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What is the real story behind the Bloody Mary?

From Paris in the Roaring Twenties to post-prohibition, the classic Bloody Mary is a true tale of two cities.

The world's most famous tomato juice-based cocktail is so popular, at least two illustrious Parisian bars claim paternity. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the reality is a tad murkier than the myth. Still, one thing seems clear: the Bloody Mary adventure was born in Paris and perfected in America.

The most beguiling Bloody Mary story goes that Ernest Hemingway, installed as per usual at the bar of one of the French capital's most glamorous hotels, requested a cocktail that didn't look, or most importantly, smell like one, so as to avoid the ire of his doctor and, more to the point, his wife Mary. The book 'To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,'* recounts how the head barman at the Ritz helped Hemingway drink on the sly in the Fifties, claiming ownership of the Bloody Mary along the way.

Unfortunately, the dates just don't work: Hemingway wrote the recipe down in a letter to a friend Bernard Peyton a decade earlier, in 1941:

“Take a good-sized pitcher and put in it as big a lump of ice as it will hold. (This is to prevent too-rapid melting and watering of our product.). Mix a pint of good Russian [sic] vodka and an equal amount of chilled tomato juice. Add a tablespoon full of Worcester [sic] sauce… Stirr [sic]. Then add a jigger of fresh squeezed lime juice. Stirr [sic]. Then add small amounts of celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper… If you get it too powerful, weaken it with tomato juice. If it lacks authority add more vodka. Some people like more lime than others. For combatting a really terrific hangover increase the amount of Worcester sauce — but don’t lose the lovely color.”*

It all sounds like a fine romance, however the most credible genesis is set in the Twenties, two decades before Ernest married Mary, and three decades before his doctor urged him to ease up on the drink.

By popular consensus, it was Fernand 'Pete' Petiot, a bartender at The New York Bar (later Harry's New York Bar, near the Place Vendôme in Paris) who created the cocktail. (Harry's Bar, which counted Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth and the Duke of Windsor among its loyal clientele, also lays claim to the Side Car and the White Lady).

In the mid-1920s, vodka was the exotic newcomer in town, although its initial reception was tepid. Tasteless, even insipid by comparison to period favorites like gin and whiskey, vodka and its sidekick, caviar, had washed up in Paris along with waves of anti-communist White Russian émigrés.

Petiot, it is said, spent a year trying to design ways of working with the new ingredient. Meanwhile, Americans in Paris flocked to Harry's New York Bar to indulge in the kind of revelry denied them by the Prohibition back home.

One evening, the French barman asked a customer's opinion about what to name his latest invention. The customer, reported to be the American entertainer Roy Barton, fondly recalled a waitress at The Bucket of Blood, a favorite watering hole back home in Chicago. A competing tale, recounted by the descendants of Harry's Bar founder Harry MacElhone, holds that the cocktail was named after a woman who used to while away hours at the bar, waiting for a boyfriend who never showed. Other muses are said to have been the Hollywood silent movie star Mary Pickford, or Queen Mary I, whose prosecution of Protestants in mid-16th century England earned her that moniker.

Whatever the true story, various re-christenings never caught on and the name stuck. But the Bloody Mary we know today — an eternal favorite for boozy brunches and 'hair-of-the-dog' mornings after – comes courtesy of New York .

By the Thirties, Petiot had picked up and moved to the Big Apple, where he became head barman at the St. Regis hotel. The Bloody Mary was too tame for local tastes, so regulars asked him to jazz things up a bit. He obliged with a dash of black pepper and cayenne, Worcestershire sauce and lemon.

And with that little flourish, another Parisian invention - just like the sportswear of that era - became an American classic.

*From 'To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion' by Philip Greene, Perigee Penguin © 2015.