I know we should be talking about Mint Juleps on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, but really, when was the last time you had a julep outside the first week of May?
Mint Juleps, while a stellar blend of freshly muddled mint, sugar and bourbon, just don't have the legs to make it to Mother's Day. Forget about them trotting through brunch season.
Now Bloody Mary ... there's a drink with stamina; a beverage that sprints into the spring holidays and effortlessly rounds the turn into summer's al fresco scene, even picking up speed for fall tailgating.
Let's not quibble over who served the first Bloody Mary or where (some people give credit to a waitress at Chicago's Bucket of Blood bar; others cite bartenders in New York or Paris). Instead, let's agree that Bloody Marys have become the iconic brunch beverage, and their popularity seems far from waning.
A Bloody Mary is, according to various cocktail texts, a shot of vodka mixed with a blend of spices (hot sauce, horseradish, Worcestershire among them) and tomato juice. Garnished with a leafy celery stick and a lime wedge, this nutrient-filled quaff is a popular hair-of-the-dog hangover cure.
Today bartenders use that loose recipe as a jumping off point, adding all manner of spices and garnishes to create a signature cocktail. Fans of the drink relish the idea of scouting out suburban bars and restaurants in search of their next favorite version.
"I know there's a following (for Bloody Marys); it's almost like a cult," said Shawn Alverson, owner of Route 12 Bar and Grill in Fox Lake. "When you find one you like, you tell all your friends."
A cult member himself, Alverson set out to have some fun customizing the drink at his own bar. The result: The Mega Mary.
The drink starts with three shots of vodka and a proprietary tomato-based mixer that's not too spicy, not too mild and served in a 27-ounce mug. Then he adds the "garnishes" -- a fresh beer bratwurst, a mini steak burger, stuffed olives, shrimp, Pepper Jack cheese, pickles, onions and a straw of hollow sausage -- that some might say push Alverson's version over the line from a beverage to a meal. And a bargain of a breakfast at that, at $12.
"Why just offer a celery stick?" Alverson retorts. "Go big or go home."
People aren't going home without trying one; in fact, he's decided to open up at 9 a.m. on Sundays (instead of 11 a.m.) to meet the demand from boaters and bikers who want to fuel up before getting on with their day.
Other bars and restaurants give customers control with salad bar-style Bloody Mary buffets.
At TJ O'Brien's Bar and Grill in Palatine, the bartender starts Sunday morning customers off with a tall glass and their choice of vodka (starting with well vodka at $5). They then face an array that includes a half dozen or so specialty mixers (a bacon-flavored one and the popular Zing Zang among them), olives, cured meats, lemons, limes, jalapeņos and cucumbers.
"People can do their own thing; it depends on how hungry they are," says bartender Jennifer Brey. "It can be a drink or they can make a meal of it."
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