By David Bernard
Last month, as the St. Regis New York Hotel was busy celebrating the 80th anniversary of the U.S. debut of the bloody mary in the hotel’s King Cole Bar, a bartender at Todd English P.U.B. in Las Vegas was busy adding a skewer of corn dog pup and crispy chicken wing to a $35 bloody mary already stacked with a slider, chilled shrimp and pickled asparagus, among other garnishes. Still popular decades after its creation and continuously reinterpreted, bartender Fernand Petiot would no doubt be pleased with the legacy of the perennial cocktail classic he first mixed in Paris in 1921 before serving it at the St. Regis in 1934.
Capitalizing on consumer hunger, a thirst for spice and the growing desire for healthy ingredients, retailers of all things bloody mary, including mixes, seasoning blends and rimmers, are finding a wealth of products to choose from and a strong market to which to sell.Some retailers and producers describe two distinct markets for bloody marys. Jerry Ciesielski, Fine Foods Buyer for Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, New York, noted that a lot of the store’s older customers “stick with what they know,” buying mixes that are more representative of the classic bloody mary recipe. “For the younger customers coming in, it’s all about spicy hot,” he said.
Of the 16 brands of mixes sold in Ciesielski’s store, Tabasco Extra Spicy has become the second best-seller – up from fourth place. Tabasco Extra Spicy is followed by another spicy offering, the horseradish-flavored Mr & Mrs T Premium Blend. The top-seller at the store, as well as one of the leaders nationwide, is the medium-hot Zing Zang.Ciesielski said that customer requests, along with the trend toward spicy across many food categories, spurred the store’s move toward spicier offerings. “I’m looking for more and varied spicy mixes,” he said.
The good news for retailers like Ciesielski is that there is certainly no shortage of spicy bloody mary mixes on the market today from which to choose. The Murph’s Famous Bloody Mary Mix, based in Long Island, New York, already had a successful, more traditional mix sold in 26 states when it decided to add a spicy version a year ago. “The response has been amazing,” said Stephen Murphy, CEO of The Murph’s Famous Bloody Mary Mix. The new mix includes cayenne, horseradish and black pepper. “When we did production runs initially, we thought it out and made 70 percent of the original mix and 30 percent hot and spicy. Within six months, it was 50-50. And now we’re 60-40 hot and spicy.”
Murphy got the idea for The Murph’s Hot & Spicy Bloody Mary Mix, which recently won a Chile Pepper Magazine award for Best Bloody Mary Mix, after attending a number of hot sauce trade shows. As a sponsor himself of the New York City Hot Sauce Expo, which doubled its attendance to more than 10,000 this year, Murphy has observed firsthand the trend toward spicy. “I have really seen, particularly among 21-35 year olds, that it’s all about hot sauce and different flavors of hot foods and sauces,” he said.
One of the country’s top bloody mary seasoning producers, Demitri’s of Seattle, Washington, happened upon its spiciest flavor, chipotle-habanero, quite by accident. According to founder Demitri Pallis, the company, which has won 25 Scovie Awards since 2012, created the extra-hot variety as a “marketing stunt” for the 2010 Nightclub & Bar Show Convention in Las Vegas. “We kind of told the joke on ourselves,” said Pallis. “The response came back so well that, while we didn’t intend to actually put a label on it, we decided to go ahead and add it to our lineup.” While the chipotle-habanero blend is too hot for most bars to stock as their house mix, it does very well on the retail shelf, just as has done another of Demitri’s spicy offerings, Chilies and Peppers, which has increased in popularity in recent years.
While some retailers stick to a two-fold offering of more traditional mixes in addition to hot and peppery options, producers today are stepping up with unique flavors as well. Jason Poole, Brine Boss at Preservation & co. in Sacramento, California, recently turned a Dijon mustard-caper-balsamic-pickling-brine recipe he perfected as a bartender into a successful product sold in 150 California locations. (Expansion to surrounding states is in the works.) Developed for entry into the national Absolut Vodka Bloody Mary Search contest, in which it took second place, the viscous mix also contains sriracha.
