How to set up a bloody mary bar for a New Year’s brunch

  • Maggie Perkins
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Dec 26, 2017
The bloody mary has had a resurgence of popularity, which means bars and at-home party hosts are making it easy for people to customize their own drink with different pickled vegetables and even skewers of meat. This version is from Holy Roller in downtown Austin. Contributed by @fancypantslatx

There was once a time when a bloody mary consisted of plain vodka and plain tomato juice, served most frequently with a veritable tree trunk of celery, perhaps with an olive if one got fancy, and to take it right over the top, a seasoned salt rim.

You might see the bartender give a shake of Worcestershire sauce in higher-end establishments, as a sort of afterthought. When served, a few chuckles might have been shared over a “this is my kinda salad” retort by recipient. That was the bloody mary story of yesteryear.

Skip ahead a few generations to a resurgence of classic cocktails urged on by a love of midcentury modern and “Mad Men,” and you’ll find the brunch darling of the 21st century, the centerpiece of the swankiest soirees — the bloody mary bar.

At many restaurants and at-home brunch parties, you’ll find a sparkling array of culinary bits and baubles so you can customize that classic with just about anything that’s pickled, salty or crunchy.

Begin by creating a space for your bar a bit off the beaten path of partygoers. We’re having a party, forevermore, so now’s the time to gather your finest things: small bowls, sparkling stemware, your grandmother’s cut crystal, your collection of hotel silver.

If you’ve got the goods, create a theme. Maybe you have the odd mercury glass pieces littered about, or your parents’ unused but meticulously matched cocktail sets of the ’70s. Perhaps you can use those French terra cotta pots you’ve had no idea how to use, or the blown-glass vases collecting dust above your bookshelves. Pull it all down and wash it well. Give it a little elbow grease. Make it shine.

Place tall pitchers of cocktail mixes — perhaps a basic tomato juice, a spicier selection and a novelty mix like our favorite small-batch smoked tomato juice — and label them with homemade cardstock tags tied on with twine or erasable chalkboard labels slung around handles.

Next, set out the bottles of liquor. Chill the vodka in the freezer beforehand and tie it with a linen napkin to collect condensation. You could also nestle several bottles in a punch bowl filled with ice. Don’t forget to buy enough ice for all the drinks. Set out a dedicated ice bucket placed near highball glasses, and place ice tongs or a small scoop nearby.

Now, the garnishes. This is the really fun part. The sky is the limit. You can add almost anything salty or savory to this bar.

Let’s tackle it by food group. Collect as many as you like, but remember good design principle dictates choosing one, three, or five of any type to offer. Makes it easy on the eyes. Scatter a few containers of cocktail picks among the bowls and glasses and let guests get as crazy or as simple as they like.

Proteins: raw oysters, boiled shrimp, cubed cheese, smoked meat sticks, beef jerky and, of course, bacon. Above and beyond: fried tofu cubes.

Condiments: assorted bitters, lemon and lime wedges, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco or favorite hot pepper sauces, wasabi paste, soy sauce. Above and beyond: freshly grated horseradish.

Pickles: cornichon, marinated artichokes, olives (green, black, stuffed), pickled okra, pickled garlic, pickled green beans. Above and beyond: chunks of chilled kimchi.

Vegetables: celery, radish, carrot sticks, asparagus spears (slightly steamed and chilled). Above and beyond: chilled jicama spears.

A few extra items you might gather for the setup:

A small cutting board and a few paring knives for those crazy creative types who create radish roses or the finicky pickle eater who doesn’t like those icky stems. You know the one.

A discreet stack of bar mop cloths for drips and spills.

A glass of spare mixing spoons for those with needs more vigorous than that willowy but wimpy stirrer will allow.

A shallow dish with seasoned salt. Place close to citrus wedges to gild glass rims, then dip.

Above and beyond: an Instamatic camera for spectacular results, your holiday scrapbook or souvenirs of a “best of the bar” contest among imbibers.