Food & Drink

How the Bloody Mary Became an Iconic Brunch Drink. An Investigation.

Published On 11/18/2016 Published On 11/18/2016

Despite all the brunch haters (hi, haters) the between-meals meal was a necessary development. On the weekends, whether kept back by a gnarly hangover or just plain laziness, people roll out of bed a little later, with a jonesing to eat something approximating a breakfast and lunch. Hence the portmanteau repping $18 eggs and cheap hair-of-the-dog drinks.

The Bloody Mary as part of this morning-ish tradition isn't so obvious. We don't normally drink tomato juice for breakfast or lunch, never mind vodka. But somehow the rust-red, Worcestershire-spiked mixture of vodka, tomato juice, and spices became a familiar fixture next to pancakes and waffles. So what went down? Here's the great American story on how the funky tomato juice cocktail became the breakfast-lunch staple.

The tomato juice cocktail (sans booze) came first

The earliest tomato juice drinks weren't hangover cures at at all -- they were considered health elixirs. Think of them as the green juice of the Victorian set.

Health nuts who voluntarily checked themselves into "sanitariums" and submitted themselves to fads like electrotherapy and cold-water cures drank them. But they were also served at restaurants. The non-alcoholic sippers began to appear on high-end menus around the late 1890s, says historian Andrew F. Smith, who has written three books about tomatoes, including Souper Tomatoes. The drinks often incorporated a spicy kick, a savory element, and another acid, like the Manhattan Club's "cocktail," a mixture of tomato, lemon, and oyster juices with Tabasco sauce, chili pepper sauce, and ketchup.

Meanwhile, American-born chef Louis Perrin gets credit for creating – and certainly, popularizing -- the tomato juice cocktail in 1917. Working at a resort in French Lick Springs, Indiana, apparently Perrin ran out of orange juice and improvised by pressing tomatoes and seasoned the juice with salt, pepper, and spices. "Chicago businessmen, who spent their vacations in French Lick Springs, purportedly spread the word to others about the 'tomato juice cocktail in lieu of stronger mixtures,'" Smith explains.

Saxon & Parole, New York City | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Got Tomato Juice? Canned tomato juice changed the game.

Ever tried to juice a tomato? It's a royal pain in the ass. And it doesn't keep for long, quickly separating into unappetizing layers of pulp and watery liquid.

So it was a revelation when canned tomato juice appeared on the scene in the 1920s. Suddenly, it was a lot easier to pour and mix -- and that's exactly what bartenders did. (Mimosa lovers, however, would have to wait a while longer for easy access to OJ; Smith notes that canned orange juice wasn't originally a great success -- it was expensive, and tasted like boiled juice -- and frozen juice, which tasted a lot more like actual oranges, wasn't widely available until after World War II.)

In 1928, the first national advertising campaign for tomato juice was launched; just reimagine today's "Got Milk?" campaign as radio and print ads touting the red stuff, and you'll get the idea. And it worked like a charm. "Tomato juice was an instant hit with the public," Smith says.

Now popularized as a healthy drink, Heinz and the Campbell Soup Company promptly moved into high gear to produce tomato juice, ramping up further in the early 1930s.

Catfish, New York City | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Hangover remedies led a direct path to the Bloody Mary

Tomato juice hasn't always been part of the morning-after toolbox, but there's no denying that it helps -- it hydrates and provides electrolytes and vitamin C -- but so do a lot of other drinks. And sure, the acidity and wake-up-NOW effect of hot sauce and spices doesn't hurt.

But the drink that really put the tomato juice pick-me-up on the map is the Prairie Oyster. The drink -- made with tomato juice, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, and raw egg yolk -- was codified in a popular 1916 P.G. Wodehouse short story, Jeeves Takes Charge, and other pop-culture references after that. But it's not the only tomato-based eye-opener out there, it's just the most shocking, thanks to that disgusting raw egg that stares up in all of its quivering awfulness during your most vulnerable moment. There are dozens of eye-openers with similar, sometimes near-identical ingredients, such as the Red Eye (beer and tomato juice, sometimes with spices or lime), which also pre-dates the Bloody Mary. Put it all together, and it's clear that "morning after" has always been in the Bloody's DNA.

