You might like your bloody mary topped with a pickle and a stuffed green olive. I might like mine spiked with a sinus-clearing amount of horseradish.
Another one of our friends might stab theirs with a celery sword and crunch through the vegetable while sipping.
We'd all be right — at least in one way or another — because there's not just one way to make a bloody mary. There are, as the August Food Prowl panel learned, endless ways to make the hair-of-the-dog classic that feels really right only when consumed before the noon hour.
We sipped and snacked — you gotta sample the garnish — at eight spots around Omaha, and though we disagreed on what makes one bloody mary the best bloody mary, the winner won us all over with its layered nuance and rosy, tomatoey goodness.
The panelists: Sarah Baker Hansen; her dad, Ron Baker, who requested in January to be on this prowl; cocktail expert Dan Crowell, who also works for Sterling Distribution; and University of Nebraska Medical Center librarian-slash-bloody mary lover Mary Helms.
The Trap Room
733 N. 14th St.
We met in north downtown at the Trap Room, a bar reminiscent of your grandparents' basement, with vintage light fixtures, a painting of a forest scene that covers one wall and cream-colored fringe that sways in front of the big corner windows.
We'd already set the parameters for the prowl: The base spirit of the drinks we'd try would be vodka, and if it was flavored, we'd prefer it house-infused. We'd want some level of spice. We'd look at technique and presentation and base our rankings on each bar's most classic incarnation of the drink.
We'd try flavored bloody marys or house specialties, if they were offered, just for fun. And we'd look for garnish that was tasty but not too gimmicky — we weren't after a hamburger on the top of our drink. We were after creative, reasonably sized and fresh.
The bartender that evening made us two bloody marys, one spicy and one classic. They were some of the prettiest drinks we'd seen to date, garnished with leafy, crisp celery above a salted rim and topped with speared olives and pickles. The salted rim was lined with lime juice, and the fruit floated in the glass, which brought the citrusy element.
The spicy version came deeply flavored with horseradish, making Mary an immediate fan.
My dad was into the salted rim, and Dan got excited when he saw the bartender pour a healthy dose of Tiger Sauce — a sweet-and-sour Southern hot sauce — into the shaker.
"It's not even made out of tigers, and it's still awesome," he said.
A few sips in, the group quietly contemplated.
"This is one well-executed drink," Dan said. Heads nodded.
The drink got points for its pretty presentation, its salted rim and its pleasant, dark, rosy-red hue.
It got points for not just spice, but creative spice, thick with Worcestershire, horseradish, sriracha and Tiger Sauce.
The tomato juice was a pleasant, not-too-thin or -thick texture, and, best of all, the drink was even from top to bottom — no one sip tasted different from the last.
"It's well-balanced between vinegar, tomato, salt, vegetable, spice and citrus flavors," Dan said. "The work done to integrate the flavors is clear through the drink. This is the best."
Three other heads nodded in unison — this was the best, a unanimous upset from an unexpected bar.
"I have to also give Jerry's credit," my dad said. "I really liked theirs." So did Dan and Mary.
"Bloody marys can try too hard," Dan said. "This one doesn't. It's just a well-constructed drink." The team — Mary, who likes horseradish; my dad, who likes the salted rim; Dan, who likes just the right garnish; and me, who looks for spicy but not too spicy and just the right level of thickness — found one place that satisfied all our desires.
"We had a lot of variance overall," Dan said. "And I think the consistency and quality we found is a reflection that bartending is being taken more seriously."
Because it's true — you can do whatever you want to a bloody mary, within reason, and still call it by the same name. It's a classic with many faces.
At least one Omaha bar — The Trap Room — is making a bloody that's recognizable and remarkable at once.
The other contenders:
6205 Maple St.
Krug Park, in Benson, was our first stop; it boasts 11 bloody marys on its menu.
We ordered three drinks to share at Krug: The classic bloody mary, the Bakon and the chipotle. All three had the same basic garnish — olives and a rather enormous stalk of celery that stood at least 3 or 4 inches above the rim of the pint glass. Hunks of meat topped the Bakon, and green jalapenos floated atop the chipotle.
Smokiness set the chipotle apart immediately, though it had a vinegary cast I didn't love. The Bakon drink, made with Bakon Vodka that is sold in stores, was as expected: meaty.
"It tastes like a salami sandwich in a glass," my dad said, to chortles.
The classic, refreshing in its basicness, set the standard for the rest of the prowl. It was just spicy enough, had a touch of citrus and came garnished with cold, crisp celery and firm olives. It was the starting point.
"It's a true classic," Dan said.
