The beefy relative of the Bloody Mary, the Bullshot—a mix of vodka, beef broth and just a few savory seasonings—hasn’t enjoyed the same enduring affection as its vermilion sibling. But, from its origins in the 1950s through its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, the Bullshot attracted a certain cachet with celebrities. Its meteoric rise and gradual slump mirrored the national craze for vodka and a fascination with celebrity spokespeople. By the 1990s, the Bullshot was relegated to the dusty back shelf of cocktail history, but the recent revival of steakhouse culture might just mean it’s ready for a comeback.
Tracing its roots to the Caucus Club in downtown Detroit, the Bullshot’s origin is steeped in Motor City industry history and seasoned with a dash of international celebrity. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, the drink emerged around 1952 with the help of John Hurley, a regular at the newly opened steakhouse, owned by Lester Gruber. Hurley was an advertising executive at nearby firm BBDO, and had just taken on a new client with a big ask: Campbell’s Soup was launching a national focus on canned bouillon and Hurley needed to sell a lot of cans.
Inspired by the Bloody Mary’s popularity as a midday panacea, the idea of adding bouillon to vodka to create a hearty, savory cocktail came to mind. The Bullshot soon became the drink of choice for both the luncheon and the evening steakhouse crowds. By 1958, the Detroit Free Press dubbed the Bullshot “the latest luncheon cocktail fad” and remarked on its ubiquity at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club’s Commandant’s Ball for Ladies. Celebrities from across the globe frequented the Caucus Club, Detroit’s most elite steakhouse, drawn in part by a then-18-year-old Barbra Streisand, whose first performances outside of New York took place at the iconic dining destination. From there, patrons spread the gospel of the Bullshot. By the end of the decade, a warmed version of the drink was competing with the Hot Toddy for rights in the Thermoses of Midwestern tailgaters.
The ascent of the “stocktail,” of which the Bullshot is one variant, coincided with vodka’s rise in popularity in the United States. From 1960 to 1975, vodka sales climbed 320 percent, compared to bourbon’s comparatively anemic increase of 25 percent. Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” series of paintings debuted in 1962, bolstering the sophisticated image of the Bullshot. Within a decade, it had attracted a slew of celebrity drinkers, including Stockard Channing, Joan Crawford and Malcolm McDowell. (McDowell was reported to chug Bullshots as a hangover cure on press junkets for A Clockwork Orange.)
By the late 1980s, the “Ox on the Rocks,” as it was sometimes known, followed Detroit into a general malaise. The Caucus Club sputtered to a close in 2012 and remained shuttered for several years. When it reopened under new owners, then-manager Mike Kreger took advantage of the opportunity to resurrect and rework the Club’s celebrated drink. The Bullshot’s revival inspired other downtown Detroit bartenders to create their own house spins on it in the late 2010s. One wintertime variation, served at nearby Whisky Parlor, was dubbed the Steaming Bullshot, and included locally made Johnny Smoking Gun Whiskey and piping-hot ramen broth from Johnny Noodle King.
The Caucus Club’s current iteration of the Bullshot is hefty enough to accompany a prime rib or porterhouse, and savory enough to rival the Bloody Mary as the go-to brunch beverage. Served cold, the New Bullshot uses Moletto, an Italian tomato gin, in place of vodka, with housemade jus and Bloody Mary mix, accompanied by a generous rasher of candied bacon. Current Caucus Club bartender Kris Cassidy admits, “You’ve got to be a little bit sauced up to come up with this,” but the drink still appeals to plenty of guests. Likening it to “a Bloody Mary on steroids,” Cassidy notes: “You’ll either love it or hate it. No one is ambivalent about this drink.”