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The Food Lab, Drinks Edition: The Ultimate Fully Loaded Bloody Mary
Queen of the brunch table, arch-nemesis of hangovers, and mistress of the morning. Max Davidson of the Daily Telegraph has called it the "world's most complex cocktail," if only for the sheer number of ingredients that can go into it. Add into that the number of different spirit-based variations (the Bloody Maria with tequila, Bloody Bishop with Sherry, Bloody Fairy with absinthe, etc), and you end up with more options than you can shake a, well, a shaker at.
The ingredients and flavor profiles of a Bloody Mary are as complex and varied as the hangovers that spawn them. Not only that, but according to the American Chemical Society, the unique combination of ingredients and their reactions with each other creates literally hundreds of different flavor compounds that cover the entire range of human taste with the exception of bitterness. These flavor compounds are volatile and ever-changing, which means that for best results, you should mix your Bloody Mary fresh and serve it over plenty of ice to keep those chemical reactions at bay and keep the flavor in your glass.
Some people prefer the straight-up salty sweetness of tomato juice and celery. Others (like myself), the nose-biting, sinus-clearing pungency of horseradish or the hot bite of black pepper. Still others like to taint their drinks with copious amounts of briny olive juice (the heathen!).
So you can see the problem with trying to come up with "an ultimate" Bloody Mary recipe. One person's cure might be another's sickness. Horses for courses. Different drinks for different needs, and all that.
However, there are a few ground rules that can be generally agreed upon for the ideal Bloody Mary. Let's take a look at them (I'll also point out what I personally like in my cocktails)
It Must Be Tomato Juice Based
It's what puts the blood in the bloody, and what gives Bloody Marys their unique savory quality. Tomatoes contain high levels of glutamic acid, the essential amino acid that gives savory foods like meat, cheese, and mushrooms their mouthwatering umami flavor. This is the single most important ingredient in a Bloody Mary, so make sure you get a high quality, flavorful tomato juice.
- V8 Juice for those who like a bit more complexity and vegetable matter in their cocktail.
- Clamato adds another layer of savoriness, though it can be horribly off-putting to some.
I'm a straight-up tomato juice kind of guy here.
Add Savory Ingredients
Tomato juice is savory on its own, but if you really want to up the umami-factor and turn this into a cocktail that drinks like a meal, consider adding a few other extra-savory ingredients, such as:
- Worcestershire sauce. It's a classic Bloody Mary addition flavored with anchovies, tamarind, and dozens of other spices, adding richness and complexity to your dink.
- Beef Consommé. Bouillon cubes, demi-glace, or liquid consommé when used sparingly can give your cocktail the beefy, savory boost it needs. Just don't tell your vegetarian friends.
- Soy Sauce. Put a sushi condiment in your drink? Hell yes! just like with gravy and soup, a few drops of soy sauce can add a mysterious depth of flavor without overwhelming.
- Maggi Seasoning. This liquid amino extract (basically the same stuff as Gravy Master) is the secret weapon of the best bánh mì shops, adding savoriness in spades.
I very rarely go for all four, usually settling on a mix of Worcestershire and Maggi or soy.
Spice It Up!
Not to be confused with nose-tingling pungency of horseradish-type roots, I'm talking bout capsicum heat here—the kind that lingers on your tongue with a gentle burn. Some people like to overwhelm their Bloody Marys with intensely spicy chili peppers, but I personally find that their heat is more distracting than satisfying. Instead, I prefer to get my heat from three sources:
- Black pepper forms the hot aromatic backbone of my three-pronged approach to heat.
- A dash of Cayenne adds spiciness that lingers on your tongue.
- Hot sauce adds not only heat, but a touch of acidity as well, brightening up the drink. Tabasco is traditional, but I'm a Frank's guy.
Clear Your Sinuses
Here comes that second kind of heat; the mustard-gas kind that rises up your nose and clear your sinuses. Horseradish is the obvious choice here (though some fresh wasabi might be fun too).
The question is: fresh or prepared? Prepared horseradish, made by grating horseradish and preserving it with salt and vinegar, can be totally fine in a pinch, so long as the bottles are relatively fresh (horseradish loses pungency as it sits).
To take your Bloody Marys to the next level, however, you should opt for fresh horseradish, grating it yourself on a microplane grater just before mixing your drink. It has a much more pronounced heat and aroma, and won't leave unpleasant chunks in your drink like prepared horseradish can.
Don't Worry About the Vodka
With so much going on in that glass, the vodka is the least of your worries. Its only role in this drink is to bring a bit of the hair of the dog back to the party, so any decent cheap brand will do. Save your expensive stuff for spirit-forward drinks!
Acid and Ice!
All that savoriness and heat can be overwhelming in a cocktail unless you balance it out by diluting it with ice and acid.
A Bloody Mary should always be shaken vigorously with plenty of ice in order to properly chill and dilute it. You want to use lots of ice in the shaker because it's the surface moisture clinging to that ice that's going to be primarily watering down your drink. Make sure your glass is well-chilled before pouring the drink into it.
Acidity is key. I like my Bloody Mary with a squeeze of lemon juice, though lime juice can be a fun alternative. Some people pour pickle juice or olive juice into the shaker as well. I say no thanks (save that olive juice for dirty martinis!)
And as for the glass, a nice celery salt rim gives you something to lick on between sips.
Here's where personal preference really comes into play. Some like to go commando, while others go all out with a full four-course skewered feast featuring olives and other pickles as an hors d'œuvre, cocktail shrimp as an appetizer, deli meats, boiled eggs, and crab claws as a main course, and a nice fat stalk of celery as a post-meal palate cleanser.
At the very least, offer a stalk of celery to give fidgety drinkers something to poke around with while they nurse their hangovers.
Check out my personal recipe for the ultimate Bloody Mary here, then tell me: how do you take yours?