Proud Mary: A Look at the Queen of Cocktails

A dive into the endless appeal of the popular brunch beverage, the Bloody Mary, with the help of local bartenders and aficionados.
by Billy Warden

A Build Your Own Bloody Mary Bar with, Bacon, Shrimp,Celery, Asparagus, Onions and Cherry Tomatoes

Mary is complicated: She can be down to earth, or as garish as Madonna and Elton John sharing a double bill in Vegas. She has gone by other names, including The Bucket of Blood and The Red Hammer. She’s widely recognized as The First Lady of Brunch.But you know her as Bloody Mary.

“It’s kind of a symphony of experience for your nose and mouth,” says Raleigh Bloody Mary aficionado Dustin Ingalls, who recalls sampling an alcohol-free Virgin Mary at the tender age of 16 — and being instantly enamored.

The basic ingredients are tomato juice, vodka, celery, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, olives, and lemon. Right out of the gate, Mary is a melée compared to the refined Manhattan or gin and tonic. And from there, she gets even twistier.

“No one has a definitive recipe,” says Ingalls, an example of the many passionate amateur barkeeps devoted to Mary. “It’s a perfect vehicle for mixological experimentation.”

In an attempt to better understand Mary, I asked about her on social media. The riotous response of Facebook friends perfectly matched the commotion of the cocktail itself. To partially quote the Triangle’s legion of fans and at-home mixologists:

Needs horseradish.
Chunks to chew on.
Ain’t legit without lots of pepper.
Sprinkle just a dash of Old Bay.
Use a Slim Jim for a stirrer.

Clamato is the key.
Bits of fresh crab meat.
Beef broth in the mix.

Photo credit: Forest Mason

While pre-made mixes can streamline production, the question of which rules supreme is, naturally, far from settled. Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, known to cap weekend bike excursions with Marys all around, swears by Zing Zang’s mix. Carrboro chanteuse Wendy Lee Shad- burn sings the praises of Pittsboro’s Bloody Brando.

Even the type of liquor involved isn’t fixed: “I prefer my Bloody Marys with gin,” notes longtime Raleigh bar manager Chico Scott, of Landmark fame. “Hendrick’s is my favorite because of its cucumber essence, but Mother Earth, Cardinal, and Conniption are good if you want to keep it local.” Ingalls prefers a different twist: “I graduated from Bloody Marys to Bloody Marias — tequila-based — years ago. Then I discovered mezcal at Gallo Pelón, and have been making almost exclusively Mezcal Marias at home ever since. I love the complex smokiness that mezcal adds to the saltiness, spiciness, and acidity.”

Customers at The Raleigh Times chase their Marys, which include a candied bacon stirrer, with a sidecar of PBR. Breweries sometimes add a brown ale.

Mary’s many guises can bewilder, which is why some prefer leaving it to an expert. Or, as lawyer Ron Perkinson puts it, “I’m partial to those handed to me.”

Bartender Ashlan Hendricks has handed over countless Marys in her eight years with NOFO @ The Pig. The eatery regularly chalks up Mary-related accolades in part due to its heavy dose of dill, both on the rim of the glass and in the mix. “It’s a relief to the hot spice,” Hendricks says. “But you have to go gentle on the Worcestershire. Too much’ll ruin it.”

NOFO also tinkers with Mary’s garnishment, perhaps the most celebrated wardrobe signature since Carmen Miranda’s headdress. In place of the traditional celery stick is a perky English cucumber and an arching pickled okra, plus cherry tomato, plump olive, and lime.

Lovely to look at, spry on the tongue — but Raleigh’s versions are rather tame in the maximalist Mary-verse. Charlotte’s Moo & Brew festoons its Mary — renamed Large Marge — with a burger, grilled cheese sandwich, fried green tomatoes, a jalapeño popper, and cheese curds. Belhaven’s Spoon River also piles the fixins high.

Yet the madcap variety that charms some baffles or repulses others.

“These concoctions are getting out of hand,” gripes Brandon Ives, whose downtown office puts him close to two of Raleigh’s most prodigious Mary- makers, Capital Club 16 and Humble Pie. “It’s brunch, people — not a Calabash buffet! I’m all for eating my fruits and veggies, but guzzling tomato juice with chunks of horseradish, spicy tabasco, and 1,500 calories of added meat medley makes me want to lose my breakfast!”

For the record, a basic Bloody should be no more than 500 calories (some of which are derived from perfectly wholesome veggies), according to Raleigh nutritionist Samantha Reiff. And while fans generally embrace the cocktail’s power as a hangover cure, Reiff says that claim is likely false.

“It may be a buzzkill, but the Bloody Mary as a hangover tonic is more of a hopeful myth than nutrition science,” says Reiff. “One could argue that the component parts may contribute hangover-mitigating benefits — say, the electrolytes in tomato juice, cysteine in garlic, vitamin C in the lemon juice, capsaicin in the hot sauce, antioxidants in the herbs and celery, and liver detoxification properties in horseradish — but a hefty spike of vodka outweighs the benefits.” Nevertheless, brunch is Mary’s time to shine, whether she’s at Midtown’s STIR, the Village District’s Flying Biscuit or Tupelo Honey (whose Queen Mary sports a shrimp garnish), the thick and spicy Mary at Wye Hill, Scratch in Apex, Durham’s Motorco, or other boozy bastions.

“Brunch is back,” confirms NOFO’s Hendricks of the state’s loosened din- ing protocols, “and brunch is social.”

Ah, and there’s the essence of my own long-stewing crush on Mary: her populist appeal, the open-source creativity of fans, the social buzz of swapping recipes, and the joy of sharing a mid-morning meal.

Mary is a parade, a festival, a circus in a glass. I love her messy and brassy and perhaps too eager to please. I adore Mary because she’s as high-spirited and wide open as I want to feel after spending the morning with her.