The Bloody Mary cocktail has a very interesting history. Like many cocktail beginnings, the origin of the bloody mary is veiled in a bit of mystery and marketing. Often, people (or bars) make claim to creating a cocktail, but the story doesn’t pan out or just can’t be verified. The Bloody Mary has two main origin story claims, but I think really BOTH lay claim to creating the drink as we know it today. Venture with me, as I explore the history of the Bloody Mary Cocktail.
Origin of the Bloody Mary - A Tale Of Two Stories
There are two main historical origin stories for the Bloody Mary cocktail. Both have valid points and some flaws. We are going to talk about these two stories in an effort to find the true origin of the Bloody Mary.
The Cold, Hard facts
Like most cocktail histories, there are some nuances in record keeping that allow for different people to lay different claims on the drink. The reality is that most people just didn't care about documenting this type of information. The facts we have, however, are undeniable. To give a framework of what we know, I think it is important to lay out these concrete points in the timeline.
- 1934 - The Red Snapper Cocktail started being served at the St. Regis King Cole Bar. This cocktail is very close to a bloody mary recipe and involves one of the probable inventors.
- 1939-1940 - Three articles were printed that mentioned the cocktail by name. They provided recipes that would not quite look like a Bloody Mary of today but would contain vodka and tomato juice. The first was printed in an NY magazine called The Voice of Broadway. One was in the Chicago Tribune and another was printed in the New York Herald.
- 1941 - Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies Companion was found the first printed recipe that would resemble a Bloody Mary of today, but was not named as such. It was named as a Red Snapper and gin was used.
- 1946 - Lucious Beebe’s Stork Club Bar Book was the first proper Bloody Mary recipe printed and named as such.
From these dates, I would say there is absolutely no origin story that can go past 1946 and any beyond 1939 is unlikely.
Fernand Petiot and The Origin of the Bloody Mary part 1
This origin story has roots in post-WWI Paris and is attributed to a man named Fernand “Pete” Petiot, who claims to have created the Bloody Mary in 1921. There is nothing hard and fast that explicitly shows the origin of the Bloody Mary was made at this time and by him, but there are historical clues that give his story validity. There is a bar in Paris called Harry’s New York Bar that originally opened in the early 1900s. Fernand started working at the same establishment at a young age as a kitchen hand. He worked his way up to the bartender. It was here, Petiot claims, that the Bloody Mary was created. According to a 1970s article in The Cleveland Press, the Bloody Mary was named in the Paris bar, but in homage to another bar and another server. According to this theory, the cocktail was named after a bar in Chicago named Bucket of Blood and a waitress named Mary that worked there. What a creepy name for a bar, right? It just sounds like it is on the good side of town. According to the article, Petiot’s first two customers who were served the drink "were from Chicago, and they say there is a bar there named the Bucket of Blood. And there is a waitress there everybody calls Bloody Mary. One of the boys said that the drink reminds him of Bloody Mary, and the name stuck."
Now, Harry’s bar is still around, but during that time period, it was a place where American expats hung out. The likes of Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis were known to frequent Harry's New York Bar. And Harry's doesn't only claim to have created the Bloody Mary, but also other famous cocktails like the Sidecar cocktail.
After prohibition in the US, Petiot moved to the states and went on to become an even more famous bartender at the St. Regis King Cole Bar. This was right around 1933-34 and also where he introduced The Red Snapper cocktail…. NOT the Bloody Mary. If you are unfamiliar with the Red Snapper, it is a Bloody Mary, but it has gin as the spirit and not vodka.
Why Did He Use Gin and Not Vodka?
Vodka just was an unused spirit in the US prior to World War II. We have talked about Smirnoff’s Moscow Mule marketing endeavor that made vodka popular in the states, but that did not happen until after World War II. Vodka was a rarity in the United States and not a mainstream drink until the 40s. There were probably pockets of Vodka in the United States prior to that time, but it was not widely available or used.
Was Vodka all that popular in Europe either?
I don’t think so, but Harry’s Bar puts a time-place to give a reason why Petiot might be experimenting with Vodka in cocktails. Well, the obvious part of this is that Pete was working at an American Cocktail Bar IN Europe. So, there may have been a bit more variety or different alcohols that he could experiment within the largely American context of cocktails.
