Who made the first Bloody Mary cocktail? It depends on who you ask. The origin story of that most cherished brunch staple is, unlike the contents of the drink, muddled. In one, the drink originated in Paris in the 1920s, when vodka, long popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, was first showing up at bars and lounges in Western Europe and North America. According to popular legend, it was bartender Fernand "Pete" Petiot who developed the cocktail at Harry's New York Bar, a favorite of American expats, including Ernest Hemingway, who is also rumored to have had a hand in the creation — or at least popularization — of the cocktail. Petiot then brought his tomato juice and vodka concoction to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. There, it developed into the Red Snapper — a variation on the tomato juice and vodka combination that includes Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, and lemon, much closer to the modern drink on brunch menus everywhere.
But something about this origin mythology didn't quite sit right with cocktail historian Jeffrey Pogash, who spent 18 years in the communications department at Moët Hennessy before retiring in 2011. So he started digging into what archival information he could find on the drink, and came up with a different origin story, which he published in his book Bloody Mary.
In Pogash's estimation, the Bloody Mary didn't come out of Paris or New York at all: It was developed in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1927 thanks to the vaudeville comedian George Jessel, who awoke one morning with a terrible hangover. "The bartender brought out this bottle of vodka, which very few people were familiar with at the time," Pogash said. "And he said, 'well OK, let’s try it.' He opened it, smelled it, and thought it was awful. So he asked the bartender for some Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice, and lemon to kill the smell."
This account comes from Jessel's memoir So Help Me, the first time, as far as Pogash could find, that the cocktail appears in writing. In 1939, New York Herald Tribune columnist Lucius Beebe published a recipe for the Bloody Mary as "George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up," but it was then just tomato juice and vodka. In the 1950s, Jessel even appeared in a nationwide print advertisement for Smirnoff, in which he appears with a Bloody Mary and takes credit for its invention.
But that isn't to say that the story of the cocktail's origins in France have no merit. In a "Talk of the Town" piece in The New Yorker, mixologist Fernand Petiot noted that though Jessel may have been the first to start drinking tomato juice and vodka, it was Petiot who tweaked the contents of the drink into their popular form. "I initiated the Bloody Mary of today," Petiot told The New Yorker. "Jessel said he created it, but it was really nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over." At the King Cole Bar, Petiot's additions — the pepper, salt, cayenne, and perhaps even the lemon juice — made the cocktail a staple.
"The drink we know as the Bloody Mary was really embellished by Petiot at the St. Regis and called the Red Snapper," Pogash said. Then as the drink gained in popularity, additions and customized ingredients were added. The addition of the celery stalk into the drink likely started at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago in the '50s or early '60s. From there, the base ingredients of the Bloody Mary have served as inspiration for all kinds of brunch cocktails, from drinks garnished with shrimp and pickled green beans to Bloody Marys using whiskey or tequila as the primary spirit instead of vodka.
The Bloody Mary also helped bring matutinal cocktails — drinks meant to be sipped in the morning. According to Elizabeth Pearce, a New Orleans–based food and drink historian, the Bloody Mary's popularity revived a long-standing culinary tradition of drinking in the a.m. hours. "For much of the 18th and 19th century, you drank cocktails all day," Pearce said, owing to the poor condition of much of the water supply. "Bloody Marys brought this back. And it fits in this funny place in the history of hangover cures and foods that invalids used to consume, like beef bouillon. The Bloody Mary, because it’s kind of hearty, is a beverage that puts something in your stomach after you’ve perhaps emptied it earlier."
And though Ernest Hemingway may not have been present at the creation of the Bloody Mary, his fondness for the drink certainly helped word of it spread. His recipe, which is close to the St. Regis' Red Snapper — Worcestershire sauce, celery cayenne, and black pepper alongside the tomato juice and vodka — but trades lemon juice for lime juice and adds in celery salt. He instructs you to first take out a pitcher. "Any smaller amount is worthless," he writes. "If you get it too powerful, weaken with more tomato juice. If it lacks authority, add more vodka… For combating a really terrific hangover, increase the amount of Worcester sauce — but don’t lose the lovely color."