Loved by brunching moms and hungover riff-raff, the Bloody Mary remains a classic and polarizing cocktail. Everyone thinks they have the ultimate recipe. Originally called a “Bucket of Blood,” the concoction was invented in 1921 at the New York Hotel by French bartender Fernand Petiot. The ingredients were vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, salt, and Tabasco — still considered essential components. It didn’t take long for the Bloody Mary to develop a reputation as a hair-of-the-dog hangover cure. The remedy makes sense: Alcoholics get few essential nutrients, so a Sunday morning Bloody is more than just headache relief, it’s a multivitamin.
But if you’re a fan of the drink, you know there’s a big difference between a great Bloody Mary and one that’s underseasoned and garnished with a wilted piece of celery and bottled olives. As a weekend bartender (location undisclosed) and former professional cook and baker, I’ve developed a pretty good palate. I tasted fourteen local Bloodys and chose the six best for your reading and sipping pleasure.
Note: I did not order any Bloodys made with rice vodka. I reviewed only bars and restaurants with full bars. To avoid any conflict of interest, the bar where I work is not on the list. And due to time and cost limitations, I had to keep my “research” limited to Grass Valley and Nevada City. Below are the rating criteria.
Nothing is worse than paying Bay Area prices for a garbage Bloody. Though cost isn’t a major factor, I felt that an expensive Bloody with a plastic-bottle taste should be scored lower. Dive bars can make good Bloodys, and so can swanky restaurants. But If you’re charging $14, it better taste damned good.
Unlike most cocktails, a good Bloody will check all the boxes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, savory and spicy. When one dominates, the cocktail suffers. An average Bloody consists of half a dozen ingredients, so getting the proper balance can be a challenge.
From a homely celery-stick-and-olive combo to a pretentious prosciutto-and-pickled cucumber tower, Bloody garnishes can surprise — and disappoint. Bloody lovers can easily recall the most outrageous and gaudy garnish they’ve ever seen. They can also tell when a garnish is just lipstick on a pig. An outrageous garnish doesn’t always mean a higher score. As with any cocktail, the garnish has to complement the drink.
213 W Main St., Grass Valley
Recently reopened with new private booths, Cirino’s bar has an added element of privacy to complement the warm and moody bar. More so than any local establishment, Cirino’s has marketed its Bloodys for years, selling its mix by the bottle at local stores. But is the hype justified? Ehhhh — not really. Cirino’s Bloody is a little light on spice and seasoning. It goes down quick and is served with a beer back. The garnish is simple: pickled green bean, olive, pepperoncini and a lime wedge. A slightly above-average Bloody with a wonderful PR team.
235 Commercial St., Nevada City
As befits a grimy rock bar, this Bloody is spicy as hell. It has liberal amounts of black pepper and horseradish that deliver a bite that shoots straight up the nose. The garnish is a standard olive and pepperoncini combo. It could use a dash more Worcestershire and celery salt to balance out the spice. After a significant amount of pain, I got through it — and enjoyed it.
The Mine Shaft
222 Broad St., Nevada City
If you close your eyes and picture a dive bar, you’re likely to conjure something like the Mine Shaft: Low ceilings, cantankerous old-timers, and plenty of kitschy bikini girl posters. The Mine Shaft Bloody is cheap and easy to drink, sweet and heavy on the herbs. Spice is mild and complementary to the house mix, though the heavy Worcestershire might be a bit much for some. Extra point for the vastly underrated pickled asparagus and carrot garnish, which go well with the cornichon pickles and olive.
158 Mill St., Grass Valley
Gary’s is loud and packed with flirtatious Baby Boomers, and their Bloody is delicious. Made fresh and served with a beer back, the cocktail tastes pretty much how a classic Bloody should taste. The tomato is rich without overpowering the spices, and there’s just enough Worcestershire to add depth and bring out the sweetness of the tomato. The horseradish is a little much, but I like some bite to complement the spice. It’s garnished with a dill spear, raw carrot, olive, lime wedge and celery stick. Easy-drinking and well made.
Tofanelli’s Gold Country Bistro
302 W Main St., Grass Valley
Unpretentious and dependable, Tofanelli’s hasn’t changed much over the years. The same art has been hanging in the lobby for a decade, and the bar is decorated with a mix of historical photos and Italian countryside-inspired murals. The Tofanelli’s Bloody is built for mass consumption. It’s garnished with a veggie medley of celery, pickled onion, pickled green bean, olive, pepperoncini and tomato, and served with a salt-and-pepper rim. The pour is heavy and the price is reasonable. Casual Bloody lovers won’t find anything wrong with this drink, but a lack of foundation to the mix is noticeable. A few more dashes of Tabasco and celery salt would go a long way in improving a quality Bloody.
315 Broad St, Nevada City
I’m just as surprised as you. Nevada City’s loud and rowdy singles bar has outdone itself. The McGee’s Bloody is delicious. Made fresh with a rounded and savory flavor, a heap of Beaver horseradish, shaken hard, real lemon juice, and balanced spice — all the small elements that build a great drink. The garnish is a standard olive, peperoncini, and pickled onion combo. It’s nearly perfect and cheap enough for a second, though a more creative garnish would give this Bloody the window dressing it deserves.