How the Bloody Mary Lost Its Mind

Over the course of a century, the Bloody Mary has gone from urbane to mainstream to outsized social media fodder. Christopher Ross tracks the evolution of the drink—and its garnish arms race—and finds that it may be a spot-on reflection of our times.

At some point over the last dozen or so years, the Bloody Mary lost its mind.

Across the country, you can now find Bloody Marys that are garnished with beef sliders, lamb sliders, fries, pickles, shrimp, cheese skewers, jalapeño poppers, hot dogs, bacon, chicken nuggets, pickled okra or a cinnamon roll; in Chicago, you can order an Asian-inspired riff that is overstuffed with lumpia, duck bao and Chinese broccoli; in Leland, Michigan, a bar has been known to serve a Bloody Mary that has a whole smoked fish sticking out of it. And one variation, seemingly in an attempt to stun competitors into silence, simply plopped an entire fried chicken on top.

“The drink is the ultimate world heavyweight championship belt of pro-wrestling,” says Brian Bartels, a bartender and the author of The Bloody Mary Book, which will be published by Ten Speed Press in spring 2017. “You don’t know what to expect next.”

You could argue that the Bloody Mary’s grasp on sanity was never very firm to begin with. Some mixology historians have traced its earliest origin back to what was known in the late 19th century as an “oyster cocktail”: an alcohol-free concoction of tomato juice, salt, Tabasco, lemon juice, horseradish, black pepper and seven small oysters, stirred together and served warm. The recipe was published in a London newspaper in 1892 along with the caveat that it was provided “for the benefit of those who may be possessed of suicidal intentions.”

That’s just one of the many narratives that populate the mythology of the Bloody Mary, which has about as many conflicting origin stories as there are recipes. In one version, the drink got its name from a bar maid who worked at a grisly Chicago dive called Buckets of Blood, where pailfuls of water were habitually thrown onto the floor and street outside to wash away blood from fights and the occasional homicide. In another version, the drink’s first recipe was discovered by the Jewish comedian George Jessel after partying until late the next morning. 

While arguments rage on about who invented the drink and how, there was in fact a period in the early 20th century when the make-up of the cocktail remained relatively static—even urbane. It was and still is served at New York City’s tony King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel, where it was introduced by bartender Fernand Petiot as the Red Snapper and beloved by Manhattan elites. Before that, it was served (and likely partially invented) by Petiot at the legendary Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, frequented by regulars like Ernest Hemingway and Rita Hayworth, in its most elementary form: tomato juice, vodka, lemon, salt, black and cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce.

Into the midcentury in America, it continued to carry a kind of WASP-y cachet—the type of thing one sipped from a tulip glass after finishing a round of golf at the country club or at a Sunday ladies lunch. It eventually became established enough in the prep firmament to be featured and praised in 1980’s The Official Preppy Handbook as “perhaps, the #1 Prep mixed drink.” But a change began occurring around the late 1980s, accelerating significantly at the turn of the 21st century—the center could not hold, the falcon could no longer hear the falconer.

Signaling that public perception had begun to shift to regard the cocktail as a kitchen-sink concoction into which almost anything could be thrown, in 1997, the New York Times reported that a number of drinking establishments had “added do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bars” that proffered “several tomato-based mixes prepared by the bartender plus an array of flavored vodkas and hot sauces, clam juice, beef broth, mango juice and garnishes from celery to pickles to shrimp.”

A few years later, East Village restaurant Prune launched an iconic variation, the Chicago Matchbox, which came with pickled green beans, Brussel sprouts, turnips, radishes and caper berriespresaging the Bloody Mary’s many reinventions that arrived with the cocktail renaissance in the early 2000s. These were the first stirrings that led the drink to become a palimpsest for the free-for-all millennial brunch craze, as well as a symbol for the Midwest’s fondness for bigness, taste and reason be damned.

But why the Bloody Mary, in particular? What exactly is it about the drink that seems to invite such unbridled tweaking and interpretation?

“It’s a cocktail that mimics food,” says Jack McGarry, co-owner of The Dead Rabbit and a drink historian who wrote a four-part investigation of the Bloody Mary for Difford’s Guide. “If you were to make a riff on a Sidecar or a Champs-Élysées or a Martini, they wouldn’t have that same depth, where [with the Bloody Mary] you can add so many ingredients. I think the versatility is what anchors the ferociousness in regards to all the different versions of the [drink].”

