Confession: I do not enjoy bloody marys at brunch.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a bloody mary at the right time, in the right place. Morning flight delayed? Bloody mary at the airport. My football team is playing the early game on Sunday? Bloody mary at the sports bar. Heck, the first drink I ordered at a bar on my 21st birthday was a bloody mary.
But they’re too much to drink with food. Too thick, too ridiculously garnished. They overpower eggs and they clash with French toast. And yet, they’re often the only real option at brunch. (That literal weaksauce, the mimosa, doesn’t count.)
For years, I searched for the perfect brunch alternative. Then I found it. And then I lost it.
About five years ago, I was sitting at a sun-dappled diner counter with a new boyfriend next to me and a disappointing brunch cocktail menu in front of me. The most creative thing on it was a bloody maria (a bloody mary made with tequila). I wasn’t into it.
But then, while waiting for him to take our order, I watched the server mix a cocktail at another diner’s special request. It appeared to be everything I had ever dreamed of in a brunch drink: a dash of this, a dash of that, a long slug of bourbon, and a healthy topping of bubbles. When the waiter came over, I pointed down the counter and said, for the first and only time in my life, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
It was—and this is not a word I use very often—perfection. Crisp and bright and boozy, but not too boozy. Acidic enough to cut through heavy brunch food, bitter enough to kick a hangover. It was destiny. I had met my ideal brunch cocktail. (While sitting with the love of my life, it turns out, but that is a different story.)
Like all fairy tales, though, I did not immediately live happily ever after. There was a hitch: I had no idea what my dream drink was called. So like Prince Charming with his glass slipper, I asked every bartender I met if they knew about it.
“It’s like a Manhattan, kind of, but with sparkling wine?”
“I think it had sweet vermouth in it?”
“It was kind of... orange.”
“It definitely, definitely had bourbon in it.”
No one knew. Most of them suggested modifications on more common drinks, like subbing sparkling wine for seltzer in an Americano. I had lost my brunch drink for good, it seemed. And as the years passed, everything I knew about it grew hazier in my mind.
Don’t you fear, discerning daytime drinkers, I found it. It was on a work trip years later. A colleague and I, finished with our responsibilities, headed out for brunch. And there, at Tasty n Alder in downtown Portland, Oregon, was my brunch drink: the Seelbach. I recognized it immediately. My long-lost cocktail, it turns out, was a mix of bourbon, orange liqueur, two types of bitters (lots of ‘em), and a twist.
The Seelbach originated at the Seelbach Hotel (now the Seelbach Hilton) in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1917. Rumor has it, the recipe was lost during Prohibition only to be found in the 1990s by a hotel manager. It was never, to my knowledge, intended to be a brunch drink, but rather a vehicle to showcase Kentucky bourbon.
But it is absolutely perfect for brunch, thanks to that magical combo of bubbles and bitters. And the cocktail team at Tasty n Alder knows it: In fact, they have an entire section of their menu devoted to variations on this theme. There’s a peachier version of a Seelbach (or a bubblier version of a whiskey sour, depending how you look at it) called a Kentucky Peach; there’s a creme de violette sparkler called the Elizabeth Taylor; there’s even a ginned up number called the Oregon Orchard that’s an ode to the region’s fruit harvest.
Bar manager Jeremy Mielen told me the sparkling cocktail menu was put together “in celebration of the American brunch.” He says he was drawn to the Seelbach because it’s like “the old fashioned or the Sazerac of sparkling wine cocktails. Strong, sweet, and bitter. Kind of the king of brunch cure-alls, in my opinion.”
Mine, too. But while bloody marys pop up in every smoked, fish sauced, bacon-laden, variation possible, my beloved Seelbach remains unknown to most bartenders. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked brunch places if they know how to make it, only to be met with blank stares. I’m considering printing the recipe on the back of my business card.
But before I go to such lengths, consider this my formal plea for Seelbachs to become the next great American brunch drink. It’s either that, or I’m going to have to move to Portland.
- Yields: One drink
Stir bourbon, orange liqueur, and bitters (don’t be shy with the bitters) with ice and strain into a chilled champagne glass. Top with sparkling wine and serve with the twist.
Tasty n Alder’s Oregon Orchard
- Yields: 1 drink
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled flute. Top with dry cava.
Paula Forbes is a freelance food writer whose work has appeared in Eater, Epicurious, the Cut, Food 52, and more. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she is currently working on a cookbook and searching for her perfect Seelbach brunch.