Vodka, however, may have been more widely used in post World War I Paris. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Paris found itself with a large influx of Russian immigration. While I have no proof that this is so, the dots would seem to connect together. If there were a large new Russian population in Paris, there would be a demand for their home country’s liquor. Markets being what they are, more vodka likely started being available and consumed.
Additionally, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris was apparently ALSO a hangout for Russian exiles like Serge Obelensky who fought in the Russian revolution. Incidentally, the same man wedded an Astor, of hotel fame. They started the NY St. Regis hotel that contained the King Cole Bar where Petiot eventually worked.
This unique set of circumstances might give Petiot the availability and reason to be messing around with Vodka in American cocktails.
What About The Name?
Reportedly, in addition to the change to Gin instead of Vodka, the fancy King Cole bar did not appreciate the Bloody name of the Bloody Mary and that is when it was changed to the Red Snapper. I could not find any evidence that this happened. In fact, I could not find an early place where Petiot worked where there was definitive evidence of the Bloody Mary being served prior to the recipe being printed publicly.
All The Ingredients and Petiot’s Origin Story
Despite all of the evidence already, I think one of the most compelling points that tie Petiot to the Bloody Mary origin story is the use of all the interesting ingredients. The Red Snapper is built like a bloody mary. Other than the use of Gin, a Red Snapper could be served as a Bloody Mary today. I don’t think the same holds true for the next origin story.
Have to mention Tomato Juice
One of the arguments I have found against Petiod’s claim has to do with canned tomato juice. The claim goes that since canned tomato juice was not produced on a mass scale until the mid-1920s, that Pete could not have created the Bloody Mary in 1921, as he claims.
I don’t think this eliminates this origin story. Tomato juice, supposedly, first drank in the late 1910s and became very popular, very quickly.
Also, I think it is important to mention that in the 1930s and 1940s, several non-alcoholic tomato concoctions started appearing as health drinks or ways to get all of your vegetables. So, if we remove the vodka from a bloody mary, we might find a somewhat common and increasingly popular recipe for that era.
Overall, I think Petiot’s origin of the bloody mary has some real beef to it. A New York bar in Paris where both Americans and Russians were known to hang out would give some strength to how vodka might have been added to the mix. Petiot invented the Red Snapper cocktail that certainly is close (nearly identical) to a Bloody Mary of today. It makes sense why he would switch from vodka to gin, as vodka was not popular in the US.
There are some questions, however, to this origin story that I think needs to be asked. How come there were no documented menus from the 20s and early 30s that had the bloody mary? Certainly, we do not see the name “Bloody Mary” printed until the mid to late 1930s. How available was tomato juice in Paris in the 20s? Mass production of canned tomato juice had just begun in the 1920s, but it didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t make fresh tomato juice. There definitely are some points that leave Petiot's Bloody Mary origin story open to refute.
George Jessel and The Origin of the Bloody Mary part 2
George Jessel was a comedian and socialite of the time and claims to have invented the Bloody Mary. In fact, in the 1950s, Smirnoff engaged in a marketing campaign that read “I, George Jessel, Invented the Bloody Mary.”
Whether George Jessel actually created the drink, however, is up for debate. Smirnoff really is a great marketing machine and having a celebrity spokesperson might have been too good of a story for Smirnoff to ignore.
Here is another picture of Jessel:
George Jessel Origin Story
Let me give it to you in George Jessel’s own words from his autobiography The World I Lived In via 1975:
from George Jessel's book, THE WORLD I LIVED IN (1975):
I have always had a great penchant for the sauce and have concocted many varieties of highballs and mixed drinks over the years. But very few people know how the Bloody Mary came to be. Today, it is one of the most popular "morning after" or "hangover" cures there is, as well as a companion for Sunday brunch.
In 1927, I was living in Palm Beach, or on a short visit, I don't remember which, where nearly every year I captained a softball team for a game against the elite of Palm Beach such as the Woolworth Donohues, the Al Vanderbilts, the Reeves, and their ilk. My team was made up of rag-tag New York cafe society. Because I had been around Broadway and baseball characters, I managed to slip in a ringer now and again. (We generally won.)
