Putting on a top shelf traveling bloody mary festival isn’t as easy as mixing together clamato juice, vodka, and a dash of Tabasco. It’s more like using high-end mixology and specialized house-made ingredients to create a once-in-a-lifetime cocktail experience. This spring, tipplers flocked to the third annual Bloody Mary Festival in both Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. At the latter event, I spent an afternoon sipping, eating, and going behind the bar to find out what made the brunch bevvy blowout so successful.

Find a venue as eye-catching as the drinks

Perched in the southwest corridor of the District, the two-story Blind Whino is the most fantastical house of worship you’ve ever seen. The early 20th-century Baptist church is completely covered from the top of its steeple on down with a brightly colored mural curated by Australian street artist Meggs. The structure itself includes Victorian, Roman, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne elements, giving architecture appreciators plenty to geek out over. 

Lure in the best bartenders you can find

The lineup for the event featured some of DC’s best bartenders and representatives from well-known watering holes. There were high-profile institutions—including 14th Street’s Bar Pilar, Hank’s Oyster Bar, the Heights, and Bryan Voltaggio’s Range, which was the winner of the People’s Choice Award last year—alongside plenty of newer contenders, including Mason Social, Barrel, and Old Engine 12. It wasn’t just a friendly hangout session. Bartenders were competing top honors in three categories: People’s Choice, Best Traditional Style, and Best Original Style. 

Go hog-wild on ingredients

Blah, bland, and boring were not the adjectives of the day. Bartenders didn’t shy from the unusual in their quest to create a blue-ribbon bloody mary. Old Engine 12 added zing to their creation by incorporating habanero, jalapeño, and ghost peppers, as well as Sriracha and horseradish. To ensure it was substantially savory, a goodly dose of brisket drippings were also added in. To sass up their cocktail, Mason Social mixed in toasted coriander, Fresno chilis, and perky, punchy pickles. And Bar Pilar mimicked Jamaican jerk chicken by using similar seasonings, as well as chili flakes and horseradish for some extra oomph.

Think beyond the usual celery-stalk garnishes

Bartenders eschewed a simple skewered olive or celery stalk for more complicated add-ons. There was a jerk-seasoned crispy chicken skin and a pickled Scotch bonnet pepper perched on top of Bar Pilar’s offering. Range’s beverage director Dane Nakamura finished off his smoked green tomato-based bloody mary with a fried goat-cheese fritter, pickled carrot, tiny green tomato, cilantro sprig, and edible pansies to add a burst of color. 

Add an element of competition

There was a lot of smack talk among the contenders, but only three went home with top honors at the end of the day. Due South won the People’s Choice Award for their Southern-accented tipple, while Bar Pilar was the runner-up for their spicy sipper. The Traditional Style chart-topper was Old Engine 12, while Due South managed a runner-up placement in this category. And Rebellion DC came out on top for their Original Style, featuring everything from Sacramento tomato juice and beer to creole mustard and liquid smoke. It was closely followed by Hank’s Oyster Bar’s Asian-accented bloody mary garnished with nori-wrapped shrimp, which earned the runner-up title.

Don’t forget the drunk snacks

When you’re drinking so much booze, you’re going to need something to sop it all up. So organizers put together an outdoor food court complete with food trucks and picnic tables. Guests could buy smoked chicken, pulled pork, and beef brisket from Carnivore BBQ or head south of the border for some Mexican-minded fare courtesy of Kalaveras. As long as they didn’t leave the church grounds, they were welcome to knock back Bloodys outside to their hearts’ content.

Three words: build-your-own bagel bar

Bagels are one of the most iconic brunch bites out there, so organizers made sure guests had their fill of the doughy rounds from Bethesda Bagels. As if that weren’t enough, there was a table full of gourmet cheeses from Cypress Grove Chevre, platters of fruit, and lots of bracingly strong coffee to help tipplers clear their heads for a new round of drinking.

Throw in some Instagram-ready art

The first floor of the Blind Whino features an urban art gallery, which was open to guests. As a part of the Destroy & Create show, artists decorated skateboard decks and mini half-pipes in styles inspired by everything from graffiti and pop art to Surrealist sketches and Aztec symbolism. 

Pump up the volume with a stellar soundtrack

Guests on the first floor got to bob their heads to singer Edy Blu, whose set list included slinky, soulful originals alongside simmering covers of Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Nina Simone classics. Meanwhile, upstairs in the main event space, DJ Chord Bezerra spun a high-energy mix that spanned pop, hip-hop, and all points in-between.

No Sunday is complete without a bloody mary, so to enjoy so many superlative versions in a single sip session was a rare treat, especially when they were paired with so many bonus elements. Thanks to the power of Pedialyte and a good night’s rest, I woke up on Monday with a clear head, already looking forward to next year’s boozy blowout.