There’s a kind of headache-inducing irony in the fact that brunch’s most sought-after hangover remedy is also an incredibly easy drink to screw up.
“It requires patience and adaptability,” says Brian Bartels, Managing Partner and Bar Director at New York’s Joseph Leonard and Bar Sardine, among others, and author of The Bloody Mary, a definitive guide with more than 50 recipes, published this year.
“Like any good cocktail,” he explains, “it really does reflect balance.”
Finding that equilibrium is often a challenge; despite the drink’s practically endless adaptability, the basic formula is built almost entirely on acid by way of tomato juice and, often, citrus. From there comes the issue of spice (“It can’t be too spicy; some people just don’t like heat that much,” says Bartels) and especially, of sodium. Using too much Worcestershire sauce, an ingredient that gives the Bloody Mary its beefy backbone, is one of the most common mistakes drink-makers come up against, says Bartels. “If it gets too high of an index of Worcestershire sauce, or anything else that’s salty—celery salt for that matter—it can definitely overwhelm,” he explains.
To balance his own version of the drink, the State Street Bloody Mary, Bartels relies on a pre-made mix that’s batched in 50-ounce servings, or enough to make ten cocktails. But, rather than just using one savory ingredient, he uses a combination (in this case, Worcestershire, soy sauce and Old Bay seasoning), which lends complexity while keeping the sodium level in check. The same goes for spice: for an especially balanced drink, Bartels calls on a trio of smoky Tabasco Chipotle Sauce, Sriracha and both black and white peppers, which he then softens with a spoonful of molasses. “It gives [the drink] a richness that’s alternative to the norm,” he explains.
From there, Bartels notes that any clear spirit—from vodka to gin, to tequila or mezcal, or even white whiskey—can be used, depending on personal taste. But he cautions against shaking the drink, preferring the technique of rolling, in which the mixture is poured back and forth between two shaker tins until thoroughly combined. “While I won’t scoff at anyone who cares to shake their Bloody Mary,” he writes in his book, “[the] roll is a gentler method,” that can preserve some of the cocktail’s more nuanced flavors. (Additionally, this method guarantees that the tomato juice won’t contribute a layer of froth.)
Finally—and, somewhat crucially—there’s the question of garnish; the Bloody Mary has, after all, been made famous as a vehicle for everything from pickle spears to an entire fried chicken. For the State Street, named for the main street in Madison, Wisconsin, where Bartels learned to bartend, he keeps it simple, and true to his roots: an edible, skewered garnish of beef straws, or cured meats, sits atop the finished drink, which gets served alongside a “snit” of beer. (This small, three-ounce pour, says Bartels, comes as a sidecar to just about every Bloody Mary served in his home state.) Optional, but encouraged, is a celery stalk, and perhaps a bit of creativity.
“I love the fact that people, for lack of a better term, ‘swing for the fences,’ [but] there’s something to be said for a simple celery stalk… that just has this elegance to it,” says Bartels. “I appreciate that as much as a three-pound chicken.”
Make a State Street Bloody Mary