Sit at a bar and order a classic cocktail or tall mixed drink, and you expect to be served something approaching the standard recipe. Order a Manhattan and you expect a mixture of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters, strained into a cocktail glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry. Order a sidecar and you expect equal parts Triple Sec, brandy, and lemon juice shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass.
So why is the Bloody Mary, which merits a place on any list of great mixed drinks, so frequently served at variance with its classic formulation? I wish I knew.
For a frame of reference, here is the recipe for the authentic Bloody Mary served at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris:
“In shaker or directly in large tumbler: ice, 6 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce, 3 dashes of Tabasco, pinch of salt, pinch of pepper, juice of ½ lemon, 2 ounces of vodka, fill remainder of glass with top-quality tomato juice, and above all no celery salt.”
Leave out the vodka and you will enjoy a Virgin Mary that nobody with a sense of taste would call a bloody shame.
The Dubliner Although slightly unbalanced by a bit too much Tabasco, the Bloody Mary at this fine Irish pub is a classic. The bright-red tomato color affirms that the mix is concocted in-house; without the vodka it would make a sound Virgin Mary. At $6, it’s a good eye opener at a fair price.
Morton’s the Steakhouse At $8.50, this is a textbook Bloody Mary, each ingredient in perfect balance. Once the lime garnish is replaced with a wedge of lemon, it would not be out of place at Harry’s New York Bar.
Off the Record Bar This intimate downstairs lounge accented with political caricatures offers a nice taste of old DC. The $12 Bloody Mary, made with Tabasco-brand mix, is a good, well-balanced drink without the grit of ground pepper, celery salt, or horseradish. The Tabasco mix turns out a better Bloody Mary than most of the house-made mixes on this survey.
Ted’s Montana Grill. The house vodka at Ted Turner’s steakhouse chain is Absolut—though you don’t taste vodka. Based on a pleasantly spicy house-made mix, this is a very good Bloody Mary with no bite of alcohol to unbalance it ($7).
Union Street Public House At $4.75, this is the bargain of the bunch. A small amount of horseradish disqualifies it from classic status, but it’s as good a Bloody Mary as you’re likely to find at any local saloon.
Good but Not Classic
Bobby Van’s Steakhouse The first Bloody Mary sampled at Bobby Van’s was made by an Irish bartender from one of the steakhouse’s Manhattan branches. Although served in the pint bucket more suited for Guinness on tap, it was a finely balanced, classic Bloody Mary, properly garnished with a wedge of lemon. Three weeks later, the regular barman’s version, rough at the edges with horseradish and Tabasco, was considerably better than those on the bottom half of this list but no longer a classic ($8).
Hawk ’n’ Dove During the appropriate hours for enjoying a Bloody Mary—from opening until 3 pm—the Hawk ’n’ Dove is a civilized bar where the conversation is divided between politics and sports. Subtract the pinch of horseradish, add the juice from two wedges of lemon, and its $5 Bloody Mary approaches classic status.
Kelly’s Irish Times The Bloody Mary here is very good, without an excess of vodka and made with Ocean Spray Bloody Mary mix. Yes, this commercial mix includes an imperceptible amount of cranberry juice. At $5.50, the drink is a bargain.
Postscript Bar For those who consider the “never after 3” Bloody Mary rule inviolable, this bar’s opening time of 2:30 could be an impediment. But in the handsome, wood-paneled bar you’ll be served an elegant, well-balanced Bloody Mary ($8) that would be even better without its slight amount of horseradish.
Clyde’s Garnished with a wedge of lemon, this $6 Bloody Mary is gritty with ground pepper. Its house-made mix has an earth-brown hue due to the beef bouillon that, along with celery salt, provides the dominant flavor. As a Bloody Mary, it’s a waste of vodka; as a Virgin Mary, it’s a waste of tomato juice.
The Guards The excess of horseradish numbs the lips and gives this $7.20 drink the texture of thin porridge. Its aggressive, unbalanced flavor makes it unpleasant.
Harry’s Tap Room Gritty with ground black pepper and horseradish, this $6.95 Bloody Mary also has enough Tabasco to slightly numb the lips. The only ingredient not used to excess is vodka. The drink leads the garnish category—olive, pickled pearl onion, and pickled cherry pepper on a toothpick.
Martin’s Tavern Martin’s Tavern opened in 1933, a dozen years after Pete Petiot mixed his first Bloody Mary at Harry’s Bar. Martin’s version, at $6.50, is served in a highball glass whose rim is coated with Old Bay seasoning, flakes of which end up floating in the drink. Flavors that dominate the house-made mix are of Worcestershire sauce and celery seed. Would that it respected the classic formulation.
The Monocle You’d expect to find a classic Bloody Mary at the Monocle. Many of the lawmakers who have been its regulars for almost 50 years no doubt encountered the genuine article at Harry’s Bar on trips to the Paris Air Show. Expectations are dashed by a brownish-red drink gritty with black pepper and horseradish and tasting chiefly of Worcestershire ($7.50).
Nathans Although Carol Joynt has turned the Georgetown saloon founded by her late husband, Howard Joynt, into a salon where pundits, ambassadors, and authors speak at high-profile lunches, its $7 Bloody Mary is a blank slate, grittily textured with horseradish but slightly awakened by a squeeze of its lime-wedge garnish.
Poste Moderne Brasserie The $10 Bloody Mary initially proffered here, made with house-made pepper-infused vodka and served in a pint glass, was spicier than a Thai dish cooked “Bangkok hot.” After a couple of tongue-scorching sips, I abandoned it. The bartender replaced it with one made according to my recitation of the classic recipe. It was Tabasco-shy, which was easy to remedy, but still something was missing. Turns out the bar was out of Worcestershire sauce.
The Prime Rib Great steakhouses overwhelm you not only with the size of their steaks but with the heroic pour of liquor in their drinks. While this generosity often is welcome, it wreaks havoc on a Bloody Mary. Sure enough, the one here, served in an old-fashioned tumbler instead of a highball glass, looked like vodka tinted with a few tablespoons of tomato juice ($10).
Round Robin Bar The bartender asked, “How would you like it?” My reply: “A classic Bloody Mary, please.” At $12, it was the second-most expensive in this survey, but with its grit of horseradish and pronounced edge of beef bouillon, it was decidedly not a classic.
The Wharf Although the Wharf serves one of the area’s best crab cakes, its $6.50 Bloody Mary is a disappointment—no citric edge, no light sting of Tabasco. Surprising, because the barkeeps all look like seasoned pros.
Do you agree with these best and worst picks? Have a favorite spot that didn't make the list? Sound off in the comments on all things Bloody Mary, and your comment could appear in our next issue.