The good, the bad, and the weird of the bloody mary universe
Nobody knows who invented the bloody mary, or even if there was a Mary. It might have happened at Paris's Harry's New York Bar, or at New York’s 21 Club. It could be named for England’s first Queen Mary, or a movie star, or a mispronunciation of the name Vladimir. The drink is most commonly consumed at brunch, where it’s garnished with a 15-minute wait for a table. You can avoid the crowds and save money by making your own bloody marys at home. Pre-made bloody mary mixes are easy to use and have the added allure of making you feel like you’re in the first half of an ‘80s novel about vaguely glamorous alcoholics.
For this article, I tried 11 different bloody mary mixes, ranging from $2.60 to $16 per bottle. To eliminate variables, I used the same vodka (Stolichnaya) and limited add-ons to celery, olive, and lemon. What I found is that good bloody mary mixes can be had on any budget. Here are the best bloody mary mixes I found—plus some bad and weird ones.
Of all the bloody marys I tried, this one tastes the most like something you’d pay $10 for at a nice restaurant, which makes sense given that Employees Only is also a nice restaurant (and classic cocktail bar). Their mix is a strong, thick blend of Worcestershire, peppers, horseradish, and not too much caper. It’s spicy without being overpowering, and salty without making you reach for water. This was definitely my favorite. It might be hard to find (I bought it from the restaurant but you can currently purchase it via Premier Gourmet), but it’s worth the effort.
If you can’t locate a bottle of Employees Only (or want to use Amazon Prime), Lord Darnley’s is a good substitute. It’s not too sweet nor too smooth, and there’s a decent amount of spice. Pour this for a group of friends and everyone will be totally happy with it. At the same time, it lacks any strong characteristics, so no one’s going to be blown away. It’s a solid B+ choice, which is more than good enough. The one downside is that isn’t exactly cheap. A $10.99 bottle will give you enough mix for four drinks. Add in the vodka, that’s nearly $4 per glass.
V8’s bloody mary mix tastes like what you’d drink after a nice game of tennis at a retirement community, and I mean that as a compliment. There is nothing artisanal about this drink; it’s perfectly smooth and barely spicy. It feels nourishing. The taste probably isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s not trying to. This a normcore bloody mary. It’s $3.50 for a 46-ounce bottle, which rounds down to basically free. If you want a good, cheap bloody mary, this is your best bet. It’s also the only one of these mixes I could imagine drinking without vodka.
Unlike all my other mixes, Demitri’s is a bloody mary “seasoning”—basically a hyper-concentrated barbecue sauce-like syrup that you have to mix with tomato juice and vodka. A $15 bottle makes eight quarts, so this one’s also good on a budget. The mix is a little too vinegary for my liking, and I wish it were spicier, but it definitely gets the job done, which is really the point of at-home mixes. The best compliment I can give is that its Amazon description says they use it at Caesar’s Palace, P.F. Chang’s, and Red Robin.
Finest Call had cool ‘80s graphics on the front, and I hoped its taste would somehow remind me of the movie Cocktail. I was disappointed to find out that it mostly tasted like ketchup. I’ve always been disgusted by ketchup. I do not have many hard beliefs about drinks or anything else, but I do feel strongly that bloody marys shouldn’t taste like ketchup. I think most people would agree with this assertion. I’ve never encountered a bloody mary in a restaurant that bothered me, but several of the bottled mixes did. This one had an overpowering taste that reminded me of hot and sour soup, but with some vodka mixed in. Drinking it, I kept making that face from those “baby tries lemon for the first time” videos.
This one came in a jar, which I now realize is the go-to way of making things seem handmade. It tasted like cheap, spicy ketchup, and I couldn’t drink it. To double check that I wasn’t just being picky, I had my ketchup-liking girlfriend try it. Initially she said, “It’s like, not the worst thing ever,” but after few sips she amended that to “sure is icky” and dumped it out. A bit later she mentioned acid reflux.
Zing Zang describes itself as “Not just another bloody mary mix,” and I guess they're right. As with other bad mixes it has overpowering ketchup notes, but there’s also a uniquely strong celery presence. Zing Zang has the murky brown color and texture of contaminated tap water, with a “salsa at a Mexican restaurant in Michigan in 1995” flavor to match. On the plus side, it tastes better than it smells.
Depending on how strong you mix your drink (Tabasco recommends a 3:1 or 4:1 mix-to-vodka ratio), this either tastes like weak vodka or tomato-vodka bisque. It’s extremely watery, with minimal peppers and spices. The main problem, though, is that it doesn’t taste like Tabasco sauce. Why else would I buy Tabasco bloody mary mix? I came into this hoping for another normcore hit and was left disappointed. Tabasco’s mix isn’t exactly bad; it’s more like the bare minimum quality for a drink I’d finish if I had paid for it.
I assumed McClure’s would be the best because it comes in a jar. Unfortunately, because I do not like pickles, I didn’t realize that McClure’s is a fancy pickle company. McClure’s mix is sour and tastes like pickles. In fact, McClure's website recommends making your own version at home by combining the leftover brine from their pickles with tomato juice. If you love pickles you will love this, and if you don’t, you will not. I didn’t finish this one, but I blame myself, not McClure’s.
I found Bruce Julian’s bloody mary mix in a semi-fancy organic bodega in Brooklyn. The price—I paid $5.99 for a 25-ounce bottle—puts it in a nice place between the high-end stuff and the mass produced mixes. That said, I wouldn’t recommend you rush out and buy a bottle. It has a sickly sweet vinegar smell, but whereas some of the others tasted like ketchup, this one is closer to cocktail sauce. Also it contains horseradish, so there’s a sort of artificial wasabi aftertaste. It is gluten free, though.
If you’d rather be drinking marinara sauce than a bloody mary, here’s your chance. Of the 11 mixes I tried, Ocean Spray’s is by far the most viscous. It’s heavy on the salt and the garlic powder and easy on the spice. The bottle recommends adding Worcestershire and hot sauce, which went against the rules of this test, but probably would have made it a lot better.