I do enjoy a good Bloody Mary. And while the International Bartenders Association sets specific parameters regarding the composition of Brunch’s Best Friend, its interpretations and modifications are almost as numerous as the bartenders who serve it. No wonder it’s been called the world’s most complex cocktail.
This past Sunday, Scala’s Bistro in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel played host to the 2nd Annual Sunday, Bloody Sunday competition. Bartenders from restaurants and hotels all over San Francisco unveiled their signature twists on this classic recipe in the hopes of claiming the title of this year’s Best Bloody Mary. Convention was thrown out the window as nine very different cocktails were served to an eager crowd of thirsty patrons and a panel of judges. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve sampled more than my fair share over the years (enough to be in the process of finalizing my Top 5 Bloodys in SF) and was eager to cast my vote (by dropping a Sir Francis Drake bottlecap into the appropriate vase) for a worthy candidate. Here, then, are all nine drinks ranked on my scorecard worst to first.
9. “Indian Summer” by Kate Bolton of Maven
I’m not exactly a purist when it comes to this cocktail, but I do have certain expectations. Like tomato. Like spice. Savory and pickle-y. This strawberry wine cooler that somehow managed to sneak into the contest by virtue of a splash of “tomato water” and perhaps a dash of “aged balsamic vinegar” was about as close to a Bloody Mary as my morning coffee. It was a decent enough summer beverage, and I didn’t mind fishing out the honey-kissed strawberry slices floating around in my plastic cup, but… “not a Bloody” is all I really had to write on my scorecard.
8. “The Smoke Signal” by Vincent Toscano of Rye
The only Bloody Mary sample I didn’t bother finishing. Tasted like that abominable liquid smoke chemical that home-jerky enthusiasts swear by. Not even the pickled radish garnish could salvage my interest in this campfire-in-a-cup.
7. “Sang Bleu” by Kristin Almy of Grand Cafe
At the conclusion of the judging, we still had about half an hour of drinking on the itinerary, and I reached for a second helping of Almy’s chartreuse creation. Not because I was in love with the drink… but because my favorites were dry, and the other few I would have preferred had long lines. There were at least a dozen cups of this drink racked up on Almy’s bar, and the green zebra tomato juice base with touch of vermouth actually made for a decent enough cocktail. With zero spice to speak of, however, it wasn’t going to crack my top 5.
6. “Cara Mia” by Shaher Misif of Cantina
Crushed ice, vodka paired with Campari and Fernet Branca, olives and fresh lime. In my eyes, this Italian-inspired twist on the Bloody sounded exciting. In Sherice’s estimation, “everything I don’t want in my Bloody Mary.” And she was right. Not only did this fail to capture what I enjoy about my favorite morning cocktail, it didn’t even do justice to two of my favorite Italian liqueurs. Somehow, however, this is the drink that won the judges’ award at the end of the day. Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso of Cotogna, who won last year’s competition with what I agreed was far and away the best drink in the contest, served as a judge this year and complimented Misif for “remembering what makes a Bloody Mary: salty and something pickled.” Clearly, we have different ideas about what “makes” a Bloody Mary. It also might have helped that one of the judges was a booze rep for Campari USA. No honor among drunks.
To his credit, Misif seemed just as surprised to be receiving the award as I (and most of the crowd) was. When pulled to the mic by the obnoxious host with the affected English accent, his acceptance speech was little more than, “I just wanted to get everybody druuuunk!”
5. “Mediterranean Mary” by Carlo Splendorini of Michael Mina
Strawberries showed up again in this similarly summer-themed Mary, but this time the mixologist had the good sense to balance the sweet with yuzu, spicy oil, and, thankfully, tomato. A lack of savory sparkle and any kind of significant spice, however, relegated this drink to the light cocktail category, and not the zesty flavor explosion I’ve come to expect from a good Bloody Mary.
4. “Bright-Eyed Filly” by Claire Sprouse of Rickhouse
The Filly was the first among the entries that I would willingly order and enjoy. The spice and the pickled flavor was generated from the base, made from spicy pickled cherry tomatoes. The balance was good, the flavor unique but not completely out of left field. The one mark against the cocktail was the unnecessary splash of sparkling apple cider that topped off each cup.
3. “Sir Francis Bacon” by Jason Bartlett of Scala’s Bistro
Bartlett prepared his own bacon and rosemary infused vodka for this cocktail. The ground-up jalapeno sent the spice off the charts, which was great for me, but hurt his chances in Sherice’s estimation. Frozen chunks of this cocktail chilled the drink so that as the Bloody Mary warmed up, the drink wouldn’t be diluted by ice. A nice touch, but when dealing with hundreds of little plastic cups with barely more than five sips, the end result was hundreds of little plastic cups with unmelted blobs of tomato-y concoction. I’m a big garnish fan. Arm a Bloody with an appropriate array of snacks, and I’m sold. This guy had the good sense to toothpick gherkins to hunks of bacon used during the infusion. A full glass of the Sir Francis might even rival The Bloody Bull at Harry’s Bar, one of favorite bacon-soaked Bloodys.
2. “Sunday Cruz-in” by David Cruz of the Starlight Room
This is the drink that landed Sherice’s bottlecap-vote and, to be honest, almost claimed mine as well. The best example of a traditional Bloody Mary in the competition, Cruz’s cocktail was the only one to include worcestershire and tabasco. Judging by sight estimates, this cocktail was a close runner-up to the eventual People’s Choice award, which made sense, since his bar had the longest line all afternoon. Bacon vodka and heirloom tomatoes formed the base, but perhaps it was a bit too conventional for a panel of judges eyeing innovation (or, in the case of the actual winner, a quick way to get druuuuunk).
1. “Delta Morning” by Kevin Dowell & Andrew Marks of Lazslo, Foreign Cinema
The winner of the fan vote was also the winner on my own scorecard, which surprised me, to be honest, since it challenged what I had previously assumed was a cardinal Bloody Mary requirement. Instead of a tomato base, this drink was built around a corn-carrot puree (touched with a splash of tomato). All the ingredients (save the harissa paste), which included fresno chiles, beans, and mustard seed, were picked fresh and locally from the Sacramento Delta valley. The bartenders pickled their own veggies and included ample garnish in each and every cup. Well played.
The owners of Foreign Cinema had promised to make the Delta Morning the featured brunch cocktail for the coming months if the lads won the competition. Here’s hoping that my vote (along with the majority of Sunday’s samplers) provides enough incentive to crack their menu. Nice work guys.