Matter of Taste: From Paris to New York, there's something about Bloody Marys

The classic hangover cure has earned its place at the breakfast table

Matter of Taste: From Paris to New York, there's something about Bloody Marys

[Flickr/Mark Verner]

While there’s no denying that part of the allure of brunch as a weekend meal is the prospect of having someone else cook your breakfast, an intoxicating part of the draw to smash your avocados and Benedict your eggs is the accompaniment of booze. When else – bar waiting to catch a charter flight to Torremolinos at 7am in Dublin Airport – can you legitimately raise a glass without being met by raised eyebrows? That said, the range of cocktails available on most brunch menus is, more often than not, limited to a choice from two: the Bellini, a mixture of Prosecco and peach purée, and the Bloody Mary, a bizarrely delicious combination of sweetness and spiciness, garishly garnished like a peacock during mating season.

Like many of the dishes and drinks served up in this column, the Bloody Mary isn’t for everyone. A blend of vodka, tomato juice, lemon, horseradish, celery salt, Tobasco, and Worcestershire sauce, this cocktail throws the kitchen sink into a shaker and hopes for the best. For those who don’t like it, for whom it tastes like an ice-cold and salty broth, there is little hope of conversion. But for those who do, the Bloody Mary smacks your senses back together, the first sip biting through the excesses of the night before like the mythical hair-of-the-dog.

As for where the Bloody Mary gets its name, and indeed even its original recipe, that is a source of some dispute. The most commonly told origin story points to Paris and the famous Harry’s New York Bar at 5 Rue Daunou. The bar, which opened in 1911 on November 30th, Thanksgiving Day, was the stomping ground of Harry MacElhone, one of the most defining figures in 20th-century bartending. Harry’s, which became an instant hit in the French capital after an American jockey paid to have the bar dismantled in New York and shipped to Paris, tapped into the homesick nostalgia of the handful of American literary titans living in France at the time, who would jump into taxis bellowing “Sank Roo Doe Noo!” to their drivers, the phonetic rendering of the bar’s address now painted forever on its window.

In the 1920s, an influx of Russian émigrés fleeing the revolution descended on Paris, bringing with them vodka, still relatively unknown to the whiskey and gin-swigging set of western palates. In Harry’s, the bartender Ferdinand ‘Pete’ Petiot was eager to experiment with this new spirit, but found it somewhat bland. Around the same time, Petiot also encountered American canned tomato juice, which, during the dry era of Prohibition, was usually referred to as ‘Tomato Juice Cocktail’ on drinks lists. For months, Petiot tinkered with mixing the two together, adding a dash of seasoning here, a squeeze of lemon there, ultimately settling on the Bloody Mary we know today – in all but name.

Originally Harry’s New York Bar served its patrons the Bucket of Blood, that name apparently bestowed upon the cocktail by Roy Barton, a visiting American cabaret entertainer who named it after a now long-closed dive bar in Chicago where customers were always right hooking each other.

The drink proved to be a hit, making its way across the Atlantic to New York after the fall of Prohibition’s 13-year-reign in 1933 when Pietot defected to the famous King Cole Bar at the St Regis Hotel, a venue as famous for its massive nursery rhyme mural painted by Maxfield Parrish as its cocktails. In that bar, the Bucket of Blood became the more palatable sounding Red Snapper, a name still applied to it today.

That said, other theories as to where the Bloody Mary comes from still find favour and disbelief decades after it became a classic. Just when exactly it took on its regular name, and whether that is a nod to King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Tudor, first of her name and Queen of England and Ireland, infamous for her brutal reign to steer the British Isles and its nobility back to Catholicism, is unclear. Those fanciful stories claim the drink’s name pays homicidal homage to the monarch’s murderous tendencies of burning Protestant martyrs, the blood-red tomato juice matched with the fiery and spiced vodka. Others claim Mary was a waitress at the Bucket of Blood, tasked with pushing a filthy mop across the bar floor at the end of the night. Another Mary in the running is Mary Brown Warburton, heiress to a department story fortune. And then there’s a 1955 ad campaign for Smirnoff Vodka, in which George Jessel, ‘Toastmaster General of the United States’ and former vaudeville star, claims to have invented the drink and the name himself – a fact he and Petiot would dispute in interviews for decades.

Regardless of the wheres and whens, they’re best served in relative silence on a Sunday morning, till that first gulped mouthful returns things to normal.

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