Actually, Bloody Marys Are Good
How I learned to love the most disgusting cocktail on the menu.
BY Aaron Goldfrab | Mar 10, 2017 | Food & Drink
Drinks writers are forced to consume the good, the bad, and the grotesque: IPAs in Rhode Island and old-ass Scotch, frilly cocktails and cupcake vodkas, chili beers and whatever the hell cachaça is. But there's one drink I've never been able to suck down: the Bloody Mary. It absolutely disgusts me. And as a longtime advocate of the drinking-before-noon ethos of yesteryear, I need a good morning cocktail, of which there are only a few. Mimosas and Bellinis are lame, milk punches delicious but obscure, and thus I am left with the Bloody.
Brian Bartels wrote The Bloody Mary: The Lore and Legend of a Cocktail Classic, with Recipes for Brunch and Beyond, which comes out this month. Bartles is also the beverage director for New York's Happy Cooking Hospitality Group, where he makes plenty of Bloody Marys at spots like Fedora and Bar Sardine. He and I met midday—on Valentine's Day no less—at Dante in Greenwich Village, which offers an "All Day Bloody Mary." His task? Help me learn to love it.
You might be haunted by your Bloody past.
Amazingly, Bartels once loathed Bloody Marys too.
"My dad, when I was a kid, drank tomato juice out of the can. And that's why I used to be in the anti-Bloody brotherhood with you," he says. "In the mornings before he went off for work, he'd drink some, and I just thought it was the most disgusting thing ever."
OK, but tomatoes don't disgust me. I like tomato soup, I dig salsa, I'm obsessed with hot sauce. Salt is great, pickled things are cool, I like silly garnishes. I enjoy all the components of a Bloody, I just don't enjoy the Bloody. That's always made me feel inadequate. Was I repressing a bad Bloody experience from my past?
If so, I would have to get over it like Bartels, who didn't get into Bloodys until he helped open restaurants in New York. By then he was already in his thirties and decided maybe he wasn't giving the drink its proper due.
Ignore that the canned crap is loaded with MSG.
"The stuff that's pre-packaged and canned is packed with MSG and a shitload of sodium," Bartels informs me. I didn't even realise those canned V8 and Mr & Mrs T's Bloody Mary mixes still existed. Mock them if you will, but those actually opened up Bartels' mind to the umami aspect of Bloody Marys.
"They're low-brow delicious," he says. (Other things that Bartel and I decide are low-brow delicious: Slim Jims, Combos, Mountain Dew, and Arby's roast beef sandwiches. If I can enjoy those, I should be able to enjoy a crappy Bloody Mary.)
MIMOSAS AND BELLINIS ARE LAME, MILK PUNCHES DELICIOUS BUT OBSCURE, AND THUS I AM LEFT WITH THE BLOODY.
You can tell a Bloody's quality by colour alone.
"It's gnarly," Bartels says of those pink-hued, ice-packed Bloodys you might find at an airport bar. "For some reason, though, that's why I love them so much. The Bloody Mary is the most low-brow and highbrow. I call it the unibrow of cocktails, because it connects us all, whether it's a shitty airport Bloody Mary or this really finely-crafted, well-thought-out one we're drinking right now."
You have to drink them socially.
As a drinks writer, I do a lot of drinking alone, in quiet contemplation with a notepad and my thoughts. That doesn't work with the Bloody.
"It's a convivial cocktail!" Bartels tells me. He's right. You'd never make one to enjoy by yourself at home. "You would be elevated to creep status," he says.
Plus, Parker Posey is a big fan.
I was tickled to see that the brilliant indie actress had inexplicably blurbed Bartels' book.
"She was into it!" Bartels tells me. "I got to be friends with her through my restaurants, and she's the sweetest, most down-to-earth person."
I like Posey, and I celebrate her entire filmography, especially her work in Christopher Guest mockumentaries. If she likes Bloodys, then surely I can too!
Finally, a revelation!
Halfway through my first Bloody Mary at Dante, I realise I'm enjoying it. It's admittedly very high-end, made with fresh tomato juice from an expensive cold-press juicer behind the bar. It likewise includes fresh cucumber juice, celery juice, and bell pepper juice. There's house-made fennel salt on the rim and horseradish freshly microplaned on top. It's extremely rich in both flavour and body. I'm sipping it slowly, just a nip here and there. And that's my revelation: I realise I can only drink one, maybe two of these, and that turns me off.
Now, I'm not someone who thinks that alcohol is only good if it's "drinkable." I once railed against the stupidity of "session beer." But for some reason I just can't handle the lack of drinkability in a Bloody.
"I think that's a natural reaction to it," Bartels say. "A really good one, it should have enough of what you're looking for that you won't need a second one."
There's one way to overcome that. According to Bartels, the so-called "Wisconsin Way" is to add a chaser of beer alongside each Bloody you consume. "What that does for a lot of people," he says, "is it cleanses the palate. Some people, they'll sip a little and start pouring the beer into the mix. Which helps."
"I CALL IT THE UNIBROW OF COCKTAILS, BECAUSE IT CONNECTS US ALL."
It's actually easy to get past the flavour.
Everyone has their own idea of what comprises the "best" Bloody Mary. Bartels admits he initially didn't like Bloodys because of the horseradish. (Shocking for a guy who earlier admitted to liking Arby's Horsey Sauce.)
"If it's too spicy, too salty, has too much coriander seed in it, there's going to be something off-center about it," Bartels explains. "It commands a certain balance, and everyone's palate is unique."
Even if you hate tomatoes, the main ingredient, Bartels says a good Bloody doesn't need much—two ounces is probably enough. It might not even need tomato juice! His book offers more than 50 recipes, some made with carrot juice and beet juice and even tomato water; some spiked with beef bouillon and Sriracha; others garnished with peanuts and oysters. If I can't find a Bloody in there to like, I probably have a problem with my tongue.
So often in my life I've been served Bloodys with food, and a lot of it—waffles and pancakes and eggs Benedict. Thus, it's like drinking food with more food. I realise for me to truly enjoy a Bloody Mary, I need to use it as a meal replacement drink. That's why it's perfect at Dante, as I've skipped lunch.
"You're really only drinking five ounces of fluid and an ounce and a half of that is vodka," Bartels tells me. "You can do that!"
Who cares if vodka is lame?
One of my biggest issues with the Bloody is that I find vodka lame. I like aged spirits, flavorful spirits, barrel-proof spirits. "I like alcohol that has taste," I tell Bartels.
"You can get creative with the spirits!" he replies.
That's why he loves utilizing flavored vodkas like Absolut Peppar and St. George Green Chile Vodka. His book also includes Bloodys made with non-vodka spirits, like the Old Pepper with rye whiskey and the State Street with mezcal.
I could live with one of those.
So at what point is it not a Bloody?
A Bloody with gin is a Red Snapper.
A Bloody with rum is a Bloody Pirate.
A Bloody with tequila is a Bloody Maria.
A Bloody with scotch is a Bloody Scotsman.
But would something with carrot juice and rye whisky still be a Bloody?
"That's a good question," Bartels says. "It does become something else once you take away those core ingredients and get a little too creative."
Thus, I think I'd feel like a bit of a cheater if I finally fell for a Bloody that was too non-Bloody-esque.
In conclusion, there is no 'best' Bloody...
"...and that's the majestic brilliance of it all. Where I come from it's like...you gotta try this one. Not that it's necessarily better—you just need to try it," Bartels says.
Ultimately, that's what I finally learn: There is a Bloody Mary for everyone. I may actually start ordering them on occasion. Dante's was the first I ever finished, and I really enjoyed it.