All hail the Bloody Mary

Bloody Jerry as served at Jerry's Bar (129 W. Laurel St.) in Northern Liberties.

It's not as if Philadelphians have ever needed an excuse to drink on the first day of a new year. But if you're in the market for fresh inspiration, Jan. 1 is National Bloody Mary Day.

As arbitrary as these silly, food-specific "holidays" may be - most seem to originate with the site Foodimentary.com, whose founder pushes a date-based edible agenda - this is one that deserves sincere celebration. What an excellent opportunity to take the local temperature of this divisive cocktail.

Source of strong sips and stronger opinions, the Bloody Mary is a spirited debate in a glass, a purported hangover zapper that inspires both hatred and early-a.m. hedonism. But those who love them love them hard, a level of dedication matched by the professionals meticulously crafting them on the opposite side of the bar.

The Bloody art

Of all the people I know who despise the Bloody Mary - at its essence, just tomato juice, seasonings, vodka, and all manner of picky-snacky garnishes - Brian Hickey is probably the most vocal. My former coworker, currently a journalist with PhillyVoice, never misses an opportunity to speak on the issue when it arises.

"Tomato juice is, in and of itself, a travesty," he told me. "The texture of a tomato is not meant to be swilled. I look at a Bloody Mary and my stomach turns."

While it's true that the spice-infused nectar from a batch of squeezed-to-death San Marzanos is not the first thing I crave when it comes to bolstering my constitution, there's a serious alchemy to Bloody Mary craftsmanship that Hickey is skimming over here. This attention to detail dates all the way back to the cocktail's origins - a topic of serious debate, just the way we like it.

Murky origins

The Bloody Mary is commonly attributed to bartender Fernand Petiot, who's said to have invented the drink in the early 1920s while behind the stick at Harry's New York Bar, the famous Parisian expatriate haunt frequented by the likes of Hayworth and Hemingway.

Its namesake? Henry VIII's infamously violent offspring, Mary I of England - or a waitress from Chicago, depending on who's telling the tale.

The Cartwright to Petiot's Doubleday is American comic George Jessel, who took public credit for its invention, though it's more likely he simply served as its enthusiastic advocate. Jessel's history comes with the paper trail Petiot lacks: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America traces newspaper mentions of the performer and his choice cocktail back to 1939, seven years before the first real recipe for it hit print.

That recipe, from Lucius Beebe's The Stork Club Bar Book, has the Mary being made with nothing more than vodka, tomato, bitters, and lemon - a highly simplified take, when you consider how elaborate modern Bloody makers have gotten.

Marys plain and fancy

For a real no-fuss Bloody, head to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar (1200 E. Passyunk Ave.). The South Philly institution, open since 1938, indulges early-morning Mary requests with zero frills - rocks, vodka, mix out of a repurposed plastic juice bottle, wedge of lemon. ("I could drink these all day . . . but then it would be a short day," proclaimed my Bloody-obsessed friend Jesse Cornell, a bartender at the nearby Neuf.)

Len Wood, the GM of the Loft District bar/restaurant Brick and Mortar (315 N. 12th St.), works the total opposite side of the Bloody spectrum. After being continually disappointed by renditions he'd try while out to brunch, the longtime bartender developed his own method.

"I started looking at a Bloody for what it was supposed to be: a rejuvenative drink," said Wood, keying in on fresh vegetable juices (red pepper, celery) and spices with proven health benefits (cumin, turmeric, ginger) to develop flavor. By the end, he'd written a recipe that calls for 24 (!) separate ingredients - and his mix has proven popular enough that BAM has started retailing it.

Wood was relatively forthcoming about contents, though he won't give up measurements; other bartenders play it a little closer to the vest.

At Standard Tap (901 N. Second St.), Martin Sandeen would commit only to "a number of different spices" when asked to run down the Tap's go-to recipe; that blend joins horseradish, hot sauce, and Worcestershire for a base that's augmented with tomato, citrus, and spirit. One interesting addition: a slug of O'Reilly's Irish Stout from Sly Fox Brewery, which Sandeen believes contributes interesting roasty-toasty notes.

All about that base

A winning liquid base is obviously vital to a Bloody Mary's overall success. Near Rittenhouse alone, look to V Street (126 S. 19th St.), which cuts its mix with its own spicy, housemade "Street Sauce" and pickle brine; Pub & Kitchen (1946 Lombard St.), where the signature Wrangler rules; or Oyster House (1516 Sansom St.), which delivers a truly killer Bloody Caesar, a Mary variation with clam juice that originates in Canada.

But it'd be foolish to ignore the garnish game, which ends up being a huge part of the equation.

There is a contingent out there that pooh-poohs all Bloody accoutrement, from the requisite celery stalk on down. ("Add it only if you need something to scratch your back with," writes Milton Crawford in the indispensable Hungover Cookbook.) But drink-topping adornments are a big part of the fun. Take the Triangle Tavern (1338 S. 10th St.), which crowns its Bloodys with a meatball, or Jerry's Bar (129 W. Laurel St.), where blue cheese-stuffed olives and Smucker's beef jerky join the proceedings.

Marianne Morrison, bartender at Kensington's Atlantis The Lost Bar (2442 Frankford Ave.), has built up a bit of a following for her top-tier Bloody-dressing skills.

"For me, it's about the added stuff," she said, still making sure to nod to the prowess of their base, developed by mononym'd manager Fritz. "It's an attraction for a lot of folks - they want to see what I put on it."

While grilled shrimp and a salami-and-cheese rollup are stalwarts (stuffed grape leaves for vegetarians), Morrison looks to the current growing season for the rest. Recently, she's been playing with Asian pear and golden berries. Depending on the day, you might find tomatoes, peppers, beets, cucumbers, and/or all sorts of pickles, stuck together with a fastidious toothpick system that basically doubles the drink's height.

Since they're so prep-heavy, Atlantis offers its beautifully dressed drinks only on Sundays, meaning you'll technically miss the first important boozing holiday of 2016 by 48 hours. I'm willing to look the other way so long as you save me a seat at the bar. (A few places will have brunch hours New Year's Day, such as Standard Tap from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Jerry's Bar, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.)

Happy New Year to you and yours - may your Marys be as Bloody as you want them.

Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish, or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.