Bloody Mary’s Birthday

Celebrating the long-loved tomato juice and vodka elixir.

EMAN7-LowRes1Legend has it the world’s first Bloody Mary was shaken precisely 75 years ago, on October 5, 1934—just five years after the invention of canned tomato juice—at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis, the now-100-year-old beaux arts hotel founded by John Jacob Astor at the eminently exclusive corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.

Back then the bar served a worldly mix of socialites, including Serge Obolensky, vice chairman of the board of Hilton Hotels and a Russian native with a penchant for vodka. Obolensky asked barkeep Fernand Petiot, who’d also tended a hotel bar in Paris, to re-create the vodka and tomato juice cocktail Obolensky had recently swilled in that city, and Mary—complete with salt, pepper, lemon and Worcestershire sauce and named for the Catholic English queen who had killed so many Protestants—was born.

Or not. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America notes that, as with so many similarly celebrated elixirs, historians dispute the details of the drink’s creation myth. Some say Petiot first paired vodka and tomato juice back in France, or that he called the drink after a lover. Whatever its origins, the name was deemed rather churlish for polite society, so for a time the St. Regis rechristened her the Red Snapper.

The cocktail has long since regained her name—and traded exclusivity for ubiquity. These days the mix of tomato juice and vodka—spiked with a dash or three of lemon juice, Worcestershire and cayenne—is poured at every city space with a liquor license and a brunch menu. Day-shift bartenders still riff on Petiot’s original formula and this October you can taste variations from Charlie Palmer, Alain Ducasse, WD-50, the Spotted Pig, mixologist Dale DeGroff, the John Dory, Tabla, Freeman’s and the 21 Club, all at the St. Regis, with proceeds going to charity. Here’s hoping we’ll find a glass containing the life’s blood of late-summer tomatoes, freshly grated horseradish, a double garnish of pickled Smokra, a prosciutto-stuffed caper berry and a lovage straw for sipping.

Photo credit: Steve Legato

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.