In Ernest: The Bloody Mary

By Gwynne Conlyn 16 August 2019

Photo and styling by Louis Pieterse

One of the many legends about Ernest Hemingway and his drinking was that he ultimately became an even bigger fan of the Bloody Mary because the booze couldn’t be detected on his breath.

Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares. If you want to know about culture, spend a night in its bars.” 

This much-quoted line is, of course, Ernest Hemingway’s. He wrote extensively about Paris in his 1964 memoir, A Moveable Feast (in French, Paris est une fête – Paris is a celebration). 

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

I was tracking Hem with a dog-eared book I found when I was there in 1998, Walks in Hemingway’s Paris. Clearly many others were as enthusiastic about the legendary writer as I was. On that trip (and many others), my quest was to find the perfect Bloody Mary – and I’ve made it my business to visit a Hemingway-favoured bar wherever there is one.

With the much-used book in hand, I went to one of Hem’s favourite hangouts, the café Les Deux Magot in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Formerly a silk merchant’s shop, it became a café in 1885.

When I visited, there were none of the writers and artists Hemingway enjoyed hanging out with: the likes of Man Ray, Joan Miro, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce.

The couple sitting next to me looked at my shabby travelling clothes and drank their tea with pinkies and noses in the air. It was mid-afternoon and, granted, the barman might have gone for a break: the Bloody Mary was unremarkable and also, clearly needed a rest. Big Hem would not have approved.

According to Paul Johnson’s book, Intellectuals (Hachette UK, October 2013), the 1899-born Hemingway would, by the 1940s, wake up at 4.30am, usually start to drink right away, and then write standing up, with a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other.

When Hemingway was diagnosed with diabetes in 1961, he was told by his doctors to give up drinking and his fourth wife Mary was holding him to it. One of the many legends about Hem and his drinking was that he then became an even bigger fan of the Bloody Mary because the booze couldn’t be detected on his breath.

Photo and styling by Louis Pieterse

Bloody Mary: The Hemingway

In 1947 Hemingway offered his friend Bernard Peyton the following advice:

To make a pitcher of Bloody Marys (any smaller amount is worthless) 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 vodka and an equal amount of chilled tomato juice. Add a table spoon full of Worcester Sauce. Lea and Perrins is usual but can use A1 or any good beef-steak sauce. Stirr”. (Hemingway used two rs).

Then add a jigger (45ml or 1½ oz) of fresh squeezed lime juice. Stirr. Then add small amounts of celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper. Keep on stirring and taste to see how it is doing. If you get it too powerful, weaken with more tomato juice. If it lacks authority, add more vodka. Some people like more lime than others.

For combating a really terrific hangover, increase the amount of Worcester sauce – but don’t lose the lovely colour.

I introduced this drink to Hong Kong in 1941 and believe it did more than any other single factor except perhaps the Japanese Army to precipitate the Fall of that Crown Colony.

After you get the hang of it you can mix it so it will taste as though it had absolutely no alcohol of any kind in it and a glass of it will still have as much kick as a really good big martini. Whole trick is to keep it very cold and not let the ice water it down. Use good vodka and good tomato juice. There is a vodka made in N.J. by Russian process that is ok. Can’t remember the name and don’t want to tout you onto the wrong one.” – Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Edited by Carlos Baker (pages 618-19).

Hemingway didn’t believe in garnishes and neither do I. There’s an excellent Bloody Mary to be found (drunk) at one of my favourite hangouts, The Blind Tiger in Parkview, Johannesburg. The drink comes with a wedge each of lemon and lime, stuck on the edge of the glass, two good olives and a spear of celery. Too much, since the drink itself doesn’t need all that namby-pamby decoration.

Photo and styling by Louis Pieterse

Standing on the shoulders of giants: Learning from Ernest

Not that I’d want to contradict the big man, but a really good slug of medium dry sherry and some strongly arresting horseradish sauce are excellent additions. Because it mixes better, I use Tabasco instead of cayenne.

I use my now not so secret ingredient: add to a bottle of Old Brown Sherry half a dozen or so hot chillies, snapped in half. The African Bird’s Eye packs a punch. Wait for a couple of weeks, if you can, then use it in the Bloody Mary. The balance of hot and sweet makes for a perfect marriage.

The Bloody Mary’s presentation often includes a stick of celery. However, like the man himself, I prefer celery salt – unlike sea salt, it adds an interesting dimension to the drink.

To avoid almost certain death in the (Morning After’s) afternoon, perhaps alter Hemingway’s mucho-macho, blow-for-blow vodka/tomato juice ratio.

For a possibly less authoritative but equally reviving big round of Bloody Marys, you will need:

1 part vodka – for example, a 750ml bottle
¼  part medium-dry sherry (or chilli-infused Old Brown, à la moi)
2 parts tomato juice (100% tomato juice) – for example, 1.5 litres.
Tabasco sauce (if you don’t have the chilli sherry)
Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce
Horseradish sauce – a good strong one
Lemon juice
Celery salt
Black pepper

Photo and styling by Louis Pieterse

The three-key combo – hot, sharp and spicy – that unlocks a brighter Morning After

Hot. I think of Tabasco as the “Red Ambulance” rushing to revive a possibly dulled palate.

Sharp. I’m sold on the uplifting, citrussy-snap of the lemon juice and it’s refreshing zing.

Spicy. Worcester sauce is the smouldering bass-beat that slows it all down and helps smooth out the vodka’s jittery wrinkles. And I definitely agree with Ernest on this one: “For combating a really terrific hangover, increase the amount of Worcester sauce.”

Six steady steps towards restoration:

Step 1

Mix the vodka, sherry (or Old Brown), tomato juice and ice in your “good-sized pitcher”. Now you’re ready to start the “add-and-stirr” (with two rs as per Hem) process of building a Bloody Mary.

Step 2

You need enough lemon juice to cut through the thick-ish savour of the tomato juice. Add-and-stirr… Taste, repeat if necessary.

Step 3

Now add the Worcester. Keep adding the sauce until you know it’s there. Add-and-stirr. Taste…

Step 4

Splash in a few initial drops of Tabasco. Test its “burn-appeal” and increase with a few more drops if necessary. Do remember, though, that the sherry now has the chilli-kick.

Step 5

Season to taste – with the celery salt, black pepper and horseradish. You want a distinct taste of celery but just a hint of the pepper and horseradish. Add-and-stirr.

Step 6

Pour into chilled tumblers and stir in a juicily-squeezed slice of lemon.

Ice in the glasses? If you go for Ernest’s one-to-one vodka/tomato juice equation, then some additional ice in the glass may be a wise move, but, for him, ice was coolant not dilutant.

Caveat emptor: curtail your morning-after drinking – you don’t want to wake up on Monday with yet another hangover. It’s a bloody good cocktail (whether you have a hangover or not). DM


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