On this particular trip I brough along Buddle Adler, a semi-pro on Long Island and a shoe salesman during the week. Buddy was later to become production head at 20th Century-Fox and marry Anita Louise. Both of them, unfortunately, are now dead. The proceeds of our, shall we say, friendly wagers on the games, went to a charity for underprivileged children. Adler hit a home run with the bases loaded, and we won the game and collected several thousand dollars in bets.
There was a famous hangout in Palm Beach at the time run by Paddy La Maze, a former ball player himself. To the winners, he let them drink all the champagne they could take; the losers, beer.
Following the game, Adler (who was hung like a bull, generally came along to try to find a rich dowager to marry but never did), myself, and a guy named Elliott Sperver, a Philadelphia playboy, went to La Maze's and started swilling champagne. We were still going strong at 8:00 A.M. the next morning. I had a 9:30 volleyball date with Al Vanderbilt. I was feeling no pain at all.
We tried everything to kill our hangovers and sober up. Then Charlie, the bartender, enjoying our plight, reached behind the bar.
"Here, Georgie, try this," he said, holding up a dusty bottle I had never seen before. "They call it _vodkee_. We've had it for six years and nobody has ever asked for it...."
I looked at it, sniffed it. It was pretty pungent and smelled like rotten potatoes. "Hell, what have we got to lose? Get me some Worcestershire sauce, some tomato juice, and lemon; that ought to kill the smell," I commanded Charlie. I also remembered that Constance Talmadge, destined to be my future sister-in-law, always used to drink something with tomatoes in it to clear her head the next morning and it always worked--at least for her.
"We've tried everything else, boys, we might as well try this," I said as I started mixing the ingredients in a large glass. After we had taken a few quaffs, we all started to feel a little better. The mixture seemed to knock out the butterflies.
Just at that moment, Mary Brown Warburton walked in. A member of the Philadelphia branch of the Wanamaker department store family, she liked to be around show business people and later had a fling with Ted Healey, the comic. She had obviously been out all night because she was still dressed in a beautiful white evening dress.
"Here, Mary, take a taste of this and see what you think of it."
Just as she did, she spilled some down the front of her white evening gown, took one look at the mess, and laughed, "Now, you can call me Bloody Mary, George!"
From that day to this, the concoction I put together at La Maze's has remained a Bloody Mary with very few variations. Charlie pushed it every morning when "the gang" was under the weather.
Now, about a year later, the benefit for Joe E. Lewis was to be held at the Oriental Theater and I was sitting in my hotel room with Ted Healey before leaving for the theater. Ted, as usual, was slightly inebriated. He happened to pick up a copy of a Chicago paper and read an item in Winchell's column. It said that I had named the Bloody Mary after Ted's then steady girl, Mary Brown Warburton.
Ted turned white. "What the hell are you doing making a pass at my girl, you son of a bitch," he yelled. And just as he did, he pulled out a pistol and tried to shoot me. I ducked and the shot missed, but as the pistol went off within a foot of my right ear, I was completely deaf for a week. I had a hell of a job doing the benefit that night.
But at least now you know the origin of the Bloody Mary, and I believe it was _Esquire_ magazine who finally gave me credit for it many, many years ago.
Too bad I can't collect royalties on it. In fact, I have never even received a case of vodka from any of the distillers for helping to make vodka the most popular, er, beverage in the United States today.
To summarize, it was just a hangover drink that was served by chance and they spilled some on a lady named Mary. Because Jessel was a celebrity, it got the press it did.
Some Strengths In George Jessel’s Bloody Mary History Timeline
1939 Winchell Article
In 1939, well before The Bloody Mary was a popular drink, two articles were published about the Bloody Mary and Jessel had connections to both.
In a 1939 Chicago Tribune story, Walter Winchell wrote about the Bloody Mary and the connection is a bit deeper than mere coincidence. Winchell was a celebrity gossip journalist of the time. Winchell and Jessel were childhood friends and performed in a vaudeville act together. I don’t think the connection between the two is a mistake and while it may not definitively zero in on Jessel’s tie to the origin, it certainly is a supporting piece of evidence.
1940 Beebe Article
This is the other article of note. A New York Herald columnist named Lucius Beebe printed an article that explicitly mentioned Jessel as the creator of the Bloody Mary. It read:
“ George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up which is receiving attention from the town’s paragraphers is called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.”
