Let’s just get this shameful announcement over with: I am 41 years old, and I’ve never had a bloody mary.
Yes, yes, I know. I can hear your outrage. I can smell your reaction GIFs. I know what you’re thinking: How is that even humanly possible?
It’s something I’ve been wondering myself, as well, because over the past two decades, I’ve developed something of a reputation as a guy willing—eager, even!—to consume anything. Back when I worked at the Viêt Nam News in Ho Chi Minh City, my colleagues and I would end the three-and-a-half-hour workdays by throwing back a shot of snake wine—that’s rice wine in which the bodies of several dead cobras are marinating—from the vat in the office. In Taiwan, I’ve raised glass after glass of kao liang, a sorghum liquor that tasted worse with every shot, and in Shanghai, along with a couple of Communist Party officials, I downed bottle after bottle of Chinese Chardonnay, which made the kao liang taste like Johnny Walker Blue. In Kyrgyzstan I sampled kvass, a fermented bread drink, and kumis, fermented mare’s milk. A magazine once sent me to Austria to drink schnapps wherever I could find it—and you better believe I found it wherever I could.
But tomato juice? Blech. It made no sense. Tomatoes? Sure. Tomato sauce? Hell yeah! But this watery in-between state? Even with the blessed promise of vodka—what could be the point?
For most of America, clearly there was a point. Over the past 15 years or so, bloody marys have grown better and more elaborate than ever before. Prune, chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s perpetually cool East Village restaurant, arguably kicked off the trend when it opened in 1999 with a full-on bloody mary menu: 9 varieties, ranging from the classic (with tabasco, worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, salt, pepper, a celery stalk, and maybe horseradish) to the bloody caesar (with gin, clam juice, and a pickled egg) to the bloody maria (with tequila) to a “Chicago Matchbox,” with lemon vodka, pickled brussels sprouts, baby white turnips, caperberries, green beans, and radishes—the alcoholic equivalent, I guess, of a Chicago-style hot dog.
Since that ground-breaking menu, the bloody mary trend has only gotten crazier. You can now get the drink accessorized with crab claws, beef jerky, mozzarella, pretzels, popcorn, waffle fries, a triple-decker fish sandwich, a cheeseburger, a slice of pizza, an entire roast chicken, and, of course, a smoked chub. If you believe you’ve perfected your own bloody mary formula, you can try to prove your mettle in any of a number of local and regional competitions, from Reno to Milwaukee to Myrtle Beach.
Me, I watched all of this from afar, equally fascinated, puzzled, and horrified. There’s something happening here, I thought, channeling Buffalo Springfield, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
And then, recently, the situation clarified. I mentioned my bloody mary abstinence to a friend, who responded, “Oh! That’s what old ladies order on airplanes.”
Instantly, I understood: The bloody mary wasn’t just a drink—it was an entrée into a whole subculture, populated by hard-partying college students and elderly travelers alike, a force that united such seemingly disparate souls around a superficially healthful cocktail. And by denying myself this drink for so many years, I’d denied myself access to the regular, meaningful experience of a large swath of my fellow Americans.
I resolved to lose my virginity as soon as possible.
The first time, however, would have to be special. This couldn’t be just any old bloody mary, whipped up with canned mix and well vodka, garnished with a wilty celery stalk. My deflowering would have to be glorious, with a drink for the ages.
Back in 1999, this would have been easy—I would have gone straight to Prune and ordered the classic. But New York City in 2016, there are dozens more options for great bloody marys. Which to choose?
For advice, I went first to Rosie Schaap, the bartender and writer, who invited me to her workplace, South, in Brooklyn. “We make a hell of a good Bloody,” she wrote in an email, “though we have few garnishes—and no celery! and bottled horseradish!—at hand. We make the drink to order, and always hit it with a little Guinness at the end; it gives it a bit more depth and backbone.”
This was tempting, but it felt too soon, too easy. I didn’t yet understand what I’d be getting into. I knew the bloody mary was something I wanted, but I didn’t know what it was supposed to do, what it was supposed to be. I had to grasp its Aristotlean essence—or at least try—before that very first sip.
