Matthew Kelly / Supercall

Culture
3 New Bloody Mary Books Are Testing the Bloody’s Limits

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This spring, not one, not two, but three separate publishing houses are offering up a new Bloody Mary book. It’s a publisher’s nightmare, but for avid brunchtime drinkers, it’s a dream come true—the perfect excuse for a pitcher party, a Battle of the Books that conveniently requires quite a bit of day drinking.

I bought a party’s worth of tomato juice and snagged a preview copy of all three new books: The Bloody Mary by Brian Bartels (released March 28 by Ten Speed Press), The New Bloody Mary by Vincenzo Marianella and James O. Fraioli (published April 4 by Skyhorse Publishing), and The Bloody Mary Book by Ellen Brown (available May 16 from Running Press.) And then I began a cayenne-spiced and celery-salted journey to find the best of the b(r)unch.

The Basic Bloody

If you’re a big enough Bloody fan to buy an entire book about the drink—or receive it as a gift from someone who recognizes you as a Bloody Mary obsessive—I’m guessing the best version of the classic recipe for you is your own, one seasoned to your preferences. But it’s still telling to check out the basic versions of the recipe in each book.

In The New Bloody Mary, Marianella and Fraioli don’t dwell on the past, choosing instead to focus on new and unusual renditions of the drink. But they do present a recipe that is served at the King Cole Bar at New York’s St. Regis Hotel as “the Original Bloody Mary.” There’s no hot sauce here; instead the heat comes from a little cayenne. Other than that, it’s as simple as could be: vodka, tomato, lemon, celery salt, black pepper and Worcestershire. You’re not told to shake it all together; instead, you first fill the serving glass with ice and vodka, then shake the tomato and spices vigorously in a cocktail shaker. My preference would be to mix the spirit in, but a little twist of a spoon in the glass isn’t hard to do. I worried at first that filling the glass with ice first was a bad move—home cocktail-makers may not have all their ingredients set out and ready to go, and by the time the drink is ready to strain, a good amount of their ice might have melted. But a little dilution isn’t unwelcome in this one. It’s a simple, robust drink that lacks most of the bells and whistles of the modern Mary. Please note: For this recipe, you should use a vodka that you actually like to drink since abrasive booze has nowhere to hide here. And I had one other quibble: The photo next to the recipe shows a mason jar, full to the brim. But this mixed drink starts out with only three ounces of liquid before shaking. If you like a big, tall brunch beverage, be sure to double everything.

While Marianella and Fraioli’s book moves swiftly onto more unusual variations on the classic, Bartels gets nerdy in The Bloody Mary, presenting an entire chapter filled with the historic forbears of the red drink. You can try a version from 1946 that includes Angostura bitters, or the 1971 Smirnoff-branded recipe that adds A1 sauce. It’s a journey that the truly Bloody-obsessed may find worth taking, but I was eager to get to the Bloody Mary No. 20, which is the classic-inspired but modern-polished version served at brunch at Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey’s Grocery in New York, where Bartels is the managing partner of bar operations. It’s not a wild and wacky variation (we’ll get to those later), but it’s bold and quite savory, thanks to a long pour of Worcestershire sauce and a sizeable dose of sinus-clearing horseradish, plus Sriracha and salty olive brine. Of course there’s tomato here, but the well-integrated flavors skew much meatier. As long as you’re not afraid of spice, it’s a winner. I should note that the same cheap vodka that tasted rough in the King Cole Bar recipe worked deliciously here.

After addressing the essential elements of the Bloody, Ellen Brown’s friendly, home-entertainer-focused book, The Bloody Mary Book, begins with the most common way of serving a Bloody in your own kitchen. Step one: Make a big pitcher of spiced, tomato-rich mix and stash it in the fridge. Step two: Back off and let your guests add booze to their taste. (She also gives you the tools for making your own cooked tomato juice to use instead of the canned stuff; I’m eager to try it once tomatoes are back in season.) My only complaint is that if you are a stickler for instructions, you have to page through the book quite a bit to get them. The basic mix recipe takes you as far as refrigerating the batch, but doesn’t tell you how to dilute it properly or how much vodka to add. She addresses dilution a dozen pages later and leaves you to extrapolate the best amount of booze (most of her single-portion recipes, which appear later, call for .75 cup of mix and between 1.5 and 2 ounces of the spirit.) While Bartels’ Bloody Mary No. 20 is all about deep, savory character, Brown’s basic Bloody is wonderfully fresh-tasting and brightly citrusy, with a tangy punch of tomato and a ton of horseradish. Cheap vodka works just fine in this one as well, but I’d recommend going the extra mile and poaching or pickling some shrimp for a garnish.