But it doesn’t seem that the Bloody Mary would have evolved to its gargantuan proportions solely because of the malleability of its flavors. The tradition of maximalism demands a cultural explanation as well. One possible inciting factor was the rise of brunch and the Bloody Mary’s unshakeable place in that weekend ritual. According to Farha Ternikar, author of Brunch: A History and a professor at Le Moyne College, from its earliest inception brunch was a space of excess and indulgence. At the turn of the 20th century, a college newspaper described it as a meal that affluent varsity college men got up to while hungover on Sundays—it went on to become a high society ritual in the 1920s.

In its very nature, brunch is about piling vice on vice—rewarding yourself for bad behavior the night before with yet another helping of reckless abandon. “There’s an idea that brunch is a place where people will eat as much as they want,” says Ternikar. It seems only inevitable that this same impulse would impose itself upon the Bloody Mary. But it needed one last ingredient to go fully berserk: The Midwest.

Middle America has always had an outsized love for the drink. Ron Faiola—a filmmaker, author of two books on Wisconsin supper clubs and an authority on Badger State eating and drinking—cites it as the second or third most popular drink in the region, usually second only to the Brandy Old-Fashioned. In this land of natural abundance and healthy appetites, a mere celery stick just wasn’t going to cut it. 

Enter Dave Sobelman. If you had to finger a single culprit for starting the Bloody Mary arms race, it’d be him. In 1999, he opened Sobelman’s Pub & Grill in Milwaukee, catering to the blue-collar workers in the neighborhood factories. The Bloody Mary he started out serving was relatively tame, accompanied by celery, asparagus and a shrimp. But after meeting with one of his neighbors in the area, a third-generation pickling factory owner, Sobelman came away with an idea for a Bloody Mary that would incorporate about as many of his neighbor’s products as could fit in a glass.

“I knew I was going to do something special here,” he says. “When it came to the Bloody Mary, I just thought, ‘Why don’t I take this as far as I can?’” Beginning with around a dozen garnishes, his Bloody Mary began taking on ever more outlandish ingredients: bacon-wrapped cheese balls, mushrooms, sausages. As the years passed, he grew bolder, and by 2012 he was ornamenting his Bloody Mary with a cheeseburger. When he put an image of it on Facebook, customers couldn’t get enough. It became a viral sensation and, as pictures of his creations began spreading via social media, bars and restaurants throughout Milwaukee—and then the nation—began trying to top the original with ever-more ostentatious arrangements.

“I’ve seen on TV or in movies, they’ll go, ‘I’ll have a Bloody Mary,’ and it’s a short little tulip glass and there’s maybe an olive in it, and you always have to laugh because its like, yeah, nobody from Wisconsin was around there for that,” says Faiola.

For Bartels, a fellow Wisconsinite, the Bloody Mary was the first drink he ever learned to make. “They treat the Bloody Mary in a very sacred way,” says Bartels. The Midwestern Bloody Mary has been best known for always being served with a beer chaser, which Faiola believes evolved from the Prohibition practice of mixing beer with tomato juice. But when you look at the kinds of things that tend to populate today’s Brobdingnagian Bloody Marys—burgers, cheese skewers, pickled vegetables—it’s hard to miss the culinary heritage of the region.

The heartland approach represents just one of the drink’s many contemporary identities. The Bloody Mary is not an “either/or” drink—it’s an “and” drink. It inspires multiplicity, whether in origin stories or ingredients, evolving with the times, taking a bit of this vogue, a little of that decade. Already, the garnish arms race seems to be slowing—after all, where do you really go after someone drops the mic with a four-pound fried chicken?

“I feel like, today, there’s a minimalism going on in terms of consumption, and food trends are following that,” says Ternikar. “Things are cyclical, like fashion. So there’s cycles where excess is good, and then you have a scaling back.”

Whether in the urbane ‘20s or the over-the-top aughts, the Bloody Mary appears to reflect those cycles. Like other American icons, it above all boasts a genius for reinvention. It, in the words of McGarry, is the “Madonna of cocktails.”