Mixing the perfect Bloody Mary is a subtle art. There’s no one authoritative recipe, and from a flavor chemist’s perspective, the blend of sweet, salty, sour and savory flavor compounds makes it “the world’s most complex cocktail.” As such, the Bloody Mary is ripe for innovation and ready for debate.
Last Monday evening at Over the Eight bar, 11 bartenders took up their horseradish, olives, and smoked meats to compete in the Brooklyn preliminary round of the Bloody Mary Mix Down. The competition is part of an annual series of events leading up to the NYC Hot Sauce Expo, which will be held in Greenpoint on April 23 and 24. Lisa Seabury of High River Sauces, who presented the event in collaboration with Stoli Vodka and Murph’s Bloody Mary Mix, began holding mix downs four years ago “to showcase the creativity of bartenders.” She believes that the Bloody Mary in particular is “highly personal, like the underwear you put on in the morning.” Indeed, the contestants’ drew their recipes from a host of diverse influences, often blending family history with their years of experience in bars across Brooklyn.
The rules for the Mix Down are simple: no store-bought mixes, and each drink must contain Stoli vodka. The contestants brought their own ingredients and had time to prep—chop herbs, assemble garnishes, etc.—beforehand. Then, three at a time, they took the stage and had ninety seconds to mix their Bloody Mary. A panel of judges evaluated the offerings according to three criteria: presentation, taste, and creativity.
The first three contestants to mix down were Marisa Cadena and Ken Ho, who co-own Lucky Luna restaurant in Greenpoint, and Matt Timms, who runs Gowanus-based The Takedowns, a series of cooking contests. Marisa and Ken may be a husband-and-wife food and drink making team in real life, but there are no teams in the Bloody Mary Mix Down, only winners and, uh, pretty darn good Bloody Mary makers who don’t happen to win.
The mood was festive. A crowd of supporters gathered to cheer on the bartenders as they furiously crushed, poured and mixed.
Marisa’s entry packed a flavorful blast of chili underscored with smoky notes. The tomato base was wonderfully fresh, and the whole thing was topped with an entire miniature tostada. Ken’s Bloody Mary was among the spiciest, a firestorm of sweet and sour with an elegant pickle garnish. Matt’s was more mild, briny, and tasted strongly of fresh herbs, particularly dill. For the garnish, he cut bread and pastrami into discs and skewered them through the straw to create a whimsical, many-layered tower of a sandwich.
Round 2 of the Mix Down featured Milan Wilkinson of Black Swan, Scott Lechner of Beast of Bourbon, and Terence Allen of Community Food & Juice in Morningside Heights (though Terence himself is a longtime Brooklynite).
With an expertly skewered garnish of shrimp, curlicue bacon, olives, and citrus rind, Milan’s Bloody Mary showcased seafood flavors, subtle heat, and a hint of garlic. Topped with an entire smoked rib, Scott’s recipe was dark and peppery, with strong accents of paprika and charcoal. In contrast, Terence’s was sweet and tangy, with a heat that settled at the back of the mouth. For the garnish, he arranged a gorgeous riot of fresh fruit, mint, and basil.
In Round 3, Laila Zahr of East River Bar, Dominique Corbie of 706 Bar, and Garrett Flanagan of Sweet Chick took the stage. An homage to her Middle Eastern heritage, Laila’s garnish incorporated falafel and a stuffed grape leaf. The drink, for which she used pickled red cabbage in lieu of horseradish, was mild and fresh, with notes of thyme and sumac. Dominique’s concoction, topped with a sparkly garnish, was fiery and smooth with a smoky heat from her homemade infused vodka. Garrett’s tasted peppery, with subtle sweet notes and a hint of cardamom.
Finally, Shantel Grant of Forrest Point and Andrew Porteus of Juno finished out the Mix Down. Shantel’s offering showcased the fresh shrimp flavors of the garnish and brought a pungent, pleasing horseradish heat. Andrew’s recipe capitalized on the tomato’s inherent sweetness and was full of robust olive flavors.
After the judges finished sampling the final round of drinks, they set about deliberating the relative merits of each entry. It must have been a challenging decision; the offerings were as impressive as they were diverse. But after a few minutes of debate, they came to a consensus.
Garrett was called to the stage for third place, Andrew came in second, and Marisa was named the first place contestant. She told Greenpointers that she drew her inspiration from her grandmother’s enchilada recipe. “Since she passed away two years ago, I’ve really been missing her and her cooking,” Marisa said. She often looks to her Mexican heritage for inspiration, winning third place in last year’s Brooklyn round of the Bloody Mary Mix Down with a chocolatey, mole-themed Bloody Mary. That drink, along with a Kimchee + Nori Bloody Mary, make frequent appearances on Lucky Luna’s brunch menu. Marisa worked on her recipe for this year’s competition for several months, experimenting with grilled versus charred tomatoes and tinkering with the precise proportions of spices.
Garrett, Andrew, and Marisa now advance to the finals, where they will compete against the other NYC preliminary round victors as well the winner of California’s Bloody Mary Mix Down. Only one winner will take home the $1,000 cash prize.
The remaining preliminaries will be held at Let Love Inn in Queens on March 9, Napper Tandy’s in Smithtown on Long Island on March 24, Charlie’s Bar & Kitchen in the Bronx on April 3, and The Blind Barber in Manhattan on April 4. It is too soon yet to say who will take home the grand prize, but it’s clear that there’s plenty of Bloody Mary mixing brilliance to be had in Brooklyn.