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First Bloody Mary

Like all cocktails, the iconic Bloody Mary is a blend of many fascinating things. Of course vodka and tomato juice but also stories, serendipity, ingenuity, legends, luck, cultural trends and a handful of high-profile champions. And while the drink itself might be relatively simple to make, its history is surprisingly complex.

Bloody Mary

The Bloody Mary is a mix of vodka and tomato juice with some ‘extras’ to spice it up a bit, elevating it from a mixed drink to a cocktail proper. It’s usually served with a variation of the following: Worcestershire Sauce, a few drops of Tabasco (or any hot pepper sauce), lemon juice, a sprinkle of celery salt, a grind of black pepper and a stick of celery. It’s a drink of two ingredients and a whole load of garnishes and gimmicks, which has the honour of being the only truly savoury cocktail you can find at more or less every bar in the world.

 

There are two bartenders who principally claim to have invented the Bloody Mary. The first was the wonderfully named Fernand Petiot, a French bartender who later emigrated to America, who’s said to have made it in the early 1920s (usually attributed to 1921). The second was George Jessel, a star of Vaudeville, Broadway and early motion pictures, who is said to have ordered it (and orchestrated the recipe) in 1927. Both have valid claims.

 

Fernand Petiot was born in Paris on 18th February 1900 and rose to professional prominence at The New York Bar (which later became the infamous Harry’s New York Bar and then just Harry’s Bar).

Fernand Petiot

The legendary establishment opened in 1911 and secured its reputation during World War I as a haven for US servicemen, later attracting celebrities and icons from all over the world, like Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Gertrude Stein, Rex Harrison and George Gershwin (who is said to have composed An American in Paris there). The story goes that during his time behind the bar at Harry’s, Petiot invented the Bloody Mary – around 1921 – although there is no written evidence about his involvement, which is a bit suspicious, until he heads over to the States, where it became a phenomenon. Harry’s New York Bar in Paris was certainly an innovative and richly fertile place for mixology – it also claims to be the originator of the Sidecar, Blue Lagoon, French 75, Monkey Gland and the White Lady cocktails too.

 

In 1925 Petiot – known to everyone as Pete – moved from Paris to London, working behind the bar of The Savoy, before being spotted and relocating to New York’s opulent St Regis Hotel in 1934, just after Prohibition. Petiot made the cocktail and the hotel bar legendary over the next 30 or so years (he is said to have made 100-150 Bloody Mary’s a day for customers) before his retirement in 1966. It’s worth noting that at the St Regis, the name was changed from the Bloody Mary – which Vincent Astor, the owner of the hotel, thought was vulgar and would offend his refined clientele – to the Red Snapper.

 

George Jessel was born in Harlem, New York, on the 3rd April 1898. Aged 10 he started on stage to earn money for his family after his playwright father’s death. He went on to be a household name in the early days of motion pictures, living a ‘colourful’ public and private life that spanned numerous marriages, affairs, parties, blackface acts and one particularly scandalous incident where, as the jilted lover, he scared off his ex’s current beau by firing a pistol at them.


George Jessel, 1926

His claim to Bloody Mary immortality was after an all-night bender in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1927. He and his friends had been drinking until 8am the following morning and needed a pick-me-up to help stop their hangovers before an important beach volleyball game at 9.30am. Of course, they enlisted the help of the bartender… as he tells in his autobiography The World I lived In! in 1975.

 

“Here, Georgie, try this”, he said, holding up a dusty bottle I had never seen before. They call it vodkee. We’ve had it six years and nobody has ever asked for it.” I looked at it, sniffed it. It was pretty pungent and smelled like rotten potatoes. ‘Hell, what have we got to lose? Get me some Worcestershire sauce, some tomato juice, and lemon; that ought to kill the smell’, I commanded Charlie. I also remembered that Constance Talmadge, dsestined to be my future sister-in-law, always used to drink something with tomatoes in it to clear her head the next morning and it always worked – at least for her.

 

‘We’ve tried everything else boys, we might as well try this’, I said as I started mixing the ingredients in a large glass. After we had taken a few quaffs, we all started to feel a little better. The mixture seemed to knock out the butterflies.”

 

The beauty of this tale is the occasion they were making it for. Today, the Bloody Mary is famed for being a hangover cure, which seemed to be the exact origin story of the drink itself. Jessel goes on to talk about how it got its name, saying his friend Mary Warburton, a rich socialite of the time, came to the bar and tried the drink, accidentally spilling some on her white dress. It was she, he says, who quipped, “Now you can call me Bloody Mary, George!”.

 

It's a tight story, corroborated a few years later when the recipe was included in a cocktail book called The World Famous Cotton Club: 1939 Book of Mixed Drinks under the name ‘George Jessel’s Pick-Me-Up.    

 

So, if Petiot and Jessel were the fathers of the Bloody Mary, its surge in popularity was almost certainly instigated by Ernest ‘Ernie’ Byfield, a legendary Chicago hotelier and restauranteur. He seemed to love the Bloody Mary so much he pushed it in all his hotels and restaurants, particularly the jewel in his dazzling crown, The Pump Room. Later described as the ‘most famous restaurant in Chicago’, it was the stopping off point for celebrities changing trains in Chicago while travelling from NYC to LA.


Ernest Byfield
Ernie Byfield (right) with Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall

Stage and screen stars flocked there (think the entire cast of the Rat Pack) – and Ernie was known for bringing new trends in drinks, like the Bloody Mary, and adding theatrics to his food (he served most dishes flambéed so they would look exciting as they were brought to the table). This could have been where the Bloody Mary got its omnipresent celery garnish too.



