One of the most popular American libations was perfected during the Great Depression, named for the most unpopular queen of England, and -- possibly in memory of prohibition and its bad booze -- designed to taste the same whether it had liquor in it or not. It is one of the few standard cocktails that makes an ideal soft drink.

Refer, of course, to the Bloddy Mary.

One of the signs of the decline of civilization is the steady deterioration of the art of bartending. There are some places in my neighborhood where the bartenders -- callow youths who probably consume nothing but diet soft drinks themselves -- are so incompetent that I won't order anything but a beer or a glass of wine. Heaven save you if you call for a drink that requires any skill in its preparation.

But just as there is more to a martini than a hooker of cold gin in a glass, there is more to Bloody Mary than tomato juice laced with vodka and red pepper sauce. Indeed, the subject invites extended exploration.

The drink originated 60 years ago, we are told, when the lost Generation of World War I was regrouping in Harry's New York Bar, a Parisian cultural monument of the day. Commercialy canned tomato juice was new, an offspring of the war when soldiers in the trenches often jabbed a bayonet into a can of tomatoes, drank the liquid and made no effort to eat the pulp. A bayonet makes a wonderful can opener. No kitchen should be without one.

Fernand Petiot, the bartender (an American, despite the French-sounding name), tried to formulate a drink around this new and exotic stuff, tomato juice. I suspect he used both gin and vodka in his experiments. (In Europe you will still find an occasional Bloddy Mary made with gin. I do not like the effect.) Vodka became the liquor of choice because it added nothing to the taste. Many choose a Bloody Mary because they think it is a safe drink. tIt won't get them "tight" in a hurry the way martinis are reputed to do. Actually it is lower in alcohol than many other cocktails (this is one reason it will not can successfully -- you need more alcohol for it to keep well on the shelf). But there are other considerations. The tomato juice, for example, coats the stomach and slows the absorption of the alcohol. The alcohol in a martini zaps you immediately.

The original name for the concoction was the bucket of blood. That did not go over well right after the war. Too many customers, I surmise, had seen buckets of blood. Then it was called the red snapper. Maybe the fish objected. In any case, during the '30s, when drinking was once more legal in the United States and Petiot was mourning in New York at the St. Regis bar, he named it, one assumes, for Mary I, Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, who was known as Bloody Mary for her persecution of heretics and Protestants in her brief reign, 1953-58.

There are many different types of tomato, so there are many different types of tomato juice. Acidity, salt content, the ratio of water to pulp can vary substantially. But the main variation in the preparation of a Bloody Mary from one bar to the next, or one commercial mix to another, is the ratio of lime juice (which some simply omit) to Worcestershire sauce and the flavor of hot peppers. I am coming to prefer a dash of fresh ground black pepper to a hot pepper effect, and I like a dash of celery seed, too.

Actually, most of the time I skip the commercial mixes and buy clam and tomato juice mixed, a drink that contains no pepper flavor at all but the zesty appeal, at least for a summer day, of iodine from the sea. The Commercial Bloody Mary mixes all have too much red pepper sauce for my taste. (The best of them, made by Tabasco, is improved if cut by adding 20 percent more tomato juice.) This is not a hot, peppery drink. The only advantage of making it is to conceal inferior vodka that has a distinct taste or insipid tomato juice.

But the best Bloody Mary is a fresh one, made by a first-class bartender.