The Bloody Mary is a wonderful drink. In most areas of the world, ordering one will get you a glass of tomato juice and a shot of vodka. That is a simple, lazy, and detestable drink that does not meet the basic requirements. It's like asking for an umbrella and getting some cheese cloth on a coat hanger. The ingredients are similar, but you skipped almost everything important about the construction.
The Bloody Mary is supposed to be an elegant way to nurse a hangover with nutrition and hidden booze. Vodka is strong. It is not hidden by the bland and overly sweet veil of regular tomato juice. You also want plenty of salt in the drink to help with the hangover. Because of this, starting with regular tomato juice is amateur hour. V8 is loaded with salt. It also has more flavor. That's true of most of the fundamental ingredients of the Bloody Mary. Flavor piggy backing on salt. Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, and pickle juice. Everything else is trying to add a bite that's subtle but strong enough to camouflage the vodka: horseradish, pepper, and hot sauce.
At this point you have the basics of the Bloody Mary. Salt to combat both hangovers and tomato's sweetness and bite to fight the Vodka. The pre-made mixes you can buy in the store are just variations on these basics. This is a fine place to stop if you want an ok Bloody Mary. Just pour it on top of vodka and stir with some celery.
If you are serious about the drink, that is where you start. Milwaukee is serious about the Bloody Mary. We have essentially dropped the "Mary" entirely. Our brunch labs have been seriously experimenting for years and we have learned many things.
The First Step
The first and most counterintuitive thing we learned is that the most important ingredient into a serious Bloody is out of it. A small secondary glass with a beer back is an outward sign to the world that you have both intent and purpose in what you are doing. You are not fucking around anymore and are ready for anything. You are going to start putting all sorts of weird things into and out of the drink from here on out. Before you get too crazy, stop and ask yourself the fundamental question of a serious Bloody. It is an important question and will drive many future decisions.
Are You Going to Add Dill?
If you add dill, it steers the drink in a whole different direction. It becomes an altogether fresher more floral drink. The drink is much more welcoming to other herbs and pickled green beans. Adding dill opens up the door to add shrimp. Many people like it this way, and it's not a bad drink. I would only say that it's a bad decision. Dill is a dead end.
For all the freshness of dill, it doesn't work with Milwaukee's most advanced and secret techniques. It's a fragile flavor and we have some more abuses to put the drink through. The first of which are meats and cheeses and if you don't offset these 60/40 with vegetables and herbs, the dill Bloody breaks down. We're not going to keep that up so I say leave dill out.
Meat and Beyond
Cheeses and meat sticks, even after a lengthly steep in the bloody, are basically just snacks. They contribute nothing back. Delicious, and often well appreciated nutrition, but they're just hitchhikers unconcerned in pushing the drink itself forward. The martyred bacon strip is a hero though. It depletes itself completely for the drink. The bacon strip sacrifices itself into a soggy, almost flavorless, mess to create a drink that is smooth in ways that are hard to believe with so many factors. Harder to believe is that adding Guinness, yes more beer, takes it to even another level that is almost perfect harmonic of the myriad of flavors we've been working with so far. This is objectively the best Bloody that can be made without starting down the paths of specific flavors, and along with it opinions.
Flavor experimentation seems to be happening in one of two ways. The sophisticated way is to try to create new takes on the tried and true theme like varying spices or introducing condiments. The ham fisted way is to try to replace your basic foundational vodka element. Ok fine, a Bloody Mary using gin/tequila/beer as a base isn't terrible, but like dill, it's not a ripe field for experimentation and growth.
To focus on the useful ways the drink is being experimented with, flavor profiles seem to be the norm by now. Nearly every restaurant that cares about this has the defaults of regular and spicy with usually one or two signature varieties. It's yet to be seen if any of these will set of a new revolution. Few of the experiments here have spread very far. Dijon Mustard is hard to dissolve in the drink. Garlic is interesting. Okra is a bad garnish. There is a lot of experimentation to do though, and it will be interesting to see if there are horizons yet unseen with the drink itself.
Some places are introducing a secondary level of engineering into the ecosystem. Scaffolding of skewers and foods are reaching into the sky. These are interesting and they photograph well, but a house must have a foundation. It's a wasted effort to suspend an elaborate meal over a mediocre Bloody, as sometimes happens. If the foundation is solid however, there's nothing wrong with reaching for the stars above the rim. Once you do your real job, reach away and soak in those sweet sweet likes.
For whatever reason much of this innovation isn't making it out of Milwaukee, or maybe Wisconsin, yet. Hopefully that changes and other cities can help to push the science forward. At the very least I hope they stop handing me a glass of spiked tomato juice when I order a Bloody Mary.