The jury is out as to the origin of its name, but the spicy, tomatoey vodka drink called the Bloody Mary is commonly known to have been created by a Paris bartender named Fernand Petiot, who whipped it up in the 1930s at King Cole Bar at the St. Regis hotel in New York City. Petiot’s early version was simply 50/50 tomato juice and vodka, but it wasn't long before a recognizable classic recipe materialized: vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, celery salt, Tabasco and lemon juice
The venerable cocktail, a staple of brunches the world over, is today much more complex—spicier, more vegetal, and sometimes elaborately garnished. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t parameters to follow when you make the drink. Want the best advice? Just listen to Anthony “The Professor” Baker, an alumnus of New York bars The Aviary and The Grill: “don’t use tomato juice. It has too many preservatives in it, and the vodka and ice dilute the drink enough. Blend canned tomatoes, and use that purée to counterbalance the dilution.”
Baker’s other tips: make sure you're using something other than regular salt. Celery salt is classic, but try smoked salt, which makes it “more like a meal.” And forgo prepared horseradish. “It has vinegar in it, so it makes the drink taste sour,” says Baker. “Grate fresh horseradish to add spice, instead.” He also cautions against overdoing the garnishes. Crisp celery, cheese-stuffed olives, cherry tomatoes, or a cornichon is all you need to highlight the full-flavored drink.
Most importantly, choose the right vodka. Baker has two rules for the booze: either select a clean, brisk vodka that gets out of the way of the other ingredients ("there’s enough going on in the drink already...you want to taste the cocktail, not the vodka”), or grab a flavored vodka whose taste meshes with the Bloody Mary’s spice and savoriness. “You don’t want to be overwhelmed, but you do want balance,” Baker says. To help you choose from the vast array of bottles on the market, here are the best vodkas to help you customize some legendary Bloody Marys.
Region: Iceland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Mineral water, Pepper, Slate, Lemon
Made using wheat and barley run through high-copper stills heated by sustainable, geothermal power, Reyka gets filtered through lava rock and diluted with pure glacial spring water. “It’s the cleanest vodka I know,” says Baker. “You can drink it on its own.” But instead of throwing it back neat, try it in an “amazing” Bloody Mary, where the brisk, crystalline spirit “counterbalances all the other flavors of the cocktail.”
Related: The Best Vodkas
Region: Sweden | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Black pepper, White pepper, Chili flakes
“It does have a distinctive spice, so it blends in well, and you barely taste the alcohol,” says Baker of this mild-mannered go-to for a homemade Bloody Mary. Baker appreciates the notes of white pepper and dried red pepper flakes, but doesn't find the spice to be overwhelming. That’s ideal, because the best Bloody Mary “brings mild heat,” according to Baker, without ruining your palate for the rest of the brunch.
Related: The Best Cheap Vodkas
Best Top Shelf
Absolut Elyx Vodka
Region: Sweden | ABV: 42.3% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Citrus, Grass, Vanilla
Though Baker says he “definitely stays away from expensive vodkas for Bloody Marys, because the ingredients can smother the spirit,” no mixologist can resist using Absolut Elyx for any drink. As Tony Abou-Ganim, mixologist and author of Vodka Distilled, points out, this Swedish splurge has a “brightness” that “elevates” the grain in it, as well as any flavors it’s paired or blended with, whether it's pickled herring, strong cheeses, or, yes—the horseradish, tomato juice, and Worcestershire in a classic Bloody.
Hanson of Sonoma Organic Habanero Vodka
Region: Sonoma, California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Chili spice, Sweet Fruit, Lemongrass
Especially in a Bloody Bull—a Bloody Mary enhanced with beef broth—Abou-Gamin thinks this vodka is “gorgeous.” With a base spirit distilled from organic wine grapes, then infused with a mix of locally sourced, organic chilies, this Sonoma bottle offers “beautiful, honest flavors,” with a fruity sweetness overlaid by “something delicious and savory.” That doesn't sound like bloody bull to us.
Related: The Best Flavored Vodkas
Ketel One Botanicals Cucumber & Mint
Region: Netherlands | ABV: 30% | Tasting Notes: Vegetal, Fresh cucumber, Bright mint
For a brisk, summery version of a Bloody Mary, try juicing some ripe cucumber and combining it with tomato juice, fresh mint, and this botanical vodka. Crisp, lively, and clocking in at just 60 proof, this vodka is “smooth and friendly, refreshing and easy,” according to Slava Borisov of Chicago’s Travelle at The Langham. Try it out for a garden-fresh spin on the otherwise hefty drink.
Related: The Best Bloody Mary Mixes
St. George Green Chile
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Herbal, Citrus, Spicy
Distilled from non-GMO grain, jalapeños, lime peel, and cilantro, then infused with yellow and red bell peppers, serrano peppers, and habaneros, this vodka offers an entire farmers' market's worth of flavor. “Gently spicy,” yet replete with herbal and vegetal notes, it’s “a great base for cocktails,” in Borisov’s estimation. It adds nuanced heat and brightness to your classic Bloody Mary.
