Veteran bartender Lisa Seabury takes the classic Bloody Mary cocktail very seriously. “This is a really weird comparison, but I feel like they’re as personal as your underwear or your perfume,” she says. “Bloody Marys are very personal — I’m very passionate about that.”
Indeed, the traditional vodka-and-tomato-juice combo, which some say dates back to 1920s Paris, lends itself to limitless opportunities for personalization, both inside and outside the glass. But that doesn’t mean that every way is the right way. With every attempt at innovation comes the risk of abomination.
As chief organizer of the hotly contested Bloody Mary Mix Down competition, Seabury has witnessed both triumphs and disasters on this front. The annual event challenges the most intrepid bartenders around to put their best bloody recipes on trial to be judged on presentation, taste and creativity.
On Sunday, April 24, finalists from every borough of New York City and Long Island — as well as the winner of California’s own Bloody-making contest — will compete for the championship during the NYC Hot Sauce Expo in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Seabury and her husband, Steve Seabury, are owners of the Long Island–based hot sauce company High River Sauces and cofounders of the hot sauce expo.)
Food Republic was on the scene for one of the preliminary rounds in Brooklyn and even helped judge the boozy entries. We spoke with Seabury and local finalist Marisa Cadena of Brooklyn restaurant Lucky Luna about the most common Bloody Mary mishaps and how to do this finicky cocktail justice.
1. Start with some booze, but whoa! Not too much.
Ask Seabury and she’ll tell you the most important quality of a good Bloody Mary is balance. And that begins with the base spirit. “I think it’s important to have a good amount of vodka, but not too much,” she says. “That’s like my biggest pet peeve, when you go to some place and [the cocktail] is all vodka.” About an ounce and a half of hooch is all you need for the standard 12- to 16-ounce glass, she says.
2. You call that a mix? It looks like tomato water.
Consistency is another crucial element. No matter what you add to it, your basic tomato juice needs some body. A light, thin, runny red liquid is neither flavorful nor visually appealing. “We see a lot of tomato water these days,” grumbles Lindsay Eshelman, a rep for Stoli, the contest’s sponsor. “It has to be thick,” says Seabury, “but not too thick where you can’t taste the alcohol or you’re just drinking gobs of horseradish.”
3. There’s a whole world beyond Worcestershire.
A good Bloody also exhibits a depth of flavor. It can’t just taste like tomato. For devotees of author Ernest Hemingway’s famous recipe, that extra flavor comes from some pretty simple ingredients: Worcestershire, lime, salt, black pepper and cayenne. For modern Bloody makers, it can mean all sorts of things. Instead of Worcestershire, for instance, Seabury likes to use balsamic vinegar. “I think it adds a great tang to it,” she says. Seabury is also a big fan of fresh herbs, everything from cilantro and parsley to Thai basil.
For her own winning Bloody, Brooklyn victor Marisa Cadena sought inspiration from a specific childhood flavor memory: her grandmother’s enchiladas. Her recipe incorporated roasted tomatoes, toasted cumin, tamarind, lime and four different kinds of chili peppers, among other things. She actually used more tamarind than tomato. Cadena says people focus too much on the tomato and not enough on flavor complexity. “The fun part about a Bloody is that it can hit all parts of your palate — your sweet, your savory, your spicy, your tangy. It’s all in one drink,” she says. “It’s meant to be a meal unto itself.”
4. Save the insanely hot peppers for another contest.
It sounds strange coming from the co-owner of a hot sauce company, but Seabury preaches moderation when it comes to the chili factor. “As much as I love hot peppers, I don’t want to drink my hot peppers,” she says. Suffice to say, spice is an important aspect, but some people overdo it. “I need it to be spicy,” Seabury says, “but I want to drink more than one.” Brooklyn winner Cadena agrees. Those four kinds of chilies in her enchilada-inspired recipe? They’re “not necessarily for heat,” she says, “but more for flavor complexity.”
5. We said “garnish,” not “garish.”
The simple, traditional celery stick has no future in the internet era. These days, it seems like there’s an arms race to build the most massive, intricate and over-the-top ornamentation for your fiery libation. Waffle fries, beef sliders, a whole triple-decker fish sandwich — pretty much anything you can impale on a skewer is fair game.
During a preliminary round on Staten Island earlier this year, one bartender presented a skewer with “so many meats and cheeses on it that it looked like the Staten Island ferry,” recalls Stoli rep Eshelman, “and it even had a little Staten Island flag on top.” The trick, as always, is keeping things in balance. Focus too much on the decoration and the drink itself may suffer. At the Brooklyn event, one guy garnished his drink with a whole pastrami sandwich on a stick. The judges were impressed with his presentation, especially the fact that he made his own pastrami; the actual cocktail not so much. Think Russian dressing with zero heat.