Wealthy Americans drank Bloody Marys in Paris during Prohibition

The Bloody may be an everyman drink today, but once upon a time it was fancy-pants cocktail. In Paris, the Bloody likely started as a virgin drink -- but it sure didn't end that way. At the swanky Ritz Bar in Paris, says author Jeffrey Pogash, who has chronicled the evolution of the drink in great detail, barman Frank Meier devised the Jus de Tomate with crushed fresh tomatoes -- but not vodka. In the early 1920s, at Harry's Bar in Paris, Ferdinand "Pete" Petiot blithely took Meier's recipe for the "cocktail" and added vodka, and the Bloody Mary was born.

By then tomato juice in cans had begun to arrive from the US, so Petiot's version likely was made with canned juice, Pogash notes. That's a good thing, because Petiot probably had to crank out plenty of Bloodies for all the wealthy Americans who traveled from the "dry" US during Prohibition to imbibe in "wet" havens like Europe.

In 1933, after Prohibition, Petiot moved to New York, becoming head bartender at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. And there, Petiot added Tabasco sauce and spices to the tomato juice mixture, completing the drink's transformation into the kicked-up version we know today.

Saxon & Parole, New York City | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Tomato juice and spices are great for masking poorly made hooch

So how do we get from Bloody Marys to brunch? Farha Ternikar, author of Brunch: A History, makes this key point: "Brunch history is also intertwined with the history of cocktails." And although brunch itself is a term coined in 1895, strangely enough, it seems that the boozy brunch really kicked off during the purportedly dry Prohibition years.

"Though Prohibition affected many, the elite were largely unscathed because of private clubs, home bars, and underground methods of transporting and selling alcohol," Ternikar explains. Mixing helped disguise crappy booze; tomato juice and spices were especially effective. (So is orange juice, but remember, it was still a bit harder to come by in the 1920s unless you were squeezing it yourself.)

Of course, the same wealthy elites who might have sampled Petiot's Bloody Mary at Harry's Bar in Paris may have tried to emulate it at home or at the speakeasy.

Meanwhile, Ternikar notes, brunch -- whether served at home or in a restaurant -- had evolved into a leisurely, decadent meal that often revolved around rich dishes. For elites, this might also include mixed drinks that usually featured vodka or Champagne.

"Brunch, a meal that allowed these indulgences, quietly adopted mixed drinks and cocktails," Ternikar continues. "Citrus juices had already been popularized as a breakfast tradition, so juice-based cocktails were a natural outcome of the combination of Prohibition and brunching, especially with the popular idea that 'the hair of the dog that bit you' was the best cure for a hangover."

After Prohibition ended, restaurants started serving these profitable drinks, though it would take a couple of decades for the middle class to shrug off the stigma of day drinking and join in the fun. Bloodies (and other booze) at brunch ramped up in the 1950s, peaking in the decadent 1970s.

Saxon & Parole, New York City | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

How the Bloody got its garnish

As for how we started plunking a full celery stalk into the drink, the idea came from a patron of the famed Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago in the 1960s, according to Pogash. Back in those days, the frilly green garnish peaking out of the big glass of the ruddy-red drink was an attention-getter in the dining room. Other little tweaks, like pepperoncinis, found their way into the glass along the way.

From health tonic to Prohibition dissent, the Bloody Mary has mirrored American food trends for almost a century. And in this golden age of stunt food, it's no surprise that the storied drink has upped its garnish ante to a ridiculous degree -- and defied gravity -- adding outrageous "garnishes" like crunchy pieces of fried chicken, hunks of smoked brisket, and even burgers (really, guys?). That's America being America in one red, flag-waving glass.

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Kara Newman is cocktail and spirits writer. She's the author of Shake.Stir.Sip.: More Than 50 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts, as well as Spice & Ice -- yes, a book about spicy cocktails. Follow her @karanewman.

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