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How the Bloody Mary Went from Brunch Staple to Social Media Sensation

Image Courtesy of Ayako Kaneyoshi

The “Monstrous Mary” at Caffe 11th Avenue in Washington’s Yakima Valley cannot be captured in one photograph.

“We kept adding—local asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, a buttermilk biscuit, a Belgian waffle with Ghirardelli chocolate, a ham roll-up, smoked Applewood bacon, breakfast sausage, pepperoni, cheese, black olives, hard boiled eggs, grapes, blueberries, oranges, a dill pickle, green olives and a Tootsie Pop,” says Debbie Holm, the café’s operations manager. “We’re having a really good time, as are our customers.”

Holm is describing what many restaurant owners and bartenders have noticed: When a Bloody Mary defies proportion and logic, everyone wants one. It’s a drink with the power of attraction.

The Bloody Mary might not exist at all without Chef Louis Perrin’s invention of tomato juice at Indiana’s French Lick Springs Hotel in 1917. Nor without the subsequent mass distribution of canned tomato juice by Chicago business titans who “tasted it and saw dollar signs,” says Joshua Emmons, chef de cuisine at French Lick Resort in Indiana and a culinary historian.

Yes, this Bloody Mary is almost $1000 / Image Courtesy of LAVO Las Vegas

But first, how exactly did we get here—to two Cornish hens perched on skewers in a fishbowl goblet at Nashville’s Party Fowl? Or to a $995 (not a typo!) Ultimate Bloody Mary at LAVO in Las Vegas?

Many look to two forces for the genesis of the showstopper Bloody Mary: Milwaukee-based restaurateur Dave Sobelman and social media.

The Power of Attraction

In Wisconsin Bloody Marys (no matter the size) are traditionally served with a beer / Image Courtesy of Anduzzi’s Sports Club

Sobelman opened his first namesake location in 1999 in Milwaukee. His goal was to level up popular Wisconsin bar food—a better burger, a better fish fry and, yes, a better Bloody Mary. As business took off, Sobelman noted that many other restaurants offered Bloody Marys topped with jumbo shrimp only on Sundays.

“I thought, I won’t wait until Sunday,” he says. “I’ll put shrimp on [the Bloody Marys] every day. I then started thinking, ‘what else can I add to it?’”

Sobelman bought pickled eggs, sausages, olives, asparagus, mushrooms, brussels sprouts and onions from his neighbors at Bay View Packing Company. Around 2012, he posted a video to Facebook of himself crowning an already top-heavy assemblage of garnishes with a cheeseburger slider.

“I asked everybody, ‘Am I going too far?’ There was such a response, we knew we were onto something,” he says.

Lauren Whitman, who launched the Instagram account @bloodymaryaddict in 2015, observes that Sobelman later posted a Bloody Mary topped with a whole fried chicken, which “went viral.”

After this, over-the-top Bloody Marys became a certified trend.

“Social media plays a huge part in this,” says Liz McCray, who began @bloodymaryobsessed more than six years ago along with a companion blog. “An over-the-top Bloody Mary makes your establishment stand out, which brings in customers.”

Samantha Scott, marketing director for Anduzzi’s Sports Club in Green Bay, Wisconsin, also observes that photographing these wild drinks is part of the draw.

The History of the Bloody Mary

This subject is about as murky as a good, thick-bodied tomato juice. But there are a few notable origin stories.

One enduring tale is that bartender Fernand “Pete” Petiot, born in Paris in 1900, refined the mixture of vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, lemon, salt, pepper, Tabasco and celery salt at New York City’s St. Regis Hotel in 1934. At the St. Regis, the drink was called The Red Snapper, according to Simon Difford, beverage distributor, promoter and publisher, and Octavia Marginean-Tahiroglu, general manager of the St. Regis.

Another theory is that entertainer George Jessel developed the drink in 1927 after a late-night bender in Florida’s Palm Beach. According to Difford, there’s a recipe called “George Jessel’s Pick Me Up” in The World Famous Cotton Club: 1939 Book of Mixed Drinks, which has many of the components of today’s quintessential Bloody Mary.