In 1934, Time Magazine said: “Before 1928 tomato juice was used chiefly for invalids and babies who needed vitamins. Packers did not produce enough to warrant keeping separate figures… Last year, as tomato juice took its place on nearly every restaurant menu in the land, output was estimated at 5,000,000 cases, worth 8,500,000. The rise in tomato juice sales has been the most spectacular of any food during the Depression… The man who put the spice tomato juice cocktail on the map was Ernest Byfield, Chicago’s most famed hotelkeeper.” 

 

But the history of the Bloody Mary is of course wholly intertwined with that of its chief ingredient, tomato juice. After all, no mixer no Mary.

 

The story of the first tomato juice served as a drink in its own right – rather than as a sauce, soup or other culinary-related reason – is said to have started in southern Indiana USA in the unusually named French Lick Springs Hotel.


French Lick Springs Hotel

According to legend, Chef Louis Perrin was happily preparing breakfast for his guests in the summer of 1917 when he realised he’d run out of oranges for the morning juice. Thinking quickly, he instead squeezed the ripe tomatoes he had a plentiful supply of, added a touch of sugar to make it less acidic and a secret ‘sauce’ to give it some oomph. Of course, it was an instant success – and word spread quickly around the state and beyond. Pretty soon, guests were flocking to the resort just for a taste of the new ‘breakfast drink’. So much so, the hotel had to form a tomato juice company in French Lick town to keep up with demand – which inevitably led to the invention of the first commercially available canned version of the spiced drink in 1928. (Today, the hotel is still going strong and all restaurant guests are served a complimentary spiced tomato juice as a starter in honour of its niche history!).


But was 1917 really the first use of tomato juice in a drink? Potentially on a commercial scale but there are other references beforehand which could show how the Bloody Mary was more of an evolution rather than outright invention.

 

Drinks writers and historians Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller (husband and wife team who are co-founders of Sipsmith Gin, so they know a thing or two) dug up a non-alcoholic recipe for what is essentially a Bloody Mary from the late nineteenth century.

 

The London Hospital Gazette was a student-run newssheet that began on 1st October 1872 to tell the goings-on of all the hospitals of the capital.

The London Hospital Gazette

Of course, there was room for other interesting articles (which had to have a medical bent, of course) too, such as this one published on 12th March 1892 pertaining to the Oyster Cocktail:

 

“A recipe returned from over sea. It is reported that at the Manhattan Club in New York a warm beverage, called an ‘oyster cocktail’, is largely dispensed. For the benefit of those who may be possessed of suicidal intentions, I give the recipe. Seven small oysters are dropped into a tumbler, to which must be added a pinch of salt, tree drops of fiery Tabasco sauce, three drops of Mexican Chili sauce, and a spoonful of lemon juice. To this mixture add a little horseradish, and green pepper sauce, African pepper ketchup, black pepper, and fill up with tomato juice. This should be stirred with a spoon, very slightly crushing the oysters, which are then lifted out and eaten, the liquid following as a cocktail.”

 

It's essentially the same as a modern Bloody Mary – give or take the odd African pepper and oysters. I just hope that it being “a warm beverage” refers to the heat of the chili sauce and not the temperature it’s served at, which would make it pretty grim. Was this the first Virgin Mary?

 

But what about the wonderful name? Memorable ✔️ Evocative ✔️ Intriguing ✔️

There are a few theories as to how it came about beyond Jessel’s friend Mary with the white dress.

 

Of course, the most obvious reference is to Mary Tudor, a short-lived English Queen who had a tyrannical reputation for persecution and punishment which won her the macabre nickname of Bloody Mary. Fiercely religious, she was the first woman to successfully claim the throne of England and reigned for five years between 1553 to 1558.


Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary

After taking power, her main aim was to reverse the reformation of the church her father Henry VIII had instigated, killing a lot of political and religious opponents along the way – and lot of whom she had publicly burnt at the stake. This secured her gruesome reputation and could have been the potential inspiration for cocktail royalty almost 400 years later (the fire of the vodka, the red of the blood?).  

 

Another theory comes from when Fernand Petiot served his tomato juice cocktail to two early customers in the St Regis Hotel’s King Cole Bar. They were from Chicago and apparently said the redness of the serve reminded them of a notorious bar back home nicknamed The Bucket of Blood. The bar was on the rough side of town, first appearing in newsprint in 1916 for selling alcohol after hours: “It is a small, dark, sordid, dismal place and we couldn’t stand it very long,” (“Five Cabarets Violate Law, Aldermen Hear,” Chicago Tribune, 25th February 1916).

 

There are two tales about how it got its nickname. The first was about a waitress there called Mary, who everyone called Bloody Mary. She was in charge of washing the floors at the end of the night and, when there were fights or stabbings, she’d wring the blood into a bucket that would be flung into the street, hence the name. The other theory is that the wife of George B. Dugdale, one of the owners of The Bucket of Blood, was sentenced to prison for the botched abortion and subsequent death of Marie Benzing. 

 

There’s no doubt The Bloody Mary has been an enduring classic since the 1920s, embraced by all countries and cultures. It’s a sign of its popularity – and the power of its name – that it offers such rich flexibility to other bartenders when experimenting with spirits other than vodka. For instance, when using tequila it’s known as a Bloody Maria. With Japanese sake, a Bloody Maru. With whisky, a Bloody Joseph. And alcohol-free is a Virgin Mary or, one of my favourite names, a Bloody Shame.


Bloody Mary cocktail

*I am indebted to the historically-rich and deeply-researched article on Difford’s Guide for much of the information in this blog. A celery stick salute to the writers.

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