My search for London's best Bloody Mary happened completely by accident. I was out one evening and couldn't think what I wanted to drink, and perhaps feeling a little overloaded on sugar, I opted for the least sweet thing on the menu. From that point onwards I would order a Bloody Mary wherever I went. It acted as a benchmark for the bar, an indication of creative vision and attention to detail.
A Bloody Mary occupies a place in the cocktail spectrum that I'm particularly fond of: it's completely savoury. Like my all time favourite, the dirty martini, a Bloody Mary is a great way to enjoy a drink which won't coat your teeth in sickly sweet juice and syrups - nor be so strong as to blow your socks off. The combination of tomato and lemon juice, Worcester and Tabasco sauces, salt, pepper and vodka allows for a long drink which can be sipped and enjoyed over time.
Unfairly associated as an exclusively brunch-time drink to stave off a hangover, a Bloody Mary can be enjoyed at any time of the day. In fact, I view it as a drink to be served alongside lunch or dinner, rather than simply something to make amends with the following day.
I made it my mission to find the thickest, punchiest Bloody Mary in town. I became a connoisseur very quickly - light through the glass when held up, too much ice, or lack of kick would all earn a black mark. My quest was magically assisted when I was invited to be a judge at the Russian Standard Vodka Bloody Mary Competition, held at Boisdale Canary Wharf.
Ten of London's most prestigious bars were given the opportunity to send their finest barman (and it always is a man, now that I think about it) to showcase their interpretation of the classic drink.
The first of the contestants, and my personal favourite, was Bystrik Uko from the Bassoon Bar in the Corinthia Hotel, who stuck close to a traditional recipe, but with an emphasis on fresh ingredients such as garlic and chilli. This punchy first offering, served alongside smoked fish (a surprisingly successful combination) set the bar high for the remainder of the competition.
A low point was Ernest Reid who represented the home team at Boisdale. Introducing his presentation by saying "I don't like Bloody Marys" preceded an unimaginative and clumsy demonstration which I'm certain does not reflect the group's offerings.
Infinitely more inspired offerings included Californian chef BC Hoffman, who represented the NOLA cocktail bar in Shoreditch, and took the brunch connotation to the next level by creating a BLT themed spectacle. More of a meal than a drink, it was based around wheat and bacon infused vodka with roasted tomato and habanero - garnished with crispy bacon of course. Served alongside a toasted sandwich, it would certainly be the pick of the litter to restore one's faith in humanity the morning after the night before.
Also of note was Shoreditch House's Thom Solberg who acknowledged the Russian theme of the contest by creating a beetroot juice based drink with kefir, dill and red wine. While not strictly a Bloody Mary, his borscht-like concoction was refreshing and tasty.
The judges selected Adam McGurk from Hawksmoor as the overall winner of the contest, who's spicy and thick creation featured mustard, garlic, paprika and cayenne pepper. What set his apart from the others were fresh mustard and celery mixed into a thick sieved passata base.
Alongside me on the judging panel was the thoroughly charming Brian Silva, former bar manager at The Connaught and Rules Restaurant, who now heads up the bar team at Balthazar in Covent Garden. By sheer coincidence, I'd been there a few days earlier to enjoy oysters and a Bloody Mary. Even after the competition, the Balthazar offering has remained my overall favourite Bloody Mary in town. Brian shared the recipe with me:
Squeeze 2 small lemon wedges into a chilled mixing glass. Add a pinch of pepper and 3-4 dashes of green Tabasco sauce, grate fresh horseradish directly into the mixing glass and add Worcestershire sauce. Fill the mixing glass with ice, add 50ml vodka and a mixture of passata and V8 juice. Peel the edges off a celery stalk and split the middle for garnish. Place a metal shaker cup over the mixing glass and shake very briefly (4-5 shakes). Strain into a frozen highball glass. Garnish with the celery stalk.
Best in show: Hawksmoor (Adam McGurk)
Best of the rest: Balthazar, Covent Garden (Brian Silva)
Best outside of London: The Gunton Arms, Norwich - admire the Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst artwork alongside a stellar Bloody Mary which comes in at under £5.