20110318-SPREAD-1-250In most classic cocktails, the star ingredient is the liquor. But the Bloody Mary revolves around its non-alcoholic flavors: tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It’s also got quite a rep — as both a hangover cure and the country- clubbiest drink ever mixed.

In her 1980 “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Lisa Birnbach endorses “bloodies” as “the number one prep drink,” best sipped while cranking James Taylor and nibbling on brunch, which Birnbach claims was, “invented to give people an excuse to drink during the day.”

Still, no two Marys are alike (nor does every “bloody” imbiber own a yacht). With a storied history and a globe-trotting recipe, the tangy vodka cocktail is infinitely customizable — and as easy to stir up at home as it is to quaff over eggs Benedict at your favorite H Street haunt.

“A Bloody Mary gives you a punch of flavor with a meal,” says Josh Hahn, co-owner of Logan Tavern (1423 P St. NW; 202-332-3710), which has a Bloody Mary menu with a dozen-plus options for garnishes and mix-ins (including pickled ginger, asparagus and beef jerky). “In the morning, after a long weekend night, it just hits the spot for a lot of people.”

By turns salty and spicy with hints of sweet, the Bloody Mary is famed as a “hair of the dog” hangover remedy. To maximize Marys’ restorative properties, embrace the spiciness of the tomato juice base and the kick from the vodka, recommends Alvin Seymore, head bartender at D.C.’s St. Regis Hotel (923 16th and K streets NW; 202-638-2626). “The secret to a good Bloody Mary is that tingle after you swallow, the slight burn,” Seymore says. “A good Bloody Mary arouses the senses. You may still have that hangover, but you’ll be able to function because you woke up.”

Most accounts claim bartender Fernand Petiot invented the drink at Harry’s Bar in Paris in the 1920s. He brought the recipe — equal parts vodka and tomato juice, plus fresh lemon juice and a few dashes each of Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, black pepper and salt — with him when he moved to the United States in 1934. The “Red Snapper,” as it became known, was served at the St. Regis Hotel’s King Cole Bar in New York. Before long, the cocktail took on its more common name, supposedly inspired by Chicago’s “Bucket of Blood Club” (a now-defunct tavern known for its violent bar brawls) and a woman named Mary.

The versatile drink also travels well, soaking up regional variations like so many inebriated brain cells. “The Bloody Mary is an iconic drink, yet it can vary in many ways,” says Rico Wisner, mixologist at Rouge (1315 16th St. NW; 202-232-8000). “It’s special but still familiar.” Take, for example, the Chesapeake Mary, which stars Old Bay seasoning instead of pepper. Wisner likes to rim Bloody Mary glasses with a mixture of Old Bay and kosher salt, though the drink can also be garnished (or blended) with celery salt.

And speaking of celery, DIYers should use fresh, crunchy sticks or skip the veggie altogether. There are many more garnish options, from okra pickles to olives (see sidebar, below).

Tomato juices and Bloody Mary bases abound, but look for something you’d sip even if it didn’t get mixed with liquor. A thick liquid is important: “It needs to hold up after you add ice and alcohol to it,” Wisner says. Rouge (which treats overnight guests to complimentary Bloody Marys and cold pizza on weekend mornings) uses Sacramento brand tomato juice, which Wisner says tastes fresh, not “stewed.” He also likes V-8 juice (as does prep pro Birnbach!) because it contains other veggie juices. And take care with the pepper; a coarse grind will give a gritty taste.

Finally, there’s the age-old debate: Vodka or gin? Many believe this decision comes down to personal preference. St. Regis’ D.C. hotel votes in favor of gin with its Capitol Mary, made with Tanqueray Tan gin and topped with olives and a shrimp. Still, if you’re a traditionalist, you might want to stick with vodka — any brand, since the alcohol’s flavor is masked by the tomatoes and spices. And if you must sip one old-style, Biff, break out your Lacoste polo and Joni Mitchell cassettes before imbibing.

Pleasurable ‘Pain’
Horseradish gives Toigo Farms’ “Birth of Pain” Bloody Mary mix its sizzling finish ($7.50, Fresh Farm markets).

Mary Goes Greek
Jumbo garlic-stuffed Divina olives make savory, satiating garnishes ($6, area Whole Foods stores).

Specialty Seasonings
Gourmet salts — including spicy chili salt, left, and tangy lime, right — perk up cocktail rims ($10, Limetreecove.com).

Southern Style
Pickled okra from Low Country Produce adds regional charm ($9, Hill’s Kitchen, 713 D St. SE).

20110318-SPREAD-2-250Recipe File: Bleeding Mary
In his “Sriracha Cookbook,” Randy Clemens puts an Asian spin on the Bleeding Mary (in which frozen cubes of the mix melt into the vodka). “Rooster sauce” “adds a good kick” to a traditional base, Clemens says.

– 12 fluid ounces (1 1/2 cups) premium Bloody Mary mix
– 2 teaspoons Sriracha
– 4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
– Celery salt
– 12 fluid ounces (1 1/2 cups) premium vodka
– 4 celery sticks
– Freshly ground black pepper

In a medium measuring cup, combine the Bloody Mary mix, Sriracha and Worcestershire sauce. Pour the mixture into an ice cube tray with large ice cube compartments, making eight equal cubes. Place the tray in the freezer for at least two hours to freeze solid. When you are ready to serve, rim each glass with celery salt. Place two prepared ice cubes in each glass and fill with 3 fluid ounces of room-temperature vodka. Garnish with a celery stick and freshly ground black pepper. Swirl your drink with the celery to help get the blood flowing.

Recipe courtesy “The Sriracha Cookbook” ($17, Ten Speed Press)
Photos by Marge Ely/Express; Abby Greenawalt; Ten Speed Press