“The thing that would really frustrate me about bloody marys as a bartender was that people would drink about three-fourths of their drink and wouldn’t finish it, because, by the end, it would be too diluted and it wouldn’t have the flavor it began with,” said Poole. “Our goal was to create a drink where they could actually enjoy the whole thing.” By making the mix thick and adding heat with sriracha, Poole created a buffer against the dilution that comes from adding ice and vodka, ultimately preserving the mix’s briny/tangy and sweet tones.
Preservation & co., which produces a variety of pickled and other vegetable products and seasonings, also offers a sriracha salt bloody mary rimmer. Spicy rimmers like this one have risen in popularity alongside spicy mixes. Bacon-flavored rimmers are also trending.
Just a year old, Austin, Texas-based Bloody Revolution, has taken variety to a new level, recently expanding its reach to over 600 locations, including gourmet shops and major retailers, like one of the largest grocers in the state, HEB. The company offers five mixes, with the unique twist that none of the four “variation” flavors are based on the company’s original recipe. The company’s four co-founders started Bloody Revolution to fill what it saw as a gap in the marketplace, crafting unique flavors like wasabi ginger, ribeye, pickle zing and smoked habanero.
“We had the idea to do something totally different from what we’d ever seen,” said Chantz Hoover, Managing Partner of Bloody Revolution. “We decided to mix things up.” While the company’s more unique flavors have proven a hit among adventurous cocktail enthusiasts, Bloody Revolution’s standby original and smoked habanero offerings serve as a point of entry for bloody mary beginners. “Customers will try the original or the smoked habanero first,” Hoover said. “Retailers are telling us that they come back and say, ‘Hey, that was awesome, I’m ready to try one of these other flavors now.’”
Bloody Revolution’s offerings fit perfectly with another bloody mary trend: the bloody mary “bar within a bar” concept. Restaurants and bars across the country are setting up a bloody mary carts or mini-bars where customers can choose their own garnishes, extra spices and rimmers. While establishments typically offer only one or two mixes at the “front” of the cart, Bloody Revolution clients have found success when they choose to offer all five of the company’s mixes. The renowned Austin hotel, The Driskill, whose popular Saturday Bloody Mary bar had featured two housemade original mixes for 30 to 40 years, recently added three Bloody Revolution mixes, with impressive results.
“Their beverage director said, ‘This is going to take our bloody mary bar to another level,’” said Hoover. “And now, six months later, it’s gone really well for them. They’ve given us great feedback.” The company’s mixes have performed similarly well at other clients’ bloody mary bars.
The growing preference among consumers for natural and healthy products is also driving today’s bloody mary market. While the drink uses vodka or another type of alcohol, it also contains a healthy dose of tomato juice and often cayenne and other beneficial spices.
“I find that a lot of our customers are vegetarians,” said Mel Gonzalez, COO of Backyard Mary, a Huntington Beach, California company whose medium heat mix is sold in four western states. “They look at it as a liquid salad, basically as a meal in a drink.” Backyard Mary Bloody Mary Mixer, which carries just enough heat derived from horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and peppers, gives the drinker a light kick, yet it is still bright and flavorful. The mixer was a Platinum Best of Class winner at the Spirit International Prestige Awards.
Of course, some bloody marys are not so healthy, and consumers can thank the blogosphere in part for that. Spurred on in a “can-you-top-this” fashion, some restaurants, bloody mary bloggers and individual consumers are carving out a spot at the bar (or on the internet) by posting outrageous pictures of lavishly garnished bloody marys. A bacon cheeseburger, King Crab claw, and chicken and waffles are just a few of the indulgent garnishes that demonstrate how the bloody mary can serve as a “meal in a glass.”
While possibly alarming some fans of the classic recipe, elaborate versions of this classic cocktail may be contributing to an overall boost in the category. “I’d say the Bloody Mary is getting more popular,” said Shelley Buchanan, author of “The Drunken Tomato: A Definitive Guide to the Best Bloody Marys in Los Angeles and Orange County.” “Especially with everyone sharing all these pictures of the crazy garnishes, bloody marys are really coming out in social media a lot more, and they’re getting more attention that way.”
Read more about bloody marys here, about hot sauces here and about Bolder Beans here.
This story was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.