The Debated Origin Story Of The Bloody Mary Cocktail

The Bloody Mary cocktail typically starts with eight ingredients: a solid vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, horseradish, lemon juice, black pepper, and celery salt (per Liquor). But naturally endless variations can be found depending on the bar, restaurant, or friend putting together your drink. Popular toppings include celery, a lime wedge, and skewers filled with delicious bites: from classics like bacon, cherry tomatoes, and olives to over-the-top creations with shrimp, mini burgers, and even donuts.

Outside of the toppings, there are plenty of ways to shake up your Bloody Mary: using premade or homemade mixes, your favorite garnishes, and a whole host of possible recipe substitutions. But what about the original cocktail that has inspired such creativity behind the bar? According to Best Bloody Mary, it seems the drink started out simply at Paris' popular Harry's New York Bar, with its creator taking inspiration from a famous patron's go-to drink. But not so fast — that very same patron told a different story of the Bloody Mary's origin.

Fernand Petiot's Bloody Mary

Behind the bar in 1920s Paris, Difford's Guide tells us employee Fernand Petiot supposedly put together what we know as the first Bloody Mary. Famous patrons frequented the Paris bar (called Harry's New York Bar by the time it became a spot of interest for big names like Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis) including one particularly important celebrity to the story of the Bloody Mary: George Jessel. According to a New Yorker interview with Petiot, Jessel's go-to drink was tomato juice mixed with vodka. This simple concoction is where Petiot supposedly took over, adding spices, lemon, and Worcestershire sauce to the mix, creating the first Bloody Mary.

Petiot's supposed inspiration for the name has a lot of lore behind it. Some claim it was inspired by Queen Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic monarch from the 1500s known for her brutal treatment of Protestants (via Best Bloody Mary). Others point to a Chicago, Illinois saloon named Bucket of Blood. The story goes a different Harry's patron told Petiot of the bar, known for tossing out bloody mop water into the street, and a popular server named Mary.

In 1934 Petiot took his place as the bartender in New York City's St. Regis Hotel, serving the cocktail to guests from Frank Costello to Russian Prince Serge Obolensky. It is believed the prince inspired the addition of Tobasco to the Bloody Mary, as he felt the current iteration lacked spice.

George Jessel's Bloody Mary claim

Actor, producer, comedian, and general entertainer George Jessel found himself with quite a crowd in Palm Beach, Florida, as the lore goes in his autobiography "The World I Live In!" (via Difford's Guide). After a heavy night of drinking, the "Toastmaster General" was offered vodka by a bartender. Jessel, unfamiliar with the spirit, supposedly mixed it with tomato juice, lemon, and Worcestershire sauce to cover the scent, believing tomato to potentially be a hangover cure. Jessel's autobiography recounts socialite Mary Brown Warburton soon stopping by, spilling the drink on her white dress. The department store heiress allegedly said, "Now, you can call me Bloody Mary, George!" giving birth to Jessel's Bloody Mary claim. 

But how much truth is there to Jessel's origin story? Some, like blogger Ramshackle Pantry, argue that Jessel was simply too famous for Smirnoff's marketing team to pass up, whether or not his claims were true. In 1955 the company ran a vodka ad featuring Jessel and his tale, bolstering the claim. Recipes and articles published from around the late '30s to '50s also muddy the waters, as some name Jessel as the drink's true creator, while others support Petiot.

Whichever brain thought up the Bloody Mary first, this lasting cocktail is still claimed today by Harry's. PBS shares the Paris bar celebrated the Bloody Mary's 100-year birthday in 2021, marking a century of boozy brunches and nursed hangovers worldwide.