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Bloody Heaven

Jan 5, 2012 | By Jack Bettridge

A popular line around our office is to refer to a cigar as a good “breakfast smoke." That means it's an admirable cigar, but mild-bodied—the kind of thing you light to wake up your palate in the morning. Every New Year's I'm reminded of what the best "breakfast drink" is. You can toast with whatever you want to when the ball drops the night before, but in the harsh light of dawn it has to be the Bloody Mary.

When restoration after an evening of overdoing is in order, there is but one drink to turn to: this colorful highball that combines vitamins (tomato juice), stimulants (hot spices) and the fabled hair of the dog (vodka). But, while it is the quintessential “breakfast drink,” I wouldn’t exactly refer to it as mild-bodied, given its composition.

Predictably, as soon as first light stirred the crust from my eyes in 2012, I started the year with a Bloody Mary. I advise always keeping the ingredients on hand as you never know when a bout of the Episcopal flu might set in. In fact, in the tassel-loafer panhandle of Connecticut, from which I hail, you'd have a riot if any of those ingredients were in short supply on a New Year's morning-after—or for that matter at any early-morning engagement—such as an orgy of Christmas-present unwrapping (if you happen to be visited with children) or a brunch (if you happen to be metrosexual)—at which one needs to be civil even while feeling cranky and creaky.

(However, if you are caught in short supply, certain substitutions can be made as emergency contingencies. If you have no tomato juice, try ketchup. It allows you to add more vodka for the purpose of dilution. If you’re out of vodka, use gin. If your spice cupboard is bare, repair to a bar that opens early.)

Anyway, as the weather on New Year’s Day was still rather warm where I live—it’s bitterly cold now—I decided to join that breakfast drink with a breakfast lancero (a Macanudo Café Portofino I’d cadged from the tasting for the December issue). I sat out on my deck and not only drank a Bloody Mary, but read about the drink as well. It was my first chance to peruse Jeffrey Pogash’s delightful treatise Bloody Mary, which was recently published through the Thornhill Press Libretto series. It’s a testament to both the drink and the book of the same name that I had any will to read at all that morning.

Pogash, who until recently represented Belvadere vodka among other Moët Hennessy products, digs deep into the controversy of who actually invented the Bloody Mary. While the Bloody is one of the most modern of our classic cocktails—as Pogash points out tomato juice wasn’t even commercially available until 1917—its roots are just as murky as the great drinks born much earlier in the nineteenth century. That’s the way cocktail heritage is: everyone’s too busy drinking when a new one gets invented to write down the specifics.

So the author laboriously traced recipes through his voluminous personal library of rare cocktails as well as researching periodicals and other writings of the day. The Bloody Mary seems to have sprung not quite whole (spices were added later) from the decade of the 1920s. The large question is who first made it. The major claimants are two. One is unremarkable. The other is rather odd.

That Fernand Petiot, who ran the King Cole Bar in New York’s St. Regis Hotel, would have formulated the drink should strike no one as surprising. What is something of a poser is that it might have been Georgie Jessel, a former vaudevillian and self-styled “Toastmaster General,” who first mixed one up. At least that’s what he claimed in a series of magazine ads for Smirnoff that ran in the 1950s a few decades after the Bloody Mary was invented. What the entertainer, who happened to be a rabid anti-Communist, never explained is why he championed a drink that is both red and filled with Russian spirit.

You’ll have to pick up the book to get closer to the bottom of this laudable drink, but the point is that the Bloody Mary helped me to get a head start on my New Year’s resolution to read more, even if I’m already behind on my other one: to drink in moderation.

"Never going to brunch again...too" —March 23, 2013 02:49 AM
"Never going to brunch again..." —January 7, 2012 01:14 AM

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