Making a Bloody Mary is like the cocktail version of Pimp My Ride. While there’s a base model, the drink is endlessly customizable and the final outcome is completely based on personal preference. Because of this, there is not really a wrong way to make a Bloody Mary as long as the combo of tomato, booze, heat and savory spice are all there. That said, nasty tasting, poorly-made Bloody Marys do exist—and we’ve all had one.
To better understand how to perfect our Bloody Mary game, we sought advice from Brian Bartels, the manager of bar operations at Happy Cooking Hospitality (which oversees luminary New York cocktail dens like Fedora, Jeffrey's Grocery, and Bar Sardine) and author of The Bloody Mary, a comprehensive guide to the savory brunch staple. Here, his secrets on making the best Bloody Marys at home—or in a bar.
Use Something Besides Vodka
While a classic Bloody Mary is traditionally made with vodka as the base, Bartels argues that it is the most boring and simplistic liquor to use in the cocktail. Vodka, he says, “isn’t going anywhere—and will always be available at any liquor store—so you might as well use something unique that actually adds complexity to your Bloody Mary.” His go-to is mezcal, “for its smokiness and barbeque notes,” and aquavit, vodka’s caraway-infused, Scandinavian cousin. “Aquavit has different spice notes to it and a depth that is more compelling than straight-up vodka,” says Bartels. With a variety of both mezcals and aquavits now on the market in the US, there is possibility for endless experimentation, and each brand can add its own unique stamp to the cocktail. Bartels personally prefers more peppery, herbaceous mezcals like Mezcal Vida or Agave des Cortes Joven. His two favorite aquavits are Brennevin and Linie, which both have a rich herbal quality (think fresh dill and caraway) and subtle briny notes.
Umami And Spice Are Essential
Although there are over 60 Bloody Mary recipes of varying complexity in Bartels’ book, he prefers the simplest variations. His two requirements for making the best Bloody Mary are umami and heat. As a self-professed “salt fanatic,” he suggests adding soy sauce in addition to Worcestershire sauce in your Bloody. And while some people prefer their Bloody Mary with a more dramatic heat to it—and use flame-inducing habanero sauces or the garlicky heat of Sriracha—Bartels prefers to use Chipotle Tabasco. “If you use mezcal, which has that smokiness already, the smoked chili flavor of Chipotle Tabasco creates a Bloody Mary that tastes like a backyard barbeque,” he says. “It makes me want to eat grilled meats and nachos.”
Bartels also argues that a few dashes of bitters can can elevate a Bloody Mary dramatically. In his book, several of his variations on the classic cocktail add bitters in place of spices. He likes to use Bittermens Habanero Shrub bitters to add heat and a bright, tangy fruitiness, or celery bitters (in lieu of celery salt), which add a savory edge and an extra hit of vegetal depth. “Scrappy’s [celery bitters] are a game changer,” says Bartels.
Find the Right Balance Between Booze and Tomato Juice
While a lot of bartenders like to pour their Bloody Marys stiff, it is important to remember that the cocktail should be lighter on booze, and is traditionally served as an aperitif at brunch (or as a hangover cure). The last thing you want is to have the drink wreck you at one in the afternoon. In his experience, Bartels finds that his perfect ratio is three ounces of Bloody Mary mix to an ounce and a half of spirit. But that can go up if you’re using a thicker mix.
Batch Your Mix
“If I’m hosting a party—or working in the restaurant—it’s beneficial to make large format batches of [Bloody Mary mix],” says Bartels. “Not only can you whip out a dozen Bloody Marys when all your guests arrive at once, making a large format batch of mix gives the ingredients time to marinate. Sitting overnight, the seasonings and spices mature more.” The other benefit to pre-batching your Bloody Mary mix—especially in a party setting—is that you can still tweak the flavor of the cocktail based on your personal preferences (or your guests’) after you’ve added the mix to the glass. “You can still add a couple extra dashes of celery bitters, extra dashes of Tabasco, or extra lemon juice if you need to customize the drink,” says Bartel.
Ice Is More Important Than You Think
According to Bartels, big cubes of ice are the secret ingredient to a Bloody Mary. He believes that having the right kind of ice will significantly alter the flavor and texture of the drink. “Smaller ice [cubes] will melt faster and dilute [the Bloody Mary] quicker,” he says. The best Bloody Marys are perfectly chilled, remain cold as you drink them, and maintain the same consistency and texture. Large format cubes will keep your cocktail colder longer, and prevent your mix from becoming too watery by the time you reach the end of your drink. “If you have to use smaller cubes (or sh*tty freezer ice),” Bartels recommends using a lot of it “so that the ice compacts, melts slower and stays colder longer.”
Don’t Shake Your Bloody Mary
Unlike other cocktails with fresh juices, it is crucial that you don’t shake your Bloody Mary in a shaker tin. “Tomato juice can get effervescent and bubble up if you shake it too much—it’s the red headed stepchild of juices; it’s temperamental.”
Bartel typically builds his Bloody Mary in the in the larger part of a shaker tin, and rolls his drink to mix it. All you have to do is toss the cocktail “three or four times just to let the ingredients interact with one another.”
Go Beyond the Pint Glass
Although it’s most common to see a Bloody Mary served in a pint glass, Bartels prefers using a rocks glass. His recommended ratio of one and half ounces of spirit to three ounces of mix, fits perfectly into a standard sized rocks glass glass. Using the smaller glass “prevents the drink from being too heavy on the mix,” he says.
Use Simple Garnishes
When he’s making a Bloody Mary behind the bar, or at home, you won’t find a whole chicken, barbecued shrimp or other exotic, well-endowed garnishes dangling out of his glass. Instead, Bartels typically opts for a long stalk of celery, an olive, or a lemon (in case you need a little extra splash of citrus). “If you get too crazy with your garnishes it interferes with sipping [and enjoying] the cocktail,” he says. The craziest Bartels gets with his garnishes is a beef stick (think Slim Jim) or a piece of bacon—but that’s only once in a blue moon.