Ordering a Bloody Mary is a roll of the dice. Though brunch spots crank them out in huge quantities, ordering one at another bar might send the bartender scrambling to find that long-neglected bottle of Worcestershire. I’ve had my share of bad Bloodys, from one made with bitter, over-infused vodka to another that tasted like the tomato juice had sat in the trunk of a hot car for a few weeks.
Yet I keep ordering them, because a proper Bloody Mary delivers a drinking experience unmatched by any other cocktail. While most cocktails rely on sweet, tart and bitter flavors, the Bloody Mary veers in an entirely different direction, bringing a salty, savory and spicy punch to your palate. A Bloody Mary is a brunch all its own, especially when generously garnished (as it always should be) and served, as it often is in Wisconsin — and as I wish it always would be — with a pony of Miller High Life. And while claims of the Bloody Mary’s efficacy as a hangover cure are dubious at best, I’m always willing to give it a try after a rough Saturday night.
As with most cocktails, the origins of this unconventional drink are murky. Though no one knows who first mixed vodka and tomato juice, most credit Fernand Petiot with creating the modern Bloody Mary. Petiot, a bartender at Paris’ famous Harry’s New York Bar (the birthplace of numerous classic cocktails), helped cement the classic list of Bloody Mary ingredients: salt, black pepper, lemon, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne.
While Petiot’s 1920s rendition would be perfectly respectable today, modern bartenders have riffed heavily on this basic template. The most memorable version I ever had was at Chicago’s Little Goat, which serves up a Bloody bursting with tang, spice and umami. Rather than Tabasco and lemon juice, however, they achieved those flavors through pickled onion juice, kimchi and miso.
Closer to home, Pittsburgh boasts plenty of noteworthy Bloody Marys of its own. Few are more attention-grabbing than the Crabby Mary, at Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille, which comes topped with a deep-fried soft-shell crab (with pimento-stuffed olive “eyes”). Blue Dust, in Homestead, has earned a devoted following with Bloody Marys featuring house infusions like pickle vodka. And Bloody Mary bars at spots like Meat & Potatoes, Urban Tap and The Yard let you load your glass with everything from bacon to miniature grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Should you ever tire of Bloody Marys (perish the thought!), try one of the many variations. Canadians love a Bloody Caesar, which adds clam juice to the mix. Swap the traditional vodka for gin to make a Red Snapper, or use tequila for a Bloody Maria. And if you take nothing else from this column, remember this: fish sauce. A dash of the super-salty, umami-rich liquid will crank your next Bloody up to 11.