The Bloody Mary is an unlikely success story when you think about it, because it's a savory, spicy drink most commonly only ever consumed at brunch. It may or may not have magical, medicinal, hangover-curing properties, but its popularity cannot be denied. But how did a brunch cocktail get such a gory name, though? Who is this Mary, and why is she so bloody? As with many legends, the answers are murky, which, hey, it's all part of the fun.
And so it begins with an American in Paris.
The story of the Bloody Mary starts not with anyone named Mary, but rather an American bartender at Harry's New York Bar, which, to confuse matters further, was actually a bar in Paris. It was the 1920s, a time when Russians were fleeing the revolution and Americans were fleeing Prohibition, and they all converged in Paris. A match made in heaven.
At Harry's, bartender Fernand Petiot began experimenting with vodka, which was an unfamiliar and—to his tastes—a bland spirit. One day, he mixed equal parts tomato juice with vodka, and at that moment, brunch was forever changed.
But who is Mary, and why is she, well, bloody?
How the drink arrived at the name Bloody Mary is a source of contention. Although they share the moniker of "Bloody Mary," there isn't any evidence that the drink was named for the famously murderous Queen Mary Tudor. Instead, some stories say Petiot served it to someone at the bar who suggested the name because it reminded him of the Bucket of Blood Club in Chicago, which reminded him of someone he knew there named Mary. (She was either a waitress or a woman who sat alone at the bar every night waiting for a suitor, depending on who you ask.) In some accounts, the patron at the bar who suggested the name was American entertainer Roy Barton.
Meanwhile, American actor George Jessel also claimed to have invented the Bloody Mary in Palm Beach in 1927. He was in desperate need of a quick fix for a hangover when a bartender suggested vodka. Jessel claims he mixed it with tomato juice, lemon, and Worcestershire to kill the smell and called it a Bloody Mary after socialite Mary Brown Warburton went to take a sip and spilled it all over her white dress. According to Jessel's autobiography, she laughed and said, "Now you can call me Bloody Mary, George!"
Time to spice up your life. Or the drink's life, that is.
One thing that is pretty widely agreed upon though, is that the drink gained popularity when Petiot moved back to the United States. It was 1934, and that's when he tended The King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. They tried to rename the cocktail The Red Snapper, but the more tasteful name just didn't have the same ring as the Bloody Mary. It wasn't an instant hit though; Petiot tinkered with the recipe, adding salt, pepper, Worcestershire, lemon, cayenne, and even Tabasco. Finally, the drink eventually took off and became the brunch staple we all know today.
So, whether it was Mary the waitress, Mary the sad bar regular, Mary Brown Warburton, or Queen Mary Tudor who we can attribute the name of this drink to—we raise our glasses to you all.