The Bloody Mary's origin myths are as murky as the tomato juice it's made of. But cocktail historians generally agree that one storyline probably deviates the least from the truth.
This involves a bartender named Fernand "Pete" Petiot, who conceived of a rudimentary version in the early 1920s while working at the famed Harry's New York Bar in Paris. After Prohibition, Petiot brought the drink to Manhattan when he presided over the dapper King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel. For a time, the cocktail was rechristened the Red Snapper in a nod to more delicate American sensibilities. And while at the St. Regis, Petiot dolled up the tomato-juice concoction with various seasonings—horseradish, Tabasco Sauce, lemon juice and celery salt.
It caught on. A classic was born.
Of course, other theories persist. The most fanciful is that the Bloody Mary dates to the rule of ruthless Queen Mary I of England in the mid-1550s. "The tomato juice," according to the always-reliable Weekly World News, "represents the blood spilled, while the vodka, a 'firewater,' is symbolic of the queen's brutal means of executing the martyrs." The comedian George Jessel also claimed he invented the drink in 1939.
The Bloody Mary is not a spirits-driven drink—and that's part of the appeal, especially among weekend home bartenders. The tomato juice and vodka form a blank canvas on which one may create freehand artistry in the medium of spices—more horseradish or black pepper for some, a touch of clam juice (which for obscure reasons makes it a Bloody Caesar, and also increases the odds that the maker is Canadian) for others. It's a cocktail that doesn't require a jigger, rather just a modicum of culinary instincts. It is to fine mixology what Crock-Pot Chicken Supreme is to the Le Cordon Bleu.
One final note: the Bloody Mary is not an evening drink—those who consume it after the sun has set possess personality defects and are to be avoided. It is, however, a known antidote to the common hangover, and those who drink it in the morning are to be regarded as people of great knowledge and unerring discernment.