The history of the Bloody Mary is, pardon our British slang, bloody confusing. There are a few origin stories, as well as a few inspirations for the name.
Most sources credit Fernand Petiot with the invention of the Bloody Mary in the early 1920s. As the tale goes, Petiot worked at a bar in Paris, France during the 1920s, when a mix of French, Americans, and Russians were all regulars at the bar. In his experimenting, he mixed Russian vodka with canned tomato juice. It became a hit.
The drink came with Petiot to New York City almost two decades later. It’s there that he began to experiment with additional ingredients, creating the classic Bloody Mary that we know today. There were some additional changes that came with its NYC appearance: vodka was very rare in the US back then, so gin was used instead, and it gained the name “Red Snapper” as the bar owner thought Bloody Mary was too vulgar of a name.
There are two stories of name origins that are associated with Petiot’s tale. In the first, the drink is named after Queen Mary I of England, who was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” for the executions she ordered during her reign. In the second, one of Petiot’s regulars named the drink after his favorite waitress in a Chicago bar known infamously as Bucket of Blood.
The lead competing story comes from a famous comedian and actor from the 1920s to 1950s, George Jessel. His tale comes straight from his 1975 autobiography, The World I Lived In!
Jessel’s story takes place in 1927 in Palm Beach, Florida. He and his softball team had drunk themselves to a painful hangover, and Jessel needed a fast fix for a volleyball game. The bartender eventually offered them up a bottle of “vodkee” that had remained unopened for six years. (No, “vodkee” is not a secret drink lost to the ages. Like in Petiot’s story, vodka was very rare in the US at the time.)
Jessel took a sniff, and decided that he could find a way to hide the smell with a variety of garnishes and such. The tomato juice was added because Jessel’s then-acquaintance and future-sister-in-law Constance Talmadge used tomato juice as a hangover cure. As Jessel said, “it always worked – at least for her.”
The name was coined in that very same story: Mary Brown Warburton came into that bar wearing a white evening dress. Jessel shared some of his new drink with her, and she spilled it over her dress as she drank. According to Jessel, she said, “Now, you can call me Bloody Mary, George!”
The bloody wrinkle (again, pardon our British slang) is that there is additional evidence that neither story is completely true. The drink historians (yes, this is a real job and yes, we are jealous) have found two major problems with these tales.
First is from the written recipes for Bloody Marys. There were several books of cocktail recipes made during that time, including a collection of cocktails from the Parisian bar Petiot worked at. Oddly enough, their cocktail book does not have a listing of anything like a Bloody Mary. Additionally, there are no mentions of such a cocktail in writings made by that bar’s patrons. With some of them being notable writers who kept extensive journals, it’s odd that the Bloody Mary makes no appearance.
At the same time, there are recorded recipes that were published before Jessel’s recipe was. This includes some that call the drink the “Red Snapper,” which was Petiot’s other name for the Bloody Mary. Put together, it doesn’t seem like Jessel invented the drink like he claims he did.
Paired with the fact that both Petiot’s and Jessel’s stories were told decades after the 1920s… Well, the truth is as clear as a Bloody Mary itself.
The other interesting fact/wrinkle is that there are recipes that exist before either story that are very much like Virgin Marys, Bloody Mary’s non-alcoholic sister. An oyster cocktail recipe published in 1892 looks very much like a Virgin Mary, except with oyster juice. And when tomato juice rose in popularity in the 1900s, it often replaced the oyster juice in later versions of the recipe.
If that’s all true, that means the last ingredient added to our classic Bloody Mary recipe was the alcohol itself!
If you want to get more in depth with these possible histories, here’s an article and a video to help explain them:
Today, the Bloody Mary has even more variations than it does potential histories. The only requirement that seems to remain consistent is the tomato juice. Anything added after that is fair game.
Garnishes have also become a big part of the Bloody Marys we enjoy today. The classic celery stick was said to be added after one bar ran out of stirring sticks. (It shouldn’t surprise us that this part of the Bloody Mary’s history is also a mystery.) Now, restaurants and food artists try to outdo one another with crazy garnishes. Some manage to get whole meals!
Of course, you can’t start the crazy without the basics. If you’re craving a quick Bloody Mary yourself, just look for some Picnic Brunch at your grocery store. Click here to find where you can pick up a Bloody Mary now.