The history of the Bloody Mary cocktail
To no surprise, January 1st is National Bloody Mary Day. After dressing up in your finest sequins only to survive cold temperatures and overindulgence to ring in the New Year, A Bloody Mary is just what the Doctor ordered.
Every classic cocktail came from somewhere, and every classic cocktail is the blueprint for another. Most classic cocktails have an almost mythicized oral history passed down from one bartender to another. This means that, more often than not, the true origins of classic cocktails tend to be completely unknown. While the true and accurate origins of many classic cocktails may be lost to time, their invention stories offer for some the bar tales.
Who invented the Bloody Mary?
Like the Margarita and the Mai Tai, the Bloody Mary cocktail has several origin stories. Most widely accepted, and several are very far-fetched. One aspect seems to remain the same; the Bloody Mary may be among the oldest classic cocktails at 101 years old. That is an origin story worth retelling. The story goes that a young bartender named Fernand “Pete” Petiot invented the Bloody Mary at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in 1921. At that time, Harry’s was a go-to for solitude and reminiscing for US ex-pats seeking the familiarity of the American-style speak-easy bars. Celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, and Rita Hayworth graced Harry’s with their presence.
In 1915, France began their own prohibition with the banning of Absinthe. Wine, beer, and other hard spirits were available but held very little interest to the French. In the early 1920s, Russians escaping the Revolution arrived in Paris and brought vodka. A select few preferred vodka neat; the Americans would buy canned tomato juice sold on menus during Prohibition under the name ‘tomato juice cocktail’. This is believed to have inspired Petiot to combine imported spirits, spices, lemon juice, and seasoning. Shaken or stirred, this gave birth to the iconic Bloody Mary cocktail. Petiot emigrated to the United States in 1925 and began to manage the King Cole Bar in New York’s St Regis Hotel by 1934. There the drink became popular but was renamed the Red Snapper because Petiot’s bosses felt the catchier Bloody Mary name too vulgar (insert facepalm). The Red Snapper was certainly served at the St Regis Hotel, but so was the Bloody Mary. Petiot was reticent on details of how he arrived at his innovation and, quite frankly, seems to have been a right place, time, ingredients kind of moment. Petiot said he invented the drink in Paris, and a customer suggested naming it after a girl called Mary from the Bucket of Blood Club in Chicago.
Another tale involves actor George Jessel. In December 1939, columnist Lucius Beebe noted that foodie and wine aficionado wrote: “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.” This article links Jessel with the Bloody Mary before the drink appeared in cocktail guides, which at the very least, makes him an early adopter. Jessel became the cocktail’s ambassador and claimed credit for its invention in a 1950s advertising campaign for Smirnoff in his 1975 autobiography The World I Lived In.
The Bloody Mary remains a daytime drink. It works best as a welcome surprise, innocently thrust into helpless hands somewhere near the start of the day. Interestingly, the Bloody Mary seems tastiest when pre-prepared and served to a crowd. In other words, it is a group drink. IWSET Spirits Educator Rose Brookman perfectly sums it up:
“There has always been a morning after the night before, and there has always been the search for the elusive elixir that will stave off the dreaded symptoms of the inevitable hangover. The Bloody Mary is the closest we have got to such a potion, with its perceived restorative powers replenishing the body and aiding recovery the next day. It strongly associates friendship and the supportive group mentality of surviving the pain of the morning after together. It is often consumed at a time where the bonds of friendship are sealed amongst the reminiscing of the night before.”
Don't forget to check out January's other cocktail and spirit holidays!