We’ve heard bloody marys referred to as a ‘meal in a glass’, and we have to say that’s not far off the mark. The combination of thick tomato juice and vodka is pretty much the most substantial cocktail you’ll find, and add to that the umami flavours and vegetal garnish and you’re looking at a potion that verges on something you’d serve with a spoon. While some people shun the mighty mary, others are puritanical about how it’s best served. We entered the debate, vodka in hand, to find ourselves the perfect formula.
How to make the ultimate bloody mary
What is a bloody mary and who came up with it?
As with many drinks, the genealogy of this spicy tomato and vodka combo is debated. It seems likely the bloody mary was invented in America and originally contained oysters, and while we get the whole briny thing, we’re not sure how we’d handle that on a hangover. When tomato juice became more commercially available in the US, the drink was adapted, and apparently the first official bloody mary was ordered by comedian George Jessel in the 1920s. Cue a million bartenders taking on the basic formula and adding aromatics, pepper, heat and seasoning according to personal preference.
How to make it part one: Pick your base
Neutral vodka is the ideal partner for all the intense flavours that are layered on top of it. We’d usually advise buying the best spirit you can afford, but given the flavour will be all but entirely eliminated by spicy tomato, you might feel it apt to go budget. Flavoured vodka can be a good choice when matched carefully with later ingredient additions. Horseradish or chilli vodka both work well. Try infusing your own by leaving sliced red chilli to steep with your vodka overnight. By morning you’ll quite literally have yourself a jug of Russian firewater.
The jury’s out when it comes to other spirits. We love to experiment when making cocktails (we find our creativity tends to gush after the first drink – funny that) but, officially speaking, swapping vodka for gin makes the drink into a red snapper, which is an entirely separate beast. As for using brown spirits – we’d approach with caution.
You say tomato, we say… buy the best juice you can. Non-concentrate is ideal, or better still, make your own in a juicer. If you’re doing a cornershop dash and can only find cheap tomato juice, it’s not the end of the world – it can be spruced up to the nines, as we’ll soon see… We’d always plump for unflavoured tomato juice so we can have full control over the finished flavour, but we’d make an exception for clamato, a mix of tomato and clam juice that purportedly was invented in Canada. It forms the base for a Bloody Caesar, a variation on the classic Mary.
A little something extra
Lots of bartenders add an extra splash of booze to a BM. Erik Lorincz from the American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel opts for a splash of port or sherry. Manzanilla sherry adds a dry mineral taste to give depth to the drink. We’ve been known to add a splash of stout to a bloody mary for colour and creaminess, but it seems a shame to open a can for such a small amount, so perhaps this is one for when you’re making for the masses.
Garnish, garnish, garnish
All the following additions are negotiable, and of course dosage is a very personal thing so always ask your guests how much heat they can handle.
Lemon juice: This we’d always put in a bloody mary. In fact, most drinks are improved by a squeeze of lemon juice. It’s an elixir that always sharpens and brightens.
Worcestershire sauce: This deep and dark liquid dream is one of the greatest ever storecupboard inventions. It adds colour and a vinegar-salt flavour but as it contains anchovies, make sure you don’t serve it to vegetarians.
Tabasco: The world’s most famous hot sauce. It goes without saying that this should be administered sparingly, slowly building up to your preferred heat. If you want a different kind of hot sauce, try garlicky Thai sriracha or Korean gochujang, a fermented red chilli miso. If you choose the latter, garnish your bloody mary with sesame seeds for added Korean kudos.
Horseradish: Add extra fire with scorching hot horseradish. Avoid the creamed stuff you can buy in jars – white globs floating around your drink will do nothing for your hangover. Freshly grated horseradish is ideal, but it can be hard to find.
Soy sauce: Erik recommends this in place of, or as well as, salt. Few ingredients add such intense umami with such small quantities.
Mustard: Go for a smooth English or Dijon, and remember to blend it well. An unexpected dose of raw mustard is one of the worst things your mouth can experience.
Pepper: Freshly-cracked black pepper is an absolute must in our eyes. If you’re a real pepper fan, you could wet the rim of your glass and press it onto a plate of fresh pepper to create a margarita-inspired decoration.
Salt: Flavour with a good flaky sea salt, or use celery salt for added pepperiness.
We love a stick of celery with a tuft of little leaves protruding from our BM. A wedge of lemon is a perfectly acceptable alternative. You could even add a sprig of hard herbs, if you like the whole botanical cocktail thing, or even a crispy, erect rasher of streaky bacon. Another modish garnish is a cocktail stick threaded with an olive, gherkin and pickled onion (homemade or dill-pickled would work best of all).
Build it like a pro
Unlike other cocktails, bloody mary is usually put together in the glass without the assistance of a shaker. Start with ice, your vodka, then the tomato juice and liquid additions. Stir as you go using a long spoon. Add your seasoning and spices and taste throughout. An alternative method if making bloody marys for a crowd is to blend your tomato mix in a jug before pouring it onto freshly prepared vodkas on ice. As for glassware, you can’t go wrong with a classic tumbler, although the more fashion-conscious bartender may choose to serve theirs in a modish jam jar. If you’re throwing a party, reverse the trend of serving bloody marys the morning after with our canapé-friendly bloody mary shots. Beats a grotty tequila any day.
Try something new
Ben Pryor from Bristol restaurant Poco recommends adding harissa to bloody mary. The peppery Middle Eastern paste adds smoky sweetness. Ben says sweetness is actually really important in a bloody mary as tomatoes rapidly lose their natural saccharine element once juiced. Adding a touch of agave syrup can bring the tomatoes back to life.
We’re dying to try Ben’s beetroot bloody mary. The purple juice gives an earthy, savoury note similar to tomato juice, but it has a smoother, thinner texture – perhaps more drinkable, which could be dangerous. A sunny mary uses yellow tomato juice instead of the usual red, but we’ve only ever found this online, so you’d need to plan ahead!
Try making our classic bloody mary recipe.
How do you serve your bloody mary? We’d love to hear your ideas. For more on cocktails, visit our drinks section.