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How to make better bloody marys at home

Making your own bloody mary - starting with a stellar mix - is a fun way to experiment with the random spices, hot sauces and liquors you've already got in your kitchen. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.

A bloody mary is the savory tooth's best friend: It's rich with tomato juice, spicy and complex from the seasonings, and has a pleasant, boozy kick. And making your own - starting with a stellar mix - is a fun way to experiment with the random spices, hot sauces and liquors you've already got in your kitchen.

Make a large-ish batch of the mix, store it in the refrigerator for up to a week, then invite a few friends over to sample the cocktail-making prowess that you've suddenly mastered. (You can let them handle their own garnishes - customization is fun!)

Take your next batch of bloody marys beyond the bottled mix with these handy tips:

First, consider the juice.

No amount of seasonings, alcohol or other mix-ins can cover up a juice that you don't like the taste of, so make sure to use something that you enjoy from the get-go. For Gina Chersevani, mixtress and owner of Buffalo & Bergen in Washington's Union Market, that means fresh tomato juice. Look for it in the refrigerated-juice section of the grocery store or make your own. (More on that below.)

If you can't find fresh or simply prefer the shelf-stable type, it'll do the job, too. Andrea Tateosian, general manager at the Passenger in Washington, notes that juices such as V8 and other pasteurized brands have some flavorings already added that you can emphasize or play down. Bottled juices also contain salt - sometimes a lot - so you may not need to add as much.

Making your own tomato juice is a nice way to go a little "extra," Chersevani says. Plus, sometimes fresh store-bought juice just isn't available (my recent search turned up none!). If you've got a juicer, you can use that. But I prefer the extra body that comes from blending chunks of ripe tomatoes and then straining the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Use the back of a large spoon to push as much liquid through as possible, then discard the pulpy solids, or use them for something else if you're particularly enterprising.

If you're juicing your own tomatoes, be aware that the water content will vary. Blending in fresh cucumber or bell pepper can help with consistency and flavor. Or, strike a happy medium between fresh and bottled: For every three cups of pasteurized tomato juice, add one cup of freshly made stuff. This achieves a deep, more obvious tomato flavor (since the store-bought juice is more concentrated) while still lending a pleasant freshness and bright tomato essence from your homemade juice.

Pepper, vinegar, celery seed, salt and horseradish are classic flavorings.  Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Next, seasonings.

Horseradish, salt, pepper and celery seed are classic additions. Vinegar and Worcestershire sauce add flavor and intensify the tomato.

As a basic formula, Chersevani suggests using two tablespoons of prepared horseradish (refrigerated, not shelf-stable), one teaspoon of a spice (such as a hot pepper), one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon celery seed and one teaspoon vinegar (sherry or champagne) for every four cups of tomato juice. If you're using Worcestershire sauce, use two tablespoons and omit the vinegar.

But there's plenty of room to go beyond basic: Bottled clam juice, pickle juice, hot sauce, wasabi, funkier vinegars, Old Bay, za'atar and that random spice blend that your friend gave you are all fair game. Toasting whole spices - such as cumin, caraway and coriander seed - before grinding can lend deeper notes, too. Start by adding small amounts and tasting as you go. Also pay attention to salty add-ins and dial back the added salt as needed.

A few more seasoning tricks, from Tateosian:

Use a spice grinder, blender or mortar and pestle to pulverize the spices - especially with coarse spices, such as black pepper and chile flakes. You want to be able to sip your drink, not sift through grit that gets stuck in your teeth.

If you use horseradish, it's wise to blend it with a little tomato juice before adding it to your mix. That way your drink will be just a little pulpy (ideal!) rather than chewy (gross!).

Store your mix in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve, so it's nice and cold.

When you're ready to drink - and only then! not before! - squeeze a little fresh lemon or lime juice into your mix; tomatoes are acidic, yes, but citrus is key in brightening your beverage and tying all the flavors together.

Infusing your vodka, adding clam juice, mixing it up with spices or even shucking a few oysters. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg

And now, what you've all been waiting for: the alcohol.

Vodka is classic and perfect, but the sky is the limit. True story: Tateosian once had a friend request bourbon, which, as it turns out, plays very well in a bloody mary. Also try mezcal, tequila, gin or aquavit, for starters.

Infusing vodka is another way to add layers of flavor: fresh tomato chunks, coarsely chopped fresh horseradish root, lightly crushed black peppercorns, dill or cucumber slices make for tasty home infusions. Some ingredients (such as horseradish and black pepper) take less time to infuse than others (tomatoes and cucumbers), so taste the vodka as it sits and strain it once it's flavored as you like.

And if you're not much of a liquor person, there's still hope: Sparkling wine and beer go quite well with bloody mary mix.

The four-cup juice proportions above will make enough for about four to six drinks, depending on your glass size. To make the drink, pour one to two ounces of your spirit of choice into a tall glass, then fill it two-thirds full with ice. Pour your mix in, give it all stir and add . . .

Let your freak flag fly with your bloody mary garnishes.  Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg

The garnishes.

"Go crazy with garnishes," Chersevani says. Pickle spears, dilled green beans, cherry peppers and pickled daikon are lovely. Fresh produce is nice, too: Try cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices and, of course, the traditional and oh-so-crunchy celery stick. Olives, caper berries, crispy bacon, thick cubes of smoked salmon and even freshly shucked oysters are fun. Roam the farmers market for inspiration, stroll down the grocery store aisles and rummage through the salad bar. The bloody mary world is your oyster.

Now that you've got the basics down, here are pairing suggestions to get your mixes flowing:

Vodka + Old Bay + clam juice + sherry vinegar

Tomato-infused vodka + watermelon + basil + balsamic vinegar

Mezcal + red bell pepper + jalapeño + white wine vinegar

Tequila + poblano pepper + tomatillo + lime juice

Aquavit + cucumber + caraway + red-wine vinegar

Gin + green bell pepper + dill + pickle juice

  This article was written by Kara Elder, a reporter for The Washington Post. 
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