If you want to start a lively debate, post the following question on Facebook: Who serves the best Bloody Mary in Anchorage? I posed it recently and spent some time "researching" the responses. I know. My job is hard.
A surprising number of the people who weighed in on the debate claimed their own Bloody Mary recipe is the best in town. I haven't tested all of these concoctions (though research is ongoing) but did get a chance to try my friend (and next-door neighbor) Dave's recipe. His mix, evolved over years after a stint as a bartender, involves pickle juice and an evil-looking, habanero-based substance that he keeps in a marmalade jar in his fridge. I'm not sure what's in it, or even if it's legal to own, but I will say it produced a killer drink. It was probably a mistake to share it with me -- his peaceful weekend mornings might be over.
All of this is to say that people are passionate about what constitutes the perfect Bloody Mary. It's an almost mythic drink -- it's a hangover cure and a mitigator of cold symptoms. It contains at least three full servings of vegetables (if you include the pickled asparagus) and it's an acceptable alcoholic drink for breakfast. Indeed, it's a drink whose whole is decidedly more than the sum of its parts.
While opinions vary widely, I came up with a few criteria that I think most enthusiasts can agree on. A great Bloody Mary should be spicy (but not tongue-numbingly so). It should be well chilled and served with ample ice (warm tomato juice can taste tinny and unpleasant). It should allow the vodka to shine assertively through its robust flavors (the vodka's mellow undertones provide a good balance for all the zest and acidity in the mix). Lastly, and this might be controversial, it should have abundant and creative garnishes.
A very classic Bloody Mary preparation was found at the downtown Anchorage classic, F Street Station. Of all the versions I tried, it had the simplest presentation -- served modestly in a mason jar with only a lemon wedge and pickled green bean. It was on the sweeter side of the spectrum and had a comparatively smooth and thin consistency. This quality was a hit with my drinking companion, who dislikes the "tomato paste-y" texture of some mixes. It was also strong, with the pleasantly crisp taste of vodka at the forefront. To me, this was an old-school Bloody Mary: a grown-up drink not to be consumed before operating heavy machinery.
Another smooth and thin (or, rather, less thick) version was found at Suite 100. Served with pickled onion, asparagus, a stuffed olive and a wedge of lime, it was a notch up the spice spectrum from F Street. We appreciated the thick slice of lime, which we used to brighten the mix up and give it a needed hit of citrus. I would order it again, but it wasn't the most memorable of the contenders.
The version at the Bear Tooth came highly recommended, and while it delivered in terms of flavor and presentation, I was surprised to learn that their mix is simply tomato juice and Demitri's Bloody Mary Seasoning. A quick glance at the pre-made seasoning mix's ingredients reveal the usual -- Worcestershire, lemon juice, peppers, garlic, horseradish, etc. While it's not the most creative preparation in town, it tasted fresh and not at all pre-mixed, and it's nice to know that you can recreate it with precision in your own home.
The amusing garnish award goes -- hands down -- to the thick and spicy Bloody Mary at Table 6. The drink is topped with an architecturally complicated structure that involves celery, pickled peppers, and string cheese. Yes, string cheese. With apologies to purists, I found this delightful and feel strongly that more drinks should come garnished with cheese. And, garnishes aside, this was a strong competitor. Big chunks of peppercorn, lots of horseradish and a healthy shake of Frank's RedHot Buffalo sauce make this drink stand out. The sheer weight of the spices creates a beautifully intense spicy silt at the bottom of the glass -- my favorite part of the drink. It's like the last sip in a glass of chocolate milk, but for grown-ups.
Top honors also go to Spenard Roadhouse for both flavor and variety. Their house-made mix can be combined with a choice of four infused vodkas -- cilantro and cucumber for those who like it mild, habanero for those who like a little spice, or ghost chili for those who like a lot. I was battling a cold, so I opted for the ghost chili version, thinking it might overpower my germs. The heat hits you right away but mellows quickly and lingers in that curious way that makes you want go back for more. It's a smooth burn -- not one that has you reaching for your water. It was garnished with lime, a pickled pepper, a jalapeno-stuffed olive and, appropriately, a little drink marker in the shape of a donkey -- because seriously, this drink has kick.
Lovingly blended mixes, artfully crafted vodkas, irreverent garnishes, or old-school simplicity. Whatever you require in your Sunday morning pick-me-up, Anchorage's bartenders have your back. In this competition, we're all winners.
F Street Station
Hours: 10 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Sun.-Thurs.
10 a.m.-3 a.m. Fri-Sat.
Location: 325 F. St, 272-5196