Order The Bloody Beast at Sobelman’s Pub & Grill in Milwaukee and you’ll get a classic Bloody Mary cocktail, garnished with an array of pickled items—asparagus, mushroom, a Brussels sprout, and a piece of Polish sausage—plus a celery stalk and skewers of cheese, tomato, shrimp, and lemon. Oh, and a cheeseburger slider, some bacon-wrapped jalapeño cheese balls, and bacon-wrapped chicken with bourbon sauce. Also, an entire fried chicken. The cocktail/hefty brunch meal costs $60, and owner Dave Sobelman says the bar sells 5 to 10 of them a week, and more at Sunday brunch in the summertime.
The Bloody Mary didn’t start this way, according to Jeffrey Pogash, who literally wrote the book on the drink and runs a drinks consultancy and catering company The Cocktail Guru with his son Jonathan. The first published recipe for the classic combo of vodka, tomato juice, and spices comes from 1941, when Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion credited the drink to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. Gaige’s recipe doesn’t specify a garnish, but photos from the time reveal that it was just a simple lemon wedge. (The King Cole Bar actually called the drink a Red Snapper—and still does today—perhaps, Pogash says, to differentiate its version from other early Bloody Marys, or perhaps because St. Regis owner John Jacob Astor thought the name was vulgar.)
After that, the original “unusual” garnish was the now-familiar celery stalk. That originated at Chicago’s Ambassador Hotel in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. “That’s about it as far as tracing the history of Bloody Mary garnish,” Pogash says—until the 2010s. “About seven years ago, I was asked to judge a cocktail contest at the first Bloody Mary Festival in Brooklyn,” he says. “That’s when I first noticed the explosion of strange garnishes—a cheeseburger on a stick, a whole bunch of other things, to the point where you couldn’t even get your mouth on the glass to taste it.”
And for that, we have Sobelman’s Pub & Grill to thank. Opened in 1999, the Milwaukee establishment started off as “a little corner bar that catered to the locals,” according to Dave Sobelman, who owns the bar with his wife, Melanie. “I didn’t want a run-down dive bar and wanted something better. We started making better burgers and better Bloody Marys.” At first, the Bloodys were only sold for Sunday brunch, with a celery stick and a shrimp as garnish, but that wasn’t enough for Dave. “I thought, ‘Why should I wait until Sunday? I should do this every day,’” he says. “That led to adding more and more. I was like a guy working on a motorcycle or car, just looking for more stuff to add.”
The original Sobelman’s happened to be next to pickle-maker Bay View Packing, which carries a wide variety of pickled vegetables, eggs, meat, and more. That led to Bloody Marys topped with arrays of pickles, which started to get attention in Milwaukee. Other local bars began adding their own wild garnishes—AJ Bombers, for example, serves its Bloody with a burger, bacon, cheese, pickles, and a beer—and something of a garnish arms race began. Sobleman’s now offers six different Bloody Mary options, each with its own assortment of toppings; and the Bloody Beast has been on the menu since 2014.
From there, the trend spread nationwide. Buffalo & Bergen, a Washington, D.C. restaurant specializing in knishes and New York-style bagels was an early adopter, creating the Lox’d and Loaded in 2012. That’s a Bloody Mary garnished with—you guessed it—an entire lox and bagel sandwich, complete with cream cheese, red onion, and capers.
As a destination where day-drinking is commonplace, Las Vegas is another center for wild Bloodys. The house special at Favorite Bistro includes two sliders, two chicken wings, two slices of bacon, a fried pickle, and onion rings, while the Big Bloody Bull Rider at Virgil’s Real Barbecue comes with a skewer stacked high with house-smoked meats.
The trend has even come to Canada, where the Bloody Caesar—made with Clamato (yep, that’s tomato and clam broth) instead of plain tomato juice—is something of a national obsession. Score on Davie, which has locations in Vancouver and Toronto, offers nine different Caesars, including ones topped with an egg sandwich, corn dogs, or fried mac and cheese balls. Its $60 “Big Boys” even include dessert with their multicourse meals: The Checkmate has a pulled pork cheese dog, slider, full-sized burger, wings, onion rings, a fried Cornish hen, and a brownie, while the Grande includes a fried chicken sandwich, fried-tortilla-shell nacho bowl, a burger, corn dogs, mac and cheese balls, and a slice of Nutella pie. (A complex architecture of wooden skewers keeps everything separate, and ensures that none of the garnishes get wet.)
So why is the Bloody Mary the drink that gets topped with an entire meal rather than, say, the martini? Part of it must be the drink’s reputation as a hangover cure. Both greasy food and the tomato-based drink are said to relieve the effects of overdoing it, and both are popular for brunch. For Pogash, it also has to do with the drink’s adaptability. “I believe that the Bloody Mary itself is like a tabula rasa. It’s a blank slate, left open to interpretation. There was never an official recipe, so many different ingredients are used,” he says. “Restaurants started competing with each other to bring people in, and then things just started to go overboard.”
Pogash himself isn’t a fan of the pile of garnishes, preferring something very simple: a lime wedge or wheel. Despite being an expert on the cocktail, he describes it as “such a plain, simple, and in many ways lackluster drink” and prefers to spice his up at home with V8 Vegetable Juice and tequila or even Scotch as the base spirit (making it technically a Bloody Maria or Bloody Scot). And definitely no burgers, corn dogs, or fried chicken.