The New Mary

As good as the pretty-close-to-classic Bloodies above were, I’m not sure you’d buy a Bloody Mary book if you were just looking for the basics. Unusual variations fill out all three books; I selected one cocktail from each that took the Bloody as a starting point, however distant, to see if they ended up somewhere tasty. It left me musing about the core personality of the drink—and introduced me to two recipes I’d very happily serve to guests.

Anyone who tries out half a dozen different Bloody Mary recipes in a week will likely be left pondering what a Bloody Mary is, exactly. If the Martini is sparkling-clear consommé, then the Bloody Mary is a thick, loosely-packed burger with a juicy-rare center. It doesn’t ask you to raise your pinkie as you devour it, and it just might drip down your chin. It’s that bold attitude that makes the Mary.

That means that we needn’t limit the category to tomato drinks only, but there are still rules. A relative of the Bloody Mary must be more savory and salty than sweet, with some spice and some tang, plus something a little green, whether that’s horseradish or herbs. Some of the drink’s qualities are either/or. I’d say, if you’re going to depart from the classic drink’s richness, there need to be other flavors that reference the original. If you’re going to depart from the core flavors of the original, you need to stick to the original drink’s richness.

Not all savory drinks are Bloody Marys, but lots of savory drinks could be Bloody Marys if you had your eyes closed. So I closed my eyes as I drank the Coconut Curry Mary from Marianella and Fraioli’s The New Bloody Mary. Created by Jennifer Akin of Alchemy Restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, it requires a little time at the stove. You first prep, simmer and chill a curry-ish base that involves onions, fresh lemongrass, ginger, makrut lime leaves, curry powder, coconut milk and cilantro, before blending with cucumber to dial down the intensity slightly. The chilled curry mix is stirred with vodka, lime juice and Sriracha. It’s a mouthful: Tart and tangy, for sure. Savory and rich, for sure. It wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, but once I tasted it, I couldn’t deny that its bold flavor made it a cousin to the original, even though it never crosses paths with a tomato.

My favorite variations, though, highlight something essential about the drink, bringing forward facets of the classic that we might have missed despite years of pre-noon gulping.

Can a watermelon cocktail spiked with tequila be a legit Bloody Mary? Ellen Brown’s delicious Blushing Pink Adobe convinced me, bringing out the drink’s restorative brightness by swapping most of the tomato—which is a fruit, after all—for the juicy, fragrant flesh of seedless watermelon. It’s a clever trick that renders the drink a little softer, a little more delicate. There’s a little passata di pomodoro and fresh cilantro to help each sip teeter on the line between fruity and savory, and the drink is amply spiced with smoky chipotle chilies. It’s an especially refreshing Mary, ideal for drinking alongside breakfast tacos.

Instead of highlighting the tomato’s fruity side, Bartels tends (with a few exceptions) to skew savory, and calls on the wisdom—and ample liquor cabinets—of many of the country’s current top bartenders. He shares a recipe from Leo Robitschek of The NoMad in New York that starts with tomato but then goes deep, adding in earthy beet juice, salty, umami-boosting Maggi sauce, and a hot splash of Tabasco. And then there’s the pro move: Instead of vodka—because, not to sound like your mom, but should you really be drinking two shots of vodka with your brunch?—he uses nutty, brothy amontillado sherry, which lowers the drink’s overall proof, giving you just enough booze to stave off hangover (for a little while, at least) but not enough to put you right back down for a nap. It’s just right for a book that explains that a bartender—whoever’s mixing drinks at home or at your favorite brunch spot—is one part “affable and engaging party host” and one part “medical practitioner eager to heal.”

Matthew Kelly / Supercall
Ellen Brown’s refreshing watermelon-based Bloody straddles the line between savory and sweet.

The Essentials

watermelon
tomatoes
tequila
Matthew Kelly / Supercall
Though powerful in flavor, Leo Robitschek’s take on the bloody comes in at a fairly low ABV thanks to nutty amontillado sherry.

The Essentials

Tomato Juice
beet juice
Amontillado Sherry

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