Drinks Issue

Bloody Mary: ‘A Blessing and a Curse’

Two bartenders on opposite sides of Flathead Lake discuss this sometimes polarizing, and often ordered, cocktail

By Mike Kordenbrock
The Sitting Duck’s Bloody Mary with the works in Woods Bay. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The basic formula for a bloody mary isn’t all that complicated, nor, as the name suggests, is the mixing of it a violent process. Vodka and tomato juice over ice will get you most of the way there, but a bloody mary isn’t quite complete without the addition of some spices, sauces, and a garnish or 10. If the hydration choices of the last night are still haunting you the next morning and all those decisions about the perfect blend of bloody mary flavors, and whether or not you even have them on hand, are feeling a bit overwhelming, it might make sense to skip a bedraggled trip to the grocery store and instead make your way down to a local watering hole.

Depending on where you go, or in this case which side of Flathead Lake you pick, you might find yourself with a meal in a glass, or a smooth-drinking, life-saving elixir, or quite possibly both.

On the west side of Flathead Lake at The Spinnaker Bar & Grill in Lakeside, you could have a bloody mary in your hands in a few minutes, depending on what else bartender and bookkeeper Catherine Hopstad has going on that morning. Hopstad doesn’t particularly favor the drink herself, but she insists that she makes them with love, even if she gives you a little grief after you ask for one.

Catherine Hopstad prepares a Bloody Mary at the Spinnaker Casino Bar and Grill in Lakeside on August 10, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

 She starts with a glass of ice and a shaker of celery salt. A seven count of that, followed by black pepper, Tabasco hot sauce, a couple cocktail straws of horseradish (more on this in a moment), Worcestershire sauce, “a little bit of love,” a tomato-based bloody mary mix, and some vodka, and in short order Hopstad is shaking up a bloody and pouring it back out, before topping it off with two green olives and a pickled asparagus spear.

Part of Hopstad’s commitment to a good bloody comes from when she learned how to make one years ago while working at Joe Blogz, a bar and casino a short walk up the street from The Spinnaker. Staff members during a training session meant to build cocktail consistency behind the bar had to draw drink cards out of a hat, with the chance to earn some cash if they got it right. Hopstad didn’t even draw a bloody, she pulled a black Russian, but the instruction they got when someone else drew a bloody mary card, hammered home by making hundreds of bloodys over the years, has stuck with her. She’s deliberate about making the drink in steps that have to be done in order every time. And the cocktail straws pinched together to scoop up some horseradish?

 “That’s how I learned to do it,” she said. “So now a spoon would throw me off on the measurement. I know what it looks like on a straw.”

A Bloody Mary from the Spinnaker Casino Bar and Grill in Lakeside on August 10, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Hopstad said that in the event she is dealing with a hangover, she’s more inclined to approach it with a “hang on” strategy of throwing back a shot. Still, she said she’s been getting compliments on her bloody marys for about 15 years now. She said she thinks it helps that she’s not especially biased on what makes a great bloody. She’s not interested in putting so many ingredients in there that a customer doesn’t quite know what they’re drinking.

 “We could be given the same ingredients, like macaroni and cheese, and if you don’t put love into it, it tastes differently,” she said. “I do put love into the bloody mary, which is interesting, because I don’t even like it.”

About 8 miles across the water at The Sitting Duck bar in Woods Bay, a customer can order a normal bloody mary, but time and time again, they come in asking for a $19 drink (or one might argue a vertically arranged appetizer platter in disguise) called “The Works.”

It’s a drink that both haunts and obsesses bar manager Dakota Hopkins. Behind closed doors the bar’s cooking staff just might be cursing him for it every time another order comes through. “The Works” comes with a double cheeseburger slider, an egg roll, a fried wonton, two shrimp, a strip of bacon, pickled asparagus, pepperoncini, green olive, a salted rim, and a wedge of lime, all skewered and balanced in such a way as to create a sort of salty, savory flower bouquet of appetizers. The whole thing can take 10 to 15 minutes depending on what the bar traffic is like on a given day, but the drink is given priority.

In order to keep the madness under control, Hopkins said they limit sales of “The Works” from noon until 3 p.m. Yet that seems to get lost on some unfortunate customers. The drink is a photographic favorite for patrons, and so its image is regularly plastered across Facebook, Instagram, and text message threads. That noon to 3 p.m. window? That seems to get lost in the bright, somewhat greasy lights of this mind-boggling beverage.

A Bloody Mary from the Spinnaker Casino Bar and Grill in Lakeside on August 10, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“It was a bingo baby spawned from a lot of cultivated minds that have worked here over the years, and shared their imaginations,” Hopkins said. “A couple variations, and some different recipes, to stumble upon what we thought was the perfect bloody mary.”

In the years since it began as a bingo special up until now, “The Works” has appeared under various alter-egos, sometimes known as “Bloody Lunch,” and alternatively known as the “Don Corleone” and the “Samurai.” The Godfather nickname came about when the Sitting Duck was experimenting with a sort of Italian version of the drink involving chicken parmesan. The “Samurai” was a seafood-oriented version of the drink that involved ahi tuna and various sushi ