drinks is part of the draw.
The History of the Bloody Mary
This subject is about as murky as a good, thick-bodied tomato juice. But there are a few notable origin stories.
One enduring tale is that bartender Fernand “Pete” Petiot, born in Paris in 1900, refined the mixture of vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, lemon, salt, pepper, Tabasco and celery salt at New York City’s St. Regis Hotel in 1934. At the St. Regis, the drink was called The Red Snapper, according to Simon Difford, beverage distributor, promoter and publisher, and Octavia Marginean-Tahiroglu, general manager of the St. Regis.
Another theory is that entertainer George Jessel developed the drink in 1927 after a late-night bender in Florida’s Palm Beach. According to Difford, there’s a recipe called “George Jessel’s Pick Me Up” in The World Famous Cotton Club: 1939 Book of Mixed Drinks, which has many of the components of today’s quintessential Bloody Mary.
But in a 1964 New Yorker interview, Petiot says the Bloody Mary was “nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.” Which is to say, the pairing may not be exclusive to Petiot, but he likely immortalized the ingredients of what now consider a traditional Bloody Mary.
Why Is It Called a Bloody Mary?
But where does the term “Bloody Mary” even come from? While the drink may not be directly named for Mary I, the first Queen of England, the term certainly derives from her legacy.
Jessica Keene, assistant professor of history at Georgian Court University in New Jersey, explains that Mary Tudor’s parents were King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. When Catherine and Henry produced no male heir, Henry claimed their marriage was illegitimate. The marriage was annulled in 1533 and Mary Tudor was declared a bastard.
“Her life, and her understanding of faith and family, were completely stripped away from her,” says Keene.
When Tudor did eventually assume the throne, she represented a reemergence of the Catholic tradition that was not unpopular. During her reign, roughly 300 Protestants were executed—hence the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
“She’s depicted as backward, cruel and antiquated. But the age of the Tudors was bloody and violent. That she survived what she did to become queen is remarkable,” says Keene.
The drink, however, may in fact be named for another Mary. Before Petiot worked at the St. Regis, he manned the counter at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. In 2021, Franz-Arthur MacElhone—a great-grandson of Harry’s founder Harry MacElhone—told the Associated Press that according to an alternative legend, Petroit named the drink “for a dancer that he was very fond of called Mary.”
“She used to work in a place in Chicago called the Bucket of Blood,” he continued.
There’s yet another theory, which pegs none other than the writer Ernest Hemingway as the one to coin the name.
“It was just before he got married, and he had been dating somebody called Mary,” MacElhone told the A.P. Hemingway allegedly requested a drink mixed with juice to mask the scent of alcohol on his breath, and tomato juice made its way into the mix. “While he was drinking it, he was saying ‘bloody Mary’,” MacElhone said.
Why Did Bloody Marys Become a Brunch Staple?
The instinctive answer, as Sobelman puts it, is that Bloody Marys are considered a style of “hair of the dog” cocktail. The theory is that the drinks include antioxidants, vitamins, hydration, sugars and, yes, a little more alcohol, which supposedly replenish the body after a night of heavy drinking.
However, most health experts say that consuming “hair of the dog” drinks rarely has the desired effect. To banish a hangover, good old fashioned rest and hydration are key.
What Are Some Cool Regional Bloody Mary Toppings?
In Wisconsin, this brunch staple is often served with a beer, which essayist and Wisconsin-native Melissa Faliveno calls “a very important part of the ritual. A Bloody without a back, in my humble opinion, is no Bloody at all.”
Other standouts include the “Good Karma” Bloody Mary at Lake City Social in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, sales of which generate revenue for local charities. It also highlights popular menu items like hot chicken sandwiches, rib tips and pretzel bites.
At 1875: The Steakhouse in French Lick, bartender Tomi Parker infuses black peppercorns in the vodka used for their Bloody Marys. “After just one night, it turns into deliciousness,” she says.
Local seafood and piquant Old Bay seasoning are frequent additions to Bloody Marys in Maryland.
For instance, the Original Crabcake Factory in Ocean City adds a 1/4-pound of jumbo lump crab meat and a fried soft-shell blue crab to their concoctions
In Louisville, Brad Jennings, co-owner and beverage director at North of Bourbon, substitutes bourbon for vodka in the a house Bloody Mary, which is called “Back in the Game.” Jennings shares that the bourbon’s sweetness contrasts nicely with the tomato’s acidity.
Jennings also garnishes this Bloody with its tasso (cured ham) rub and house-pickled okra, both referencing Southern traditions of stretching protein and vegetables during winter months.
In addition to a pimento-cheese deviled egg and country ham, The Nose Dive in Greenville adds candied bacon with brown sugar and Sriracha hot sauce.
“The sugar caramelizes, so [the bacon] stands upright in the drink,” says Jason Phillips, general manager.
Meanwhile, in Charleston, The Captain—the Sunday Bloody Mary at The Darling Oyster Bar—is garnished with pickled local low-country shrimp and a house-made hush puppy.
Employee-owned Hell’s Kitchen Minneapolis offers a 35-foot Jacked Up Bloody Mary & Mimosa Bar with 243 hot sauces, in addition to “gourmet rim salts, olives, meats, cheeses, peppers and dozens of other garnishes.”
Cafe 21 in San Diego integrates local tomatoes, house-pickled veggies and a four-cheese grilled cheese made with bread baked in-house into their Bloody Marys.
“It’s pure perfection,” says McCray.
Rita Lewis, owner of The Linger Lodge in Bradenton, highlights local fare like Gulf shrimp and fried mahi in some variations.
“We get creative each week. It’s like painting a masterpiece,” says Lewis.
Why Is the Bloody Mary Such an Easy Drink to Experiment With?
Emmons says that because a Bloody Mary is often served in a pint glass, there is “real estate” to play with. Phillips adds that the drink can be treated almost like a cold tomato-based soup; a variety of spices and seasonings work. McCray similarly suggests the Bloody Mary’s versatility is owed to its savory umami base.
All of the above paint a compelling case for why the Bloody Mary evolved to its current over-the-top form. It doesn’t hurt that such creations photography well. But don’t write the drink off as a brunch-time social media stunt.
“Bloody Marys are so much more than a hangover cure,” says McCray. “Behind every Bloody Mary is a story of passion, recipes passed down and creators—bartenders, restaurant owners, mix purveyors and at-home DIYers who take pride in sharing their creations with the world.”
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