So I turned, as all cocktail writers inevitably do, to David Wondrich, who has done more to understand the origins of cocktail culture than just about anyone else in the world. Surely he could help me get oriented.
“The origin is sort of murky—actually, it’s very murky,” Wondrich said when I called him up. Some claim the drink was invented in Paris, others credit it to the comedian George Jessel in New York. But as Wondrich pointed out, tomato juice was already a well-known hangover cure by the turn of the century. “This was before canned tomato juice, so people would take a can of tomatoes and strain off the juice and drink that.” And it’s not exactly a big innovation, Wondrich said, to start adding alcohol—most likely gin—to your hangover cure.
With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the bloody mary began its creep into the mainstream. Vodka—first imported, then produced domestically—replaced the gin. Nascent airlines embraced it—probably, Wondrich theorized, because it consisted of but two ingredients, mix and vodka. By the late 1950s, he said, it was everywhere, and “for a while in the ’70s, bloody marys were beyond popular—they were white-hot.”
Wondrich’s history lesson certainly got me ready to drink a bloody mary, but I still didn’t know how or where that would happen. It was as if I had read the entire run of Playboy, but had never left my parents’ shag-carpeted basement.
And then it happened. I was at the tail end of a long weekend in Los Angeles, three and a half days of near-continuous eating and drinking. My final day was a big one, wending its way from Hollywood (for pupusas) to Silver Lake (French-Mexican brunch) to downtown LA (aguachile tostadas) to the San Gabriel Valley (Sichuan feast) and finally to a Koreatown karaoke joint on the somethingth floor of some mall or something, somewhere on Wilshire. (Note: “The End,” by the Doors, may be fun to sing, but it kills the mood.) By the time I got back to my Airbnb, I’d stayed up later than any 41-year-old man has a right to, except when his kids are sick or crabby.
The next morning, on just a few hours’ sleep, I drove LA surface roads to the airport, dropped off the rental car, and stumbled through security. In search of a place to kill a couple of hours, I realized I had access, through a credit card, to the Virgin Loft lounge—and that it was there I would lose my virginity.
At the Loft, they call it a Runway Ruddy Mary, but as far as I could tell, it was a standard bloody, made with Mott’s Mr. & Mrs. T mix and gin (they’re traditionalists!), and garnished with a slice of lime, a celery stalk, and an olive speared with a plastic sword. It wasn’t over the top. It was not elevated. Rosie Schaap would probably be embarrassed to serve it, and David Wondrich would probably have shrugged at it.
But at that moment, there was nothing else in the world I wanted. I was ready for it. The bartender handed me the frosty pint glass… and I hesitated. What if I was making a mistake by drinking a generic airport-lounge rendition? What if I hated it? Worse, what if it simply wasn’t as great as everyone kept saying? What if the world’s great breakfast turn-on just didn’t do it for me?
No. There was no turning back. Even if this were subpar, I could get past it and, free from my virginity, move on to more and better bloodys. This one drink did not have to determine my future. I lifted the glass.
Holyfuckthatisgood! That’s probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever written, but it captures precisely how I felt as I tasted my first-ever bloody mary. Like tomato sauce, but lighter, with dual kicks from the alcohol and the tabasco. Refreshing, invigorating! This drink had amplitude, firing off every sweet, spicy, bitter, salty, sour, umami receptor on my palate. Damn. Why had I held out so long?
Tempted as I was to consume it in one gulp, I held back, wanting this first, pure experience to last as long as humanly possible. Nestled in the embrace of a high-backed scarlet loveseat, I sipped it gently until the bartender stopped to examine my half-empty glass.
“Can I fix up your drink for you?” she asked. “Is it spicy enough?”
I smiled and shook my head no thanks. I sipped some more, then plucked the celery from the glass and crunched, loudly. In a word: satisfaction.
Matt Gross is the former editor of BonAppetit.com and was the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times from 2006 to 2010. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, his daughters, and his collection of hot sauces.