Perhaps more than any other cocktail, the unassuming bloody mary gives restaurants and bars a real chance to both create and show off their own unique identity.
Party Fowl downtown and Sunda in the Gulch are two examples of this: the former unabashedly lists their 55-ounce monstrosity as an entrée entitled “Brunch for Two.” Topped with two whole fried Cornish game hens, two scotch eggs, eight fried okra, and an avocado, at least they’re not kidding about it being a full-on meal.
Sunda’s “Sumo Mary” is scant by comparison, coming in at 32 ounces. Like Party Fowl, the restaurant piles a whole heap on top of their house mix, which at last count included a grilled cheese, a pork belly bao bun, a baked snow crab handroll, a piece of fried chicken, lumpia egg rolls, something called Sunda potatoes, and, to break it all up, some cucumber.
Now, I don’t need a whole chicken doing the backstroke in my glass, but a good garnish is always necessary. The savory options are nearly endless for this: olives (bonus points if they’re stuffed), vegetables, bacon, little cubes of cheese, skewered seafood, or other meats. As long as you include something, you’re good to go.
As for what’s in the glass, we need to talk about two things before getting into the list: spirit and (of course) mix.
If you know me, you know how I feel about vodka in cocktails. I know, I know: “But Valerie, bloody marys are typically made with vodka!” (In fact, when they aren’t, there’s a bevy of different names for what they should be called, but that’s another story.) Though I tend to stick to my guns and order gin as my base spirit, if there’s a high-quality flavored vodka available or—even better—a house-infused situation, I’ll embrace tradition.
For bloody mary mix, yes, housemade is best— if you make it with love and care. A good one has a body to it, never too muddy or thick. If you’re just throwing tomato juice into a glass with a heaping spoon of horseradish and expecting me to be excited about sipping some sad-sack thin broth-like thing, you’re hitting the sauce, my friend.
On this topic, it’s important to note that bloody marys are filled with ice, meaning the dilution amount will be large. So if you’re starting out with a watery mix, where do you expect you’ll be halfway through when the ice has melted? Exactly.
But if you’re pressed for time, then by all means select a good pre-made mix and doctor it up a smidge. My favorite mix is Zing Zang. It’s a combo of tomato puree and a vegetable juice blend with Worcestershire, celery salt, seed, and pepper sauce. When mixing at home, I start with Zing Zang and add horseradish, Sriracha, A1 steak sauce, pickle or pepperoncini juice, and a splash of lemon juice or OJ.
For this month’s list, as a special treat, I’ve roped in local singer/songwriter and self-proclaimed Bloody Mary Expert, Gina Venier. For Gina, “bloodys are a canvas, a blank slate for garnish. [Bartenders should] use it as a time to shine. Become an artist.” Whether or not you find her waxing poetic about Bloodys over the top (I love it), she’s certainly earned a spot on the barstool next to me.
Her palate in tow, we gallivanted around Nashville in search of the unique, the identity-making, and possibly the absurd.
5 Points Pizza – East
The only reason I intentionally ordered a Bloody Mary at a pizza shop was Gina. As soon as she mentioned, “the humility with which this place places a bloody in their glass,” I had to see for myself. Why did she say this? Because the folks at 5 Points place the pint down in front of you all casually like, “Oh yeah, NBD, our mix is our pizza sauce.”
“The fact that they use chopped garlic instead of horseradish,” notes Gina, “Is the perfect opportunity for an Italian restaurant to showcase their ingredients in the kitchen and make their Bloody Mary their own.” Please try this Saturday/Sunday exclusive for yourself
51 North Taproom
It was such a pleasure to cozy up to an expansive bar in a laid-back place to slug a gorgeous Mary and gawk at the delicious-looking, budget-friendly food flying out of the kitchen.
51 North’s Bloody starts with the beautiful product that is St. George’s Green Chile Vodka and Tennessee’s own Struggle Bus mix before they add lemon, lime, Worcestershire, and glory upon glories, Guinness. For the garnish, a simple bit of citrus with pepperoncini, olive, and a savory, salty rim that compliments the sturdy mix properly. I got it “slightly spicy,” which happily provided a bit of heat without being mouth-obliterating.
Bonus Bloodys at 51 North are only $7 all day Sunday and until 4 on Saturdays. Ask for Ray, if he’s there.
Another Broken Egg Café
Any place that not only makes its own Bloody Mary mix but proudly bottles and sells it—online and in-store—must be worth a try. This Southern-based chain’s version is solid, with options available for multiple spirits. They offer something called the “Abe Famous,” with a housemade pepper-infused vodka, and I had them add the splash of pickle juice from the whiskey Mary (or Bloody Molly, if you must). Gina and I were quite impressed.
The Bloody Mary at Hearts might be slightly two-dimensional, but it has a fabulous fresh tomato flavor and a beautiful slow-building back heat that never becomes overwhelming. The housemade mix is a little thin for my taste, but Hearts is a staple that does literally everything well to the point that I sit at this bar more often than I reasonably should. (Shout out to the pancakes.)
The Bloody here is described on the menu as an “ancient secret recipe,” and Gina and I don’t know about all that, but we do know that it’s a very fine Mary indeed—easy drinking and pleasantly peppery. My only complaint is (big shock) that it should be offered first with gin, given the fact that the name Mother’s Ruin itself nods to an old slang for it, born from when gin joints allowed women to drink along with men. Many assumed this could only mean prostitution was going on (naturally) and the women must be neglecting their children, earning the spirit the delightful nickname ‘mother’s ruin.’ Just sayin’ – it would be a cool way to give a nod to history along with the “ancient recipe.”
The first time Gina and I sat down at Mimo, the Mary delivered was made with Zing Zang and was enjoyable in its own right. By our second visit, however, Mimo had invested a good deal of energy and R&D into their offering, developing their own mix and toiling away over what they’d offer for an interesting garnish. We love a spot that recognizes the promise of a unique Bloody.
The Chestnut Hill Hawaiian izakaya leaps at the chance to be on theme with a togarashi salt rim and a healthy dose of soy sauce in the mix. It is a smidge thin and very spicy, but overall worth it, especially when paired with food.
Their website and socials currently say they’re closed temporarily until they “announce changes”, so it’s possible this Bloody won’t be available in 2023, but only time will tell.
They use sake! This in addition to a solid choice of Charleston Bloody Mary Mix, a splash of pickled okra juice, and a pickled okra garnish, makes it a solid selection in our book.
Love and Exile
Though this delightful little spot puts in the effort and makes its sauce in-house, it was thin and fairly flavorless, besides being almost awkwardly fishy. It’s on this list purely because of Gina, who dubbed it her all-out favorite. This is a case where her vodka version was better, as the mix was admittedly tastier with a blank background. So, by all means, go and get it, just stick with vodka.
Chauhan Ale & Masala House
This stop really got our engine revving. Here comes a glass filled with vodka, Walker’s Bloody Mary Mix, and lime juice. Very lack-luster. But then! Skewered on top lies a large shrimp coated in vindaloo—a tomato-based Indian curry sauce that was delicious. Why in the world are we not using that as a base for a signature mix? We love Maneet, and I’m sure she doesn’t touch the Bloody Mary, but the last place you’d think we’d shy away from flavor would be an Indian restaurant. If Chauhan ever decides to go that route, they better expect me every weekend. Until then, find me elsewhere.
Find Gina @ginavenier and drinking Bloody Marys everywhere.