The Red Snapper and the Bloody Mary

I hate tomatoes.

This always dismayed my mother, who loved tomatoes for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, and for anytime in between. I always whined, and refused to eat them. Today it’s my tomato-loving bride who faces the pushback; I still whine and refuse to eat them.

So why do I like the Bloody Mary?

The tomato-and-vodka Bloody Mary has been around since Prohibition, and its popularity seems never to have waned. I’m intrigued by the drink’s split personality—it’s one of the best-known of early twentieth century hangover cures, and at the same time one of the most popular of the modern “brunch cocktails”—sort of the tough guy of the Bellini-and-Mimosa set.

Historians tell us that tomato juice became fashionable as a bartender’s hangover cure in the early 1900s, and apparently was the base for many mixes alleged to ease the pains of overindulgence. The basic formula of tomato juice with various herbs, spices and peppery irritants (and, of course, a little “hair of the dog”) was probably widely accepted as a workable approach to surviving a difficult morning. Or evening, depending on how quickly you could get yourself moving.

The origin of the specific version we know as the “Bloody Mary” is obscure, of course, as is the origin of the name. The most widely-told story is about a bartender named Ferdinand “Pete” Petiot, who worked at Harry’s American Bar in Paris in the 1920s. Petiot claimed credit for being the first to mix vodka with tomato juice—and for naming the mix “Bloody Mary.”

Petiot’s story continues after Prohibition, when he moved to the US and became head bartender at New York’s St. Regis Hotel. It’s at this point, according to Petiot, that he started adding the spices that make the Bloody Mary what it is today.

But there were obstacles.

For starters, there was the name. Apparently, the St. Regis thought “Bloody Mary” unseemly, and changed the name to “Red Snapper.”

The other problem is that there was no vodka in the United States at the time. There had been plenty in Paris, thanks to expatriate Russians on the lam from the Bolsheviks, but the USA was still a vodka-free zone. And so, the Red Snapper was made with gin.

(I haven’t been able to figure out when the vodka-based Bloody Mary returned to the American scene, but it doesn’t seem to have taken long, perhaps the late 1930s or early 1940s, when the vodka tide began to rise.)

The Bloody Mary, photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Bloody Mary

Cocktail origin stories are murky tales, and there’s usually no telling what’s true and what isn’t. The BarSmarts notes on the Bloody Mary stir the pot even more with this item:

“…in the late 1920s the people responsible for marketing [tomato juice] began widely publicizing an alcohol-free “Tomato Juice Cocktail” designed to give a bit of the bite of an alcoholic drink, without anything illegal in it. Its ingredients? Tomato juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, salt and pepper.”

That’s not a bad description of the basic Bloody Mary mix. And, as BarSmarts snarks, “It didn’t take much inventing to add a little alcohol to that.”

That formula—tomato, Tabasco, Worcestershire, lemon, salt and pepper—describes the set of core ingredients that, along with vodka, are universally accepted as the basic Bloody Mary:

The Basic Bloody Mary

  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
  • ½ oz lemon juice
  • 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 4–8 dashes red Tabasco sauce, to taste
  • 1½ oz vodka
  • 4 oz tomato juice

Mix all but the tomato juice in a tall glass, stir, and fill glass three-quarters full with ice cubes. Add tomato juice, stir again, and garnish with celery stalk or dill pickle.

But then, hardly anyone makes the Bloody Mary “according to the recipe.” Every bar, restaurant and home brunch maker seems to have found a way to doctor that core recipe into what they consider the ultimate Bloody Mary.

And creativity isn’t limited just to the recipe—garnishes range from the classic celery or lime slice to utterly insane, Rococo monstrosities.

Spices for the Bloody Mary, photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.The modifications are endless. In the mood for pepper? Add more Tabasco, or substitute your favorite alternate hot sauce. Different juice? Use a mixed vegetable juice product like V8. Or spicy V8. Or how about Clamato juice, with some horseradish mixed in, and maybe some shrimp as garnish? Or maybe more herbs, perhaps oregano?

As for me, I like my Bloody Mary a bit salty, and not so much peppery as spicy, with a little ground celery seed and cumin added to deepen the flavor. Here’s the version that goes well at our house:

The Cold Glass Bloody Mary

  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
  • ½ oz lemon juice
  • ½ oz lime juice
  • 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 4–8 dashes red Tabasco sauce, to taste
  • ¼ tsp celery salt
  • ¼ tsp ground cumin
  • ¼ tsp sweet paprika
  • ½ tsp ground celery seed
  • 1½ oz vodka
  • 4 oz tomato juice

Mix all but the tomato juice in a tall glass, stir, and fill glass three-quarters full with ice cubes. Add tomato juice, stir again, and garnish with celery stalk or dill pickle.

The Red Snapper is the same drink, but with a good London dry gin instead of the vodka. There is so much going on with herbs and spices in this mix that you can hardly tell the difference. The juniper does come through, but you have to look for it. It’s a great substitution, and adds that faint, extra herbal note if you’re in the mood for a slightly more complex flavor.
So why do I like the Bloody Mary? I still don’t know, but I’ve stopped asking. Maybe it’s just, as Charles Embury wrote, the Bloody Mary is “a classic example of combining in one potion both the poison and the antidote.”

That’s good enough for me.


11 thoughts on “The Red Snapper and the Bloody Mary

Add yours

  1. I was always curious about the origin of the red snapper name, though I was fortunate enough to enjoy one at the st. regis last year (for a mere $25 each).
    I like mine very simple- gin, lemon juice, dash of worcestershire, dash of hot sauce, tomato juice. little salt and pepper on top. I think I’ll make a batch now.
    Great post. Merry Christmas!

  2. You gotta get your hands on Clamato juice; sub it in for the tomato juice and you’ve got the decent beginnings of a (Bloody) Ceasar. Wikipedia claims we consume about 350 million a year – not bad for a hangover remedy 😊.

  3. It seems, I have been a huge fan of Bloody Mary since my university time, for this time I’ve gone the way from a simple layered shooter (with cheap vodka and a lot of fun) to Red Snapper – the one, that I consider undoubtedly exquisite drink … and, by the way, my wife and I are going to enjoy it at New Year night (maybe in form of Oyster Shooter, if we find fresh oysters on sale the day after tomorrow). So, your post whets my appetite and turns me in an appropriate mood :) Thanks!

    1. I’m delighted to take part in putting you and your bride in a good mood for New Year’s! I hope you find those oysters. (…and now you have me thinking…)

      Meanwhile, “cheap vodka and a lot of fun”, I like that…

  4. Will definitely give yours a shot, cumin sounds very interesting. One of us is more into Bloody Marys than the other. We both like fresh horseradish though, gives it that perfect kick!

    1. Horseradish seems to be one of the fault lines in the Bloody Mary world—there’s sort of a “School of Horseradish-I-Insist” and a “School of No-Horseradish-No-Way.” It all depends on whether you’re more into heat or spice, I guess…

  5. Yum! Bloody Mary is one of my favorites and can not wait to try the Red Snapper! Thank you for the very informative history! I look forward to reading more about the different cocktails. May I repost some?

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