Bakon Premium Bacon-Flavored Vodka
Region: Oregon | ABV: 35% | Tasting Notes: Meaty, Smoky, Earthy, Sweet
This Oregon potato vodka is infused with the brunch-friendly flavor of bacon. Launched back in 2009, it is, in fact, the world’s first-ever commercially-available bacon vodka, and it fits Baker’s criteria for mixing into a Bloody Mary.
“If you’re going to make a vodka with a characteristic that stands out, make it one that helps it blend in with the other ingredients,” he says. Bakon’s smokey, meaty, slightly sweet flavor is “appropriate for a cocktail that should taste like a meal in a glass.” Garnish the drink with a blue cheese–stuffed olive. (And, sure, why not, a slice of bacon too.)
Humboldt’s Finest Hemp-Infused Vodka
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Grass, Pine, Green tea, Fresh herbs
If you're someone who enjoys a Red Snapper—the beloved but underappreciated Bloody Mary sibling that swaps out the vodka for gin—then you owe it to yourself to try a Bloody made with Humboldt's Finest, a unique California vodka that's infused with locally-grown hemp. On it's own, the aromatic spirit (which is THC-free, by the way) behaves a bit like a gin, offering a grassy, piney nose and a palate of green tea and fresh herbs. These notes interplay wonderfully with the acidic notes in your tomato juice and lemon, delivering a fresh, herbaceous, very contemporary twist on the century-old cocktail.
"In this enlightened age of imbibing, there's a long-overdue interest in spirits that reflect and convey a specific sense of place. Every entry in the full line of well-crafted spirits from Humboldt Distillery displays its essential NorCal character by way of the deliberate use of locally- and sustainably-sourced ingredients." —Jesse Porter, Editor
Belvedere Smogory Forest Single-Estate Rye Vodka
Region: Poland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Salted caramel, Vanilla, White pepper
Based on Dankowski Gold rye, distilled only three times, and filtered just twice, this single-estate vodka offers “notes of honeycomb and white pepper,” says Borisov. Those “big, bold, and robust” flavors, as Abou-Gamin describes them, bring verve to Sunday afternoon’s Bloody Mary, while the vodka’s velvety mouthfeel helps the drink go down smoothly.
Khor Platinum Vodka
Region: Ukraine | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Slate, Mineral water, White pepper
For a well-balanced Bloody Mary, “look for something that blends very well and doesn’t stand out too much,” says Baker. “The vodka should not be too strong, or the bitterness will overpower the drink.” Khor Platinum vodka fits the bill: this smooth Ukraine-produced offering is appreciated for its subtlety, and won the Double Gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. “The purpose behind it is to allow you to taste the tomato and other flavors,” Baker says, and this balanced and affordable offering is a great base upon which to let your culinary cocktail shine.
If you're searching for a smooth, well-balanced vodka that's going to let the rest of the ingredients in your Bloody Mary take center stage, look no further than Reyka (view on Reservebar). But if you're seeking out a vodka that brings its own nuance and complexity to the age-old cocktail, try the Hanson of Sonoma Habanero (view on Wine.com) or the Humboldt's Finest Hemp-Infused (view on Totalwine.com) for refreshing and innovative twists on the stalwart brunch staple.
What is vodka made of?
Well, just about anything. Traditionally, vodka was distilled using a starch-based crop that could be converted into sugar during fermentation: potatoes, corn, and grains, essentially. But craft vodkas nowadays are produced using everything from blueberries to milk. You can even make vodka out of thin air, as Air Vodka has shown.
How is vodka made?
Like other spirits, vodka is generally made by fermenting a grain or fruit and then distilling that fermentation. Unlike other spirits, vodka tends to be distilled, and then filtered afterwards, multiple times to achieve its smooth, crystalline character. It is bottled unaged.
What are the different types of vodka?
The sky’s the limit when making vodka. Any number of raw ingredients can be used, so there are potato vodkas, rye vodkas, wheat vodkas, and many other types based on the base material. There are also a great many flavored vodkas, from spicy chile-infused ones to herbaceous “botanical” vodkas to sweet, fruit-flavored ones.
What are the ingredients of a Bloody Mary?
When making a Bloody Mary from scratch, the classic seven ingredients—vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, celery salt, Tabasco and lemon juice—provide an ideal starting template. (Horseradish is typically included as well.) But don't be afraid to experiment: try lime instead of lemon, swap out the Tabasco for your favorite hot sauce, or add additional flavorings like bitters or ponzu. And when you're pressed for time, don't hesitate to reach for one of the excellent Bloody Mary mixes available on today's market.
Why trust Liquor.com?
This piece was edited by Jesse Porter, who knows he really likes a bartender when he orders a Red Snapper and doesn't need to follow that up with "which is a Bloody Mary made with gin."
Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Betsy has written for Liquor.com since May 2020. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.