6301 Military Ave.
We visited the west edge of Benson for Jerry's Bar, a true old-school neighborhood joint. Regulars had saddled up to the bar, and classic rock blasted from speakers.
There's exactly one bloody mary on the menu at Jerry's, and it comes from a bottle of house-made mix with a tiny beer shooter on the side.
Its salted rim impressed my dad, and I liked the pickled asparagus — even though it drooped rather forlornly over the side of the glass. The biggest difference, though, was the texture: This was one thick cocktail.
That thickness made the beer shooter more than just a fun sidekick: It was a nice way to cut through the spice and tomato if you took tiny sips in between swigs of the main event.
The drink included spicy horseradish and both Worcestershire and sriracha sauce, and the team liked this spicy blend.
"It's not as sophisticated," Mary said. "But it really works."
The only thing the team thought the drink lacked was an element of citrus, either lime or lemon.
"Krug is a truer representation of what a classic bloody mary is," Dan said. "But Jerry's is a crowd pleaser."
Stokes Grill and Bar
13615 California St.
We sat at the bar at the West Dodge Road location of Stokes on a Sunday morning a few days later to sample two of their drinks: a classic bloody mary and a house-made barbecue version. The restaurant has an assemble-your-own bloody mary bar available on Sunday morning, but we asked the bartender to make our drinks; it didn't seem right to judge drinks we'd crafted ourselves when that option wasn't available elsewhere.
Both drinks had a slight hint of pepper — not too much but maybe not quite enough — and the barbecue version had the vinegary tang of homemade sauce underneath the flavor of tomato juice. Each sip left behind a hint of smokiness.
For our team's tastebuds, the classic needed a bigger kick. It more resembled a red beer than a bloody mary in terms of spice and texture, and the top of the drink was thinner than we preferred.
Dan wondered aloud if these drinks were meant to be paired with a spicy fish taco or ceviche instead of consumed alone.
"If we had some chips," he said, "these might rock."
9001 Arbor St.
We met again at the VIP Lounge on 90th Street and West Center Road, a bar where at least one patron liked the bloody so much she made a video of it and posted it to YouTube. When the team saw that video, we knew we had to check it out.
Just a few patrons sat in the dark bar's big chairs when we arrived on Sunday afternoon -— die-hards, we presumed — and I had to think that the woman behind the bar was the same one in the YouTube video. She made the drink the exact way we'd seen it done online.
We asked for one spicy bloody mary and one mild; what we got were the two spiciest and the two booziest bloody marys we encountered in Omaha.
"This is a cocktail with an agenda," Dan said, reminding us that, indeed, the bloody mary's original purpose is to remedy a hangover. "It's got some mojo happening."
Vodka was definitely part of the flavor profile of the drink, along with an amazing amount of spice and a tasty, thick dill pickle and firm green olives garnishing the top.
Though none of us might choose to drink this one on the regular, we had to respect it.
We also tried:
15808 West Maple Road
At 7M Grill, we ran into the only bloody mary we had on the prowl that was made from a mix — Zing Zang, which Dan said is a newer mix and quite popular; it's served at many Omaha restaurants and bars.
The drink wasn't as layered as some of the others we tried, which made sense because it wasn't mixed on-the-spot by hand.
"The upside of using a mix is consistency," Dan said. "The downside is that it's not made from scratch."
Though we didn't consider it a contender since it wasn't handmade, it was a perfectly serviceable, balanced bloody.
Goldberg's in Dundee
5008 Dodge St.
At Goldberg's in Dundee, our two big bloody marys — each 20 ounces, to be exact — came served in stem glasses just like the ones pictured on the front of the restaurant's menu.
Garnished with celery, olive and a salty rim, the drinks were uneven. One tasted almost universally of celery salt. The second tasted like citrus, mostly lemon juice.
Though this one won points for presentation, we didn't care for the uneven nature of the drinks.
Jake's Cigars and Spirits
6206 Maple St.
At Jake's Cigars and Spirits in Benson, we had high expectations — the bar infuses its own vodka and makes the drinks from scratch using spices and tomato juice. The drinks there come in at least three spice levels: mild, medium and "stupid hot," and on weekends the bar garnishes them with cheese and bacon, among other special ingredients.
We ordered both a mild and medium to sample; both came with the same simple but fresh garnish of a cornichon dill pickle, olives, celery and pickled asparagus.
The ones we tried that night didn't have the spice we hoped for, and the infused vodka was more cucumber-forward than peppery or tomatoey, which disappointed us. Mary tried a Jake's bloody mary outside the prowl and enjoyed it immensely — we chalked our visit up to a one-time anomaly. I learned after the visit that the employee who mixes the infusion was out of town the week we were there, and the infusion may have been weaker than usual.