Mary Brown Warburten Was a Real Person
Sometimes in cocktail history, I can refute an origin story or a part of it because a person doesn’t exist or there is some fundamental flaw with the facts. It is not the case with the idea of Mary. There was a Mary. Here is a picture. In fact, I tend to believe that this is how The Bloody Mary got its name.
Mary Brown Warburten was the daughter of Barclay Harding Warburton. Barclay had roots in Philidelphia, but what is really interesting is that he was elected mayor of Palm Beach in 1928. This would mean that they would have lived there for a little while before and he then resigned in 1929 to return to Philidelphia.
Mary Brown Warburton would have been a socialite of the time and would certainly place her in the vicinity. She would have had reason to be hanging out with the George Jessels of the world, as he describes in his autobiography.
Smirnoff Gives Him Credit
I don’t think we can deny that Smirnoff has some authority when it comes to the topic of vodka and vodka drinks. I suppose it could also have been just easier to sell with a celebrity, but that Smirnoff gives him credit should add some weight to his story.
Holes in George Jessel’s Bloody Mary Origin Story
Is Vodka and Tomato Juice a Bloody Mary?
I think this is the gaping hole in the George Jessel story. What makes a Bloody Mary? Most of the early accounts of the bloody mary that involve Jessel only include vodka and tomato juice. Winchell and Beebe both wrote articles attributing a Bloody Mary to George Jessel and both had only listed the two ingredients.
In fact, Petiot sort of gives Jessel credit for some of the inventions but addresses this very thing in a 1964 New Yorker article where he says:
“I initiated the Bloody Mary of today,” he told us. “George Jessel said he created it, but it really was nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.”
Sure, the 1955 Smirnoff campaign mentions that Jessel created the Bloody Mary, but it also mentions that he created the Red Snapper, which is false. 1975 George Jessel gets very specific about the ingredients he adds to the Bloody Mary, which are more the classic drink ingredients like lemon, pepper, and Worcester sauce. Other than the gin, a Red Snapper IS a Bloody Mary.
But, can we even trust 1975 George Jessel’s account of the origin of the Bloody Mary?
Is La Maze’s a Restaurant?
In Jessel's 1975 account, he refers to a place called La Maze's as where the Bloody Mary was created. Most accounts I found of La Maze’s refer to it as a restaurant. I don’t think this is the case. I could find no historical record of a place called La Maze’s in Palm Beach. In 1927 we are well into prohibition and by all accounts, La Maze’s served lot’s of booze.
So, if La Maze's isn't a restaurant, what is it? Even in Jessel’s story, they just referred to it as a hangout that was run by a former ballplayer named La Maze. I think, at best, this was a speakeasy. It could also just be a rich guy’s house where everybody hung out at. Remember that this is not a broke crew we are talking about here. This is the wealthy folks and the well-to-do.
If we are to take this story in, we are looking at hungover rich people hanging out at a friend’s house. They mixed some old booze that nobody drank with tomato juice. I am not sure that this two-ingredient, gussied up flop house cocktail is even the origin story that the Bloody Mary deserves.
Debunking Some of George Jessel’s 1975 Timeline
I don’t know if we should take Jessel’s 1975 timeline to heart. There are what appears to be glaring factual holes here in the timeline that follows his alleged 1927 creation of the Bloody Mary.
Directly following the creation story, Jessel says:
“Now, about a year later, the benefit for Joe E. Lewis was to be held at the Oriental Theater….”
Ok, this part checks out. Joe E Lewis was a comedian of the time who was brutally beaten in 1927 by the mob for not accepting a contract. That there was a benefit for him by his friends makes sense. Then he goes on to say
“ and I was sitting in my hotel room with Ted Healey
before leaving for the theater. Ted, as usual, was slightly inebriated. He
happened to pick up a copy of a Chicago paper and read an item in Winchell's
column. It said that I had named the Bloody Mary after Ted's then steady
girl, Mary Brown Warburton.”
Unless there is a mysterious article we don’t know about, this Winchell article did not happen until 1939. In 1939, both Ted Healy (who incidentally created The Three Stooges) and Mary Brown Warburton were dead. Either there is an article in a Chicago newspaper that is WELL before any other mention of the drink and has not been discovered OR his timeline is messed up with some very blurry facts.
