The Bloody Mary: The History and Science of an Oddball Classic

We dive into this classic brunch drink's history and figure out whether you should really use it as a vehicle for cheap vodka.

A Bloody Mary cocktail in a tall glass garnished with a celery stick and some shrimp on a toothpick.

Serious Eats / Alice Gao

Over the years, I've come across a few projects that have tried to categorize cocktails by their ingredients, usually with the aim of finding new formulations based on existing classics.

I even did a little study myself, graphing the relative content of sweet, sour, bitter, and boozy of ten well-known classic cocktails against each other. The results weren't surprising: most of the recipes clustered within a well-defined range, a circle of concoctions universally recognized as fit for human consumption.

While most classic cocktails gather on the same baseball diamond of normalcy, the Bloody Mary is somewhere outside of left field, halfway between the concession stands and the parking lot. And yet no one would deny its status as a classic enjoyed by casual brunch-goers and cocktail aficionados alike.

What gives?

Key Components of a Bloody Mary

Let's start off by defining the drink.

  • Base spirit. Vodka. The classic doesn't mess around, but more on the boozy part later.
  • Tomato juice. This is also non-negotiable. Tomatoes provide a savory, sweet, and slightly tart base upon which the rest of the drinks builds.
  • Savory additives. Here's where you can start getting creative. Kenji recommends a few options, ranging from Worcestershire (classic) to Maggi (inventive) to beef consommé (umm, delicious?). Really, the choice is up to you; just make sure whatever you use contains both salt and savory flavors.
  • Spice. Most recipes call for a straight pepper component as well as spices and herbs used more for their aromatics, such as oregano or basil.
  • Burn. While you can feel free to substitute between hot peppers, hot sauce, or even straight chili oil, there's really no substitute for horseradish to get that distinctive sinus-clearing burn. That's because while chilies all contain capsaicin, horseradish's burn derives from mustard oil.
  • Acid. Most recipes call for lemon juice, though the amount depends on the tomato juice used as a base and whether an acidic hot sauce (like Tabasco) is used.
  • Aromatic garnish. Celery sticks make a great aromatic topper to a Bloody Mary, and when it comes to balance, they're about as important as the mint that adorns a julep. But, as we'll discover in a moment, celery didn't become classic until well into the Bloody Mary's life, so feel free to try other garnishes if you're feeling frisky.

How Did the First Bloody Mary Come Into Existence?

A Bloody Mary cocktail in a tall glass garnished with a celery stick and some shrimp on a toothpick.

Serious Eats / Alice Gao

Award-winning bartender and bar owner Jack McGarry of the Dead Rabbit in New York City penned this four-part study on Bloody Mary history for Difford's Guide back in 2012.

Here are the highlights from McGarry's report:

  • 1892: The Bloody Mary begins life as the Oyster Cocktail, a recipe for a warm nonalcoholic drink containing tomato juice, Tabasco, lemon juice, and oysters.
  • 1920s: The tomato juice cocktail gains popularity in the United States. It still contains no alcohol, but is often seasoned with Tabasco, lemon, or Worcestershire.
  • 1927: Actor and comedian George Jessel orders the first Bloody Mary—a half-vodka, half-tomato juice recipe supposedly concocted to help with a tough hangover from the night before.
  • 1934: Fernand Petiot takes up his role as head bartender at the St. Regis in Manhattan. Whether he creates the drink on of his own accord or based off of Jessel's influence is unclear, but Petiot perfects the formula and propels the Bloody Mary to classic status.
  • 1950s and 60s: By this time, the Bloody Mary is a worldwide phenomenon and well-accepted brunch/hangover drink. It was also around this time that an unknown customer asked for a celery stick to help stir the drink and the celery stick garnish rose in popularity.
  • 1960s: Herb and June Taylor release Mr. and Mrs. T Bloody Mary mix and the ingredients used in a Bloody Mary are cemented in the collective consciousness.

Today, there are many variations on the Bloody Mary available (see our reviews of the best Bloody Mary mixes), but all of them are recognized as based upon the formulation cemented in the 1960s.

The Perfect Drink for Cheap Vodka?

An assortment of bottles of vodka.

Serious Eats / Robyn Lee

Here's another funny thing about the Bloody Mary and its status as a classic cocktail: it is one of the few classics that specifically calls for vodka. In fact, Kenji even recommends using bottom-shelf vodka, on the assumption that the other ingredients will drown out the nuances of better spirits.

Here are my thoughts: capsaicin triggers the TRPV1 channel in humans. That is, it triggers a pathway designed specifically to allow us to detect burning, spicy sensations. As it turns out, alcohol triggers the exact same channel, which helps to explain why high-proof alcohol leaves a burning, tingly sensation on the tongue. As for horseradish? The pungent mustard in horseradish activates another channel, known as TRPA1, which itself is responsible for detecting "irritant" and pain sensations.

Basically, what I think is happening is that since Bloody Mary's trigger these sensations anyway, we won't notice the characteristic burn of cheap hooch, as we'll just associate the unpleasant sensations with the spice of chiles or eye-watering of horseradish.

And don't forget that salt is the most powerful suppressor of other tastes and Bloody Marys are loaded with salt.

Can a Bloody Mary Really Cure My Hangover?

Most "hair of the dog" potions designed to combat an alcohol-induced headache with more alcohol basically seem to rely on the ability of booze to dull the pain of the hangover, without actually doing anything to restore or replenish your body. But as we've discussed, the Bloody Mary contains some ingredients not normally found in cocktails.

Let's get one thing clear: the medical community still doesn't agree about what really causes hangovers. The latest research I dug up suggests that while dehydration makes us feel worse after a night of heavy drinking, hangovers are caused by more than just dehydration. Rather, it seems like excessive drinking affects the very way our bodies metabolize and use nutrients.1,2,3

Regardless, though, of what causes hangovers, the Bloody Mary contains plenty of ingredients that might really make you feel better.

Tomatoes contain the electrolytes sodium and potassium, the antioxidant vitamin C, and a whole host of vitamins, such as lycopene and vitamins B6. Vitamin B6 in particular is one of the few remedies to have been shown to reduce the effects of hangover.4 Other tomato components, such as carotenoids, have also been studied for their medicinal effects, but I didn't find anything relating them to hangovers.

As for the other ingredients in a Bloody Mary, I did notice that all the savory add-ons are high in glutamates (or MSG or "umami" as you might know them). And while glutamates are an important neurotransmitter, it appears that the vast majority of dietary glutamates are metabolized into other amino acids and never make it anywhere near the brain as actual glutamate. I also found a few sources that claimed glutamine supplements might help with hangovers and that made me wonder again about glutamates, but without more scientific evidence, there isn't much to recommend here.

One thing is certain, though: the vodka portion of the Bloody Mary (or of any hair-of-the-dog, for that matter) does nothing good for you.4 If you really want to feel better after a long night of drinking, maybe try a Virgin Mary on for size.

In summary: the non-booze ingredients of a Bloody Mary deliver up electrolytes, water, Vitamin C, and Vitamin B6, all of which might help with a hangover. Vodka, not so much.

References: 1. The alcohol hangover-a puzzling phenomenon 2. The pathology of alcohol hangover. 3. Treatment and prevention of alcohol hangover. 4. Alcohol-induced hangover: a double-blind comparison of pyritinol and placebo in preventing hangover symptoms.

June 2014