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Hail Mary

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Hail Mary
Photography by Jonathan Boncek

A Fresh Take on The Beverage We Call The Bloody

The year was 1921. Ernest Hemingway stumbled into his favorite bar after a typical night of Parisian indulgence and asked for a drink that would help mend his ills and disguise the alcohol on his breath from his disapproving wife Mary. The bartender grabbed a can of tomato juice (at the time a newfangled American export), added a few spices for interest, plus some discretely odorless vodka brought to Paris by emigrants fleeing the Russian Revolution. And so the bloody mary was born.

 

Sadly this is fiction. (In fact, Mary Welsh  didn’t become a Hemingway until 25 years later.) But don’t we all love to embrace falsely attributed bursts of alcoholic genius to Hemingway? This much we do know about our favorite  weekend sipper. The drink was not invented  here in America, but in Paris, at a watering hole that Hemingway did in fact frequent, though  the scribe himself can’t claim credit.

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Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, a popular 1920s hang out for Prohibition-weary American expats and broodingly thirsty existentialists, was a bar literally dismantled piece by piece in New York and moved to Paris. There, bartender Fernand Petiot experimented with tomato juice, added sweet gin (vodka came later), his own signature blend of salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and worcestershire sauce, then squeezed lemon, shook it, strained it, and poured the cocktail over cracked ice. Some dubbed it the bloody mary, others a red snapper or red hammer. The origins of the name bloody mary are as hotly debated and muddled as the cocktail itself, but we won’t bother with those theories here. All that matters is that Prohibition ended, Petiot and his cocktail wizardry returned to New York, and the bloody mary took off stateside as a refreshing, zesty, satisfying, vegetal drink that has helped alleviate as many hangovers as it has induced.

If you think you don’t like bloody marys, maybe you just haven’t tried the right one.

There are lovers and haters of the Queen of Liquid Brunch. Fans embrace the bloody’s recuperative vegetable base, its tangy verve and balance of heat and acidity, its electrolyte-restoring sodium, and the pleasantly numbing qualities of hair-of-the-dog alcohol. Critics argue that the cocktail tastes too much like a cross between spiked gazpacho and horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. Truth be told, there are plenty of disappointing bloodys out there. Mixes can contain processed sweeteners, MSG, wheat gluten, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, artificial colors, and thickeners (the list goes on). Some taste like little more than boozy V8 juice. What’s a bloody fan to do? And how to win over the naysayers? After all, if you think you don’t like bloody marys, maybe you just haven’t tried the right one.

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Fans embrace the Bloody's recuperative vegetable base, its tangy verve and balance of heat and acidity, its electrolyte-restoring sodium, and the pleasantly numbing qualities of hair-of-the-dog alcohol.

A slew of Southern restaurants approach the bloody mary as carefully as they craft their dishes. Depending on where you are in the South, you can savor, for example, the roasted tomato-based bloody at the Grocery in Charleston, South Carolina. Or the smoked brisket fat-infused rye whiskey base at TRACE in the W Austin hotel in Texas. The Queen Mary at Tupelo Honey Café in Knoxville offers a golden tomato alternative, and guests can swap out vodka for pepper-infused moonshine if they wish. Asheville’s Local Provisions flavors its bloody mary with housemade habanero-honey sauce and red kimchi. Lafayette, Louisiana’s popular brunch spot Brick and Spoon has a customizable build-your-own bloody mary menu with a tantalizing fifty-two choices (the smoked shrimp garnish and tasso deviled eggs make excellent toppers). And the winner in the over-the-top brunch-in-a-glass division is Charleston’s newest oyster bar and seafood hall, the Darling, which tops its pepper- garlic-ginger-jalapeño-rich bloody mary with a  king crab leg, lobster claw, pickled shrimp, and golden-crisp hushpuppy (see recipe at the end of the article). The result is positively theatrical, but tasty, too.

Although the bloody mary is not Southern by origin, a freshly blended bloody is as local and individual as the heirloom tomatoes, garden herbs, spices, and alcohol that flavor it. Bloodys are essentially a blank canvas of tomato juice upon which layers of flavor can be built. Variations are endless. Fresh is best. Here are a few Southern-inspired tips to get you started in your quest for the perfect bloody mary.

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THE SOUTHERN MARY

Want to keep your bloody mary regional, all natural, tasty, and Southern, but don’t feel like breaking out your blender? No problem. Here are a few essentials to consider in building your personal bloody mary bar.

Carefully crafted, well balanced, all natural mixes abound. It’s great to have too many choices,  from the unusual inclusion of  golden beets, fennel, and sriracha in H&F Bottle Shop’s mix, the  geniuses behind Atlanta eatery Holeman & Finch; to the smoked pepper edge of John Glenn’s Fat & Juicy chipotle mix; to Charleston Mix’s newer “Fresh & Veggie” blend, which pumps up the carrot base and tones down the beef and the heat from  their original mix.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, Blake Stewart got his start hand-cranking tomatoes through an old tomato miller to reproduce his grandmother’s recipe and now markets Hail Mary using vine-ripe local tomatoes. Chapel Hill native Bruce Julian keeps the sodium in check with his eponymous mix and offers creative pickled garnishes to boot.

In the hills of Oxford, Mississippi, Elizabeth Heiskell and her husband Luke use tomatoes straight off their farm to produce a clean, fresh, tomato-forward mix titled Debutante Farmer. More unusual mixes include the yellow-hued Natural Blonde made with Valencia Gold tomatoes grown on Johns Island, South Carolina (visit their Facebook page for details). The verdant Green Mary mix produced by Dallas-based Frankie V’s takes green tomatoes and tomatillos, infuses them with cold-pressed olive juice and wasabi green Thai chili hot sauce, among other spices. Speaking of Texas, Barbecue Wife is a thick, dark, deeply smoky mix created by Catherine Stiles.