By Nicola Bridges
How far would you go in search of the best cocktail? If you're a card-carrying member of the Sunday Bloody Mary brunch bunch who requires a tomato-vodka drink with your lazy late-morning meal — or a Bloody Mary that is itself the entree, loaded with an eclectic mix of greenery and other surprising culinary delights like fish, fried chicken and burgers-on-a-stick — you may, like me, be willing to travel to get your fix.
Better yet, if there was an entire festival celebrating tomato juice and vodka, you'd be willing to travel far — which is just what I did, hopping a plane to Nashville to attend my first Bloody Mary Festival.
Initially visualizing a loud and rowdy, booze-infused, Burning Man-worthy beer bash, I was thrilled to find the opposite. Instead of a festival field of pop-up tents, the venue was a modern, airy, white-walled event space in a trendy Nashville suburb.
It just happened to be full of rows and rows of tables of plastic tasting cups, half-filled with Bloody Marys from local brunch bars and restaurants, showcasing creative twists on the now infamous hair-of-the-dog drink created, as legend has it, in 1921 by bartender Fernand Petiot at the New York Bar in Paris.
The festival had the sedate air of a wine-tasting, people hesitantly swilling a sipping cup and sniffing Bloody bouquets — until 30 minutes and a few tasters in. The crowd loosened up, the laughter and music got louder and a dancing tomato mascot started making ketchup-smooth moves around the room.
Organizer Evan Weiss said the Bloody Mary Festival came about on a whim back in 2014, when he and his wife, Yunna, saw an increase in curated events for food and drinks, "but nothing for our beloved brunch cocktail." So they brought together the best Bloody Marys in their hometown of Brooklyn and birthed the festival that now tours the country, growing exponentially each year since.
The eclectic collection of creative tomato and liquor concoctions showcases the fine art of Bloody Mary mixology, with flavor twists to blow even the hard-core brunch connoisseur's mind. From Chauhan Ale & Masala House's "Vindaloo Blessing" curry-flavored Bloody Mary, adorned with skewered turmeric-yellow and pink poppadum crackers, to Tansuo's "Rising Phoenix" filled with sesame wok-fried shrimp and a dash of soy sauce, and The Mockingbird's "Green with MB" tomatillo and green chili Mary, to subtle-but-taste-bud-testing variations on the traditional Bloody recipe — Nashville's restaurants and bars outdid themselves.
"Pretty much anything is fair game," Weiss said. "A good Bloody has several great flavors going on at once — all complementing each other, with none overpowering the others. And in a really good Bloody Mary, you don't even taste the booze.
"But we've also seen mixologists and chefs bring some innovative ingredients to the table: beef stock, beet juice, smoked tomato juice, kimchi, curry paste — you name it. A very skillful mixologist can make such a variety of flavors work together that the sky's the limit."
"What's the weirdest or wildest Bloody Mary or Bloody ingredient you've ever seen?" I asked Weiss while contemplating the poppadum sticks in my curried Bloody. "Well, thanks to Instagram, the over-the-top garnish has become a thing. We've all seen the photo of the Bloody Mary with a whole fried chicken on top. Personally, that's not my thing," he said.
"Your Bloody Mary is only as good as the drink in the cup. I enjoy a good simple garnish that in some way complements the drink. The over-the-top garnish has gotten out of hand. If I want fried chicken or a slider or a slice of pizza, I'll go get that on my own. I don't need it mounted on my drink."
I nodded while gnawing another giant shrimp off the loaded kebob skewer balanced precariously on one of the three tasting cups I was fisting, while trying not to also drop a large stick of Bloody Mary-flavored cayenne cotton candy from Fluff Nashville on the floor — as the giant and now slightly blurry dancing tomato electric-slid by in his skinny red tights.
And while, yes, there are The Bloody Mary Festival Awards and we all started off jotting serious tasting notes on our voting cards, when the short-but-plenty-long-enough three-hour festival wound down and we all headed out to meet our Lyfts and Ubers (no drinking and driving, please), nobody was holding their breath to learn the winner on Facebook the next day.
WHEN YOU GO
The Bloody Mary Festival fall schedule: Portland, Oregon, Sept. 15; San Francisco, California, Sept. 29; Denver, Colorado., Oct. 13; Austin, Texas, Nov. 11. For more information visit www.thebloodymaryfest.com.
Nicola Bridges is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.