Nothing complements summer like a good Bloody Mary.
But when most people talk Bloody Mary, they focus on garnish: the obligatory celery stalk, a cocktail pick of olives and perhaps a dill pickle.
Then, of course, there’s the exotics: cheese chunks, salami slices, pepperoni, bacon, baby corn, pickled carrots, shrimp, chicken wings, sliders … it’s all a matter of personal preference. And how well the Bloody Mary bar is stocked.
But garnish has little to do with what makes a good drink.
A proper Bloody Mary starts with one essential ingredient: pepper-infused vodka. And not that store-bought crap. No, to properly infuse it, you’ve got to do it yourself.
Sara and I prepare a batch each summer, enough to carry us through a year. First, we get the vodka, a special variety called “the cheapest stuff they have.” In years past we used the Jewel-Osco house brand.
This year, it was Vitali, which features an imperial Russian eagle on the label, even though it’s bottled in Louisville, Kentucky. Whatever. Doesn’t matter so long as it’s $10.99 a handle.
The vodka – we use four handles – is dumped into a 3-gallon beverage dispenser, the kind with the spigot on the bottom used to serve lemonade.
Next we add the organics: three green bell peppers quartered, a bag of jalapeños split lengthwise (seeds intact) and a large sliced cucumber. This year, red, yellow and orange mini peppers were on sale, so we threw a bag of them in, too.
The mixture fills about 7/8s of the dispenser. Then put the lid on and let it sit for five days, after which time the vodka takes on a green tinge. Wait longer and it’ll get darker and spicier, though at some point the veggies will start to pulp.
Decant the infused vodka through cheesecloth into the empty handles (hopefully you didn’t throw them out) and store in the freezer. You’ll have to mash the peppers a bit with a large spoon or ladle to squeeze out the last of the vodka to fill the fourth bottle.
Now that you have the proper Mary, it’s time to get the proper blood.
First off, plain tomato juice is barbaric. That’s what they used to serve back in the ’70s, along with plain vodka and ice cubes in an 8-oz. glass for $3.50. Ugh.
Nowadays there’s plenty of Bloody Mary mixers available, with seasonings already added. Some even taste pretty good. But most lack the one essential ingredient: clam juice.
For years, there was only one source of this magical elixir, the brand that both created and still dominates the market.
Then, while shopping for breakfast a few years ago, I came across a new bottle on the shelf, something called Jewel Tomato Clam Cocktail. It’s considerably cheaper, and I swear it tastes better than the original.
Technically (and I just found this out), a Bloody Mary made with clam juice is called a Bloody Caesar. A Canadian restaurateur invented it in 1969 to mimic the flavor of tomato and clam spaghetti sauce, a Venetian dish, hence the “Caesar.”
Still, no matter what you call it, tomato-clam juice is imperative for a good Bloody. Clam juice mellows the sharpness of the tomato and boosts the savory-ness – or umami – of the drink.
Call me an umami’s boy, but I can’t drink one without it.
Now that you’ve got the blood, it’s time to imbibe. The best recipe we ever got came from a bartender in Rockdale named Shawn:
Take one large glass, at least a pint, wet and rim. Add ice. Add infused vodka (only you know how much will do).
After that, it gets tricky. Add a splash of tequila, a splash of brandy, a splash of pickle juice, a squeeze of lime, a dash of celery salt, a slug of Worcestershire, a pinch of horseradish … and as much Tabasco as you can handle. Top with tomato-clam juice (less than you’d think). Stir.
Add garnish (I recommend jalapeño-stuffed olives).
Best served on New Year’s morning, early summer evenings and for weekend brunch.
Or anytime in between.
• Bill Wimbiscus, former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.