Hunting Down the Father of the Bloody Mary

in Eat This Not That by

The good news is, the Bloody Mary was invented. Let that be reassurance in difficult times, when you’re navigating the spice-laden, red sea of life.

The answer to the question of how it originated, however, is a murky one. There is lots of speculation surrounding the history of one of the world’s most famous cocktails, who invented it, and when.

Before the Bloody Mary ever came into being, hungover Americans of the nineteenth century were known to enjoy the Oyster cocktail, which, to my mind, is a calamity of a drink: you crack one egg into a glass, douse it with seasoning spices and Worcestershire sauce or vinegar, and down it in one gulp.

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Then something wonderful happened in the early twentieth century: people started developing palates. Food and drink began to evolve and grow in wonderful ways. And let’s not forget that Prohibition was in effect throughout the 1920s.

Bars in Europe and Cuba saw some interesting expats during those times—both bartenders and patrons. The New York Bar in Paris, France, was one such haven. Owned and operated in the early 1920s by an American former jockey named Tod Sloan, the New York Bar in Paris served alcoholic beverages to many a United States serviceman stationed in France during and after World War I.

Due to personal gambling issues, Sloan was forced to sell the New York Bar in 1923 to one of his bartenders, a Scotsman named Harry McElhone, who then renamed the establishment Harry’s New York Bar.

Harry’s became a destination for Americans and expats during Prohibition. Part of its sustained allure points to Harry’s being the birthplace of such famous cocktails as the French 75, the Sidecar, and, ostensibly, the Bloody Mary.

Popular Bloody Mary legend points to Fernand “Pete” Petiot, a bartender at Harry’s New York Bar in the 1920s, as a possible creator of our titular drink. Vodka was common enough in France, and the tomato juice cocktail—a combination of pressed tomato juice and vodka with a dash of lemon—was gaining traction.

Harry’s popularity had much to do with that fact that young Petiot was behind the stick. When not making grasshoppers and stingers for the masses, he claimed to make a drink for American expats that consisted of tomato juice and vodka—but he called it the Bloody Mary.

Some people doubt of Petiot’s claim that he created the alcoholic tomato juice cocktail. It’s a gray area, as nonalcoholic versions started appearing everywhere in the 1920s, with strained tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, and spices, but no one claims to have invented that particular recipe. It is suspect, for example, that Harry McElhone published a book of bar recipes in 1927 called Barflies and Cocktails, yet there is no tomato juice–vodka recipe in its three hundred recipes. If Petiot was indeed serving Papa Hemingway Bloodys at Harry’s, wouldn’t McElhone have written about it in his book?

What’s more, commercial tomato juice wasn’t invented and mass-produced until the late 1920s, so it’s safe to say the Bloody Mary wasn’t available until the mid-1930s, or post-Prohibition.

In his autobiography, The World I Lived In, New York comedian George Jessel claimed he invented a tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, and vodka cocktail in 1927 after an all-night drinking session. Still awake, nursing a righteous 8:00 a.m. hangover, and uncertain of what to drink at La Maze, then a popular restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida, Jessel claims to have been inspired when someone produced a bottle of potato vodka (called vodkee at the time, as it had a rotten potato aroma). However, some are skeptical of Jessel’s story—canned tomato juice was not yet invented, so where was he getting the tomato juice to mix with the seasonings, spices, and mystery bottle of vodka?

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The third plausible origin story involves Henry Zbikiewicz, a bartender at New York City’s esteemed 21 Club, who is known for combining tomato juice and vodka at the bar in the 1930s. But was he the originator of the practice? (Jessel, it should be noted, also frequented the 21 Club in the early 1930s, so it’s entirely possible that the recipe landed on Zbikiewicz’s lap via Jessel.)

But in a 1982 New York Times article, Zbikiewicz gives Jessel credit for the Henry Morgan and Vodka Southside cocktails, yet doesn’t mention the Bloody Mary, leaving that origin unsubstantiated.

But let’s not give up on our favorite Frenchman, Fernand Petiot, just yet. In 1933, Petiot left Paris for post-Prohibition New York City and a bartending gig at the St. Regis Hotel’s celebrated King Cole Bar. He had a staff of seventeen barmen working for him, who saw him as the godfather of cocktails.

One of the first post-Prohibition drinks Petiot introduced on the King Cole Bar menu was the Red Snapper—a combination of vodka, tomato juice, citrus, and spices, which may also have included a seasoning called Red Snapper. An overnight sensation, the Red Snapper made its debut in Crosby Gaige’s 1941 Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion.

Originally, Petiot wanted to call his new cocktail the Bloody Mary, but Vincent Astor, son of John Jacob Astor IV and owner of the St. Regis, deemed the name too offensive for his clientele (it probably didn’t help Mr. Astor was married to his second wife, a woman named Mary, around this time). Could the Red Snapper be our beloved Bloody Mary, parading under a different name?

Whoa. So while it didn’t go by its now-famous name, there is good cause to believe that Petiot is responsible for creating the cayenne, lemon, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, tomato, and vodka cocktail we know today.

If you just go by the printed record, however, it would seem as if Jessel were the originator: he gets credit for name-dropping the Bloody Mary in print for the first time, in a column by the epicurean and bon vivant Lucius Beebe in the New York Herald Tribune in December 1939.

But, for me, the most important piece of evidence is this quote from a New Yorker interview with Petiot from July 18, 1964. Petiot was asked about his legacy as a heralded New York barman and offered these closing remarks:

“I initiated the Bloody Mary of today. George Jessel said he created it, but it was really nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.”

To me, this is the most plausible origin story. Jessel takes credit for the combination of vodka, Worcestershire sauce, and tomato juice, and Petiot modernized it with spices and seasoning. I am satisfied with the idea that George Jessel created the name and early version of the drink, while Petiot crafted it into the version of the cocktail we think of today.

Pirate Mary

Created by Brian Bartels

Ingredients:

1.5 oz Banks 5 Island Rum

2.5 oz Pirate Mary Mix*

4 turns Freshly ground black pepper

3 dashes Bitter Truth Celery Bitters

Glass: Rocks

Garnish: Slice of pineapple, lime wheel and pineapple leaf or celery stalk, plus 2 turns of freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Roll the ingredients back and forth 3 times and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a pineapple slice, lime wheel, pineapple leaf or celert stalk, and pepper.

Pirate Mary Mix*

Ingredients:

10 oz Coconut water

10 oz Yellow tomato juice

4.5 oz Fresh pineapple juice

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large Pitcher. The mixture can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerate for up to two days.

Adapted with permission from The Bloody Mary, copyright © 2017 by Brian Bartels. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC