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The Independent Culture
THE perfect Bloody Mary is the Holy Grail of cocktail-making. You may never find it in a lifetime of searching, but you'll certainly have some great adventures along the way.

In the bad old days of the British Bloody Mary, decent examples were found only in London hotels catering for rich Americans. BMs in pubs and most restaurants meant a bottle of tomato juice, a squirt of warm vodka, and a stale ice cube the size of a sugar lump. If you asked them for Worcester sauce, they would add too much or too little. Tabasco was used in quantities strong enough to strip paint.

British bartenders have come a long way since then. While we may not equal the happy state of American cocktail fiends, who can order with confidence at just about any place more upmarket than a garage, good BMs are much easier to find now than a decade ago.

The subject of Mary-making generates some of the most passionate arguments in the world of strong drink. This much is agreed: you need vodka, tomato juice, Worcester sauce and chilli sauce. And there, the consensus ends. Pepper, yes - but what kind and how much? Salt, too, is agreed, but it can be plain, seasoned, or celery. Lemon, sure: but juice or a slice? Must we use Tabasco, or will other chilli sauces do just as well?

When you enter the sphere of optional extras, the debate starts to get even more heated. Soy sauce, a stick of celery, American innovations like V-8 or Clamato juice all have their loyal enthusiasts and their sworn enemies.

After decades of drinking Bloody Marys, I subscribe to no orthodoxy about how to make them. I've had dozens of sublime specimens each made a different way.

There is just one golden rule: a BM should have balance. It should be spicy but not scorching, tart but not mouth-puckering. And most important - there should be a high ratio of vodka to tomato juice. Cocktails should whet the appetite, not kill it; and tomato juice is filling. Make your Marys strong and small.

As long as you aim for balance, any amount of experimentation is permissible. I've recently been using Encona Caribbean Everyday Season-ing. Purists would shudder, but it's delicious. A pickled chilli or juice from a jar of olives is another possibility. So is a pinch of toasted and ground spices - coriander, cumin, or cardamom seeds.

Whatever innovations you introduce, I'd advise against spending money on a premium vodka. By the time you've added tomato juice and flavourings, its distinctiveness is pretty well submerged.

Abstract principles are all very well, but where's the magic formula for instant gratification? Here's the bad news: there isn't one. Wait, there's good news as well: you can make Marys of world-class distinction. All you need are the ingredients and experience.

Which is not to say that you'll get it right every time. Even the experts can go wrong. At a restaurant in San Francis-co, I once drank two Bloody Marys back-to-back. The first was so perfect it transported me to a higher spiritual plane. The second, however, was just palatable. Both were made by the same bartender.

The moral is to use your hands, eyes and experience to decide when to stop pouring or shaking. Measuring rarely gives better results than intuition and practice.

So I am not going to give you a recipe in fixed, immut-able terms. Instead, here are five guidelines. They serve me well, even if I'm still searching and slurping for that elusive Holy Grail.

Store vodka in the freezer and remember premium brands really are unnecessary. Use a vodka-tomato juice ratio of at least 1:3. Begin by seasoning the juice, and add the vodka last of all - this makes for more accurate tasting. When putting in seasonings, proceed gradually. Use lemon juice and Worcester sauce generously, salt and pepper sparingly and chilli sauce very sparingly. Serve with plenty of ice or shake with the ice and strain.