Now reading The History of the Bloody Mary

The History of the Bloody Mary

Prohibition-era drinking and 1920s cross-continental travel helped create this bloody good drink.


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. To me, that sounds like a recipe for broken egg yolks, spilled spices, oily fingers, and possibly even a cursing spouse or roommate. If one didn’t feel better in its aftermath, moaning and groaning out loud may have eventually alleviated the symptoms.

Then something wonderful happened in the early twentieth century: people started developing palates. And so, food and drink began to evolve and grow in wonderful ways. The 1920s was a decade of cultural progress: think jazz, Art Deco, and the Lost Generation, the group of writers who popularized many of the cocktails we drink and toast with today. And let’s not forget that Prohibition was in effect throughout the 1920s.

Let me repeat the critical word in that last paragraph: Prohibition. As in, no liquor—and no fun! It’s a miracle we made it to the mid-1930s and lived to tell the tale.

Prohibition made it difficult for Americans to consume alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. During those thirteen years, people who could afford a ticket by boat or plane traveled abroad to reap the reward of cultural expansion, in the form of legal liquor and legal fun.

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.

Ask any well-read modern mixologist about Harry’s New York Bar, and there’s a good chance they’ll speak about it so excitedly, it’ll seem as if they’ve been there. Harry’s became a destination for Americans and expats during Prohibition, even hosting the likes of Hemingway and a slew of post–World War I writers and artists, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, and Coco Chanel. 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. Petiot started at the bar as a kitchen boy in 1916, only sixteen years old at the time, and worked his way up to bartender.

While the First World War was taking place, Petiot assisted American soldiers as their unofficial banker, holding their military pay for allocated bar tabs and cash to wire home. I can only imagine what it was like to bartend a busy bar with Ernest Hemingway yelling drink orders to me while soldiers are waiting for me to get them twenty dollars from the safe.

Harry’s popularity had much to do with that fact that young Petiot was behind the stick. There is no question that Petiot was front and center during a creative renaissance happening in the cocktail world, and his ability to engage and uncover new frontiers elevated his status in the bar world. Working as a kitchen staffer at Harry’s for six years before becoming a bartender helped Petiot establish trust and loyalty with the regulars; the hallowed position of bartender only heightened Petiot’s steadfast integrity at his workplace. He may have even taken over bartending for Harry himself, and legend has it, Petiot owns a beer-drinking record at the famous bar. 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 while at Harry’s Bar it wasn’t popular enough to catch on in print.

The first nonalcoholic tomato juice cocktail can be traced to 1917 in French Lick, Indiana, where, one morning, a French chef working at a resort and spa couldn’t find oranges to make orange juice. Instead, he grabbed a handful of tomatoes, squeezed them, and added sugar. That version of the tomato juice cocktail made its way to Chicago shortly thereafter, and freshly squeezed tomato juice started trending in the early 1920s.

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?

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