Smirnoff Ad vs Autobiography
If you read the ad that I show above, his origin story is a little different than the long story above. In 1975, Jessel had a very clear picture of what happened in 1927. In the ad, he does not seem so sure. Particularly in an advertisement, why would a person say “I think I invented The Bloody Mary”?
I don’t think this, in any way, disproves Jessel’s origin of the Bloody Mary, but it certainly casts some doubt as to what really went on. Did his memory in 1975 become more clear than it was in 1955 when this particular Smirnoff ad was created? I don’t know.
A Few Other Claims
There are a few other claims to the origin of the Bloody Mary that are worth throwing in the mix.
One of the four articles that originally mentioned the Bloody Mary attributed the drink to a popular place called the 21 Club. Zbikiewicz was the bartender at this time, supposedly in charge of making the Bloody Mary cocktails. Like Jessel’s claim to the drink, the ingredients in this story were only tomato juice and vodka.
The next two mentions of the cocktail in any publication were attributed to George Jessel. It is interesting that many of the associated characters have ties to the 21 Club. Jessel was definitely a regular at this club. Walter Winchell, who attributed the origin to Jessel in a 1939 column, had ties to this club. Lucious Beebe, who attributed the cocktail to Jessel in 1940, had ties to this club.
Could Zbikiewicz lay some claim to the cocktail in the 1930s? It isn’t like George Jessel was mixing his own drinks at the 21 club and Jessel definitely has some ties to the concoction. I think it might be plausible that this story is true, but I tend to think that Jessel was actually the first to bring the recipe to the 21 club.
Prince of Russia
Earlier in the Fernand Petiot origin story, we mentioned Serge Obelensky, who drank at Harry’s New York Bar and also had ties to Petiot’s future employer, the St. Regis. It is here that it is said that Serge may have ordered a tomato juice cocktail that was being served as a Bloody Mary (or actually a Red Snapper), but wanted it spiced up.
The story goes is this is when the lemon, Worsteschire sauce, and Tabasco was added to the Bloody Mary ingredients list.
While I would not be surprised if Petiot and Serge had a bartender/customer relationship that helped Petiot develop drinks, I don’t think that even if this were true, that Serge Obelenskey Created the Bloody Mary. It would still be a Petiot creation.
Bloody Mary - Queen of England
Queen Mary I of England had a short reign, but during that time she burned several hundred people at the stake for religious differences. This is how she gained the nickname Bloody Mary. And while the nickname is real, there does not seem to be any specific historical ties to why the drink may be named Bloody Mary.
The other origin stories have explanations of why the drink was named as such and I believe those over any tie to the previous Queen of England.
I found a GREAT video that covers much of the stuff I touch on here and I am going to embed it in the post. He does a great job!
What I Think Is The Origin Of The Bloody Mary
We really have covered a mountain of information, here. So who do I think created the Bloody Mary? It is an unwitting collaboration between George Jessel and Fernand Petiot. I think that Petiot had the means and reason to create a spicy tomato vodka drink at Harry’s New York Bar in 1920s Paris. Finally, I think that drink came with him to the United States and was introduced as the Red Snapper, but only because vodka was not a popular spirit in the USA.
I also believe that George Jessel probably started drinking vodka tomato juices in the late 1920s, as he described in his story. I tend to believe that he named the drink as he states in his 1975 story. Because of his celebrity status and socialite connections, he starts getting this name ‘Bloody Mary’ out into the public.
Petiot’s Red Snapper was definitely a drink that pushed the cocktail envelope and changed that world. As vodka started to become more commonplace in the 1940s and 1950s, it was only natural that what I believe to be Petiot’s original ingredient in the Red Snapper (vodka) started to come back into vogue.
Then, the Smirnoff advertising campaign in the 1950s (it started getting mentioned quite often in publications - see the graph below) really solidified its place in the bar AND George Jessel’s tie to the drink.
Because of Petiot’s ingredients and Jessel’s celebrity (combined with a hangover at a buddy’s hangout), the drink has become what it has. I think both of them share in this origin story and without either of them, the drink would not be what it is today.
There you have my take on the origin of the Bloody Mary. NEXT UP… we are going to mix up a cocktail. Stay tuned for our classic cocktail recipe we are going to post in a few days. If you like what we are doing here, please make sure to subscribe to get updates via email, follow me on Pinterest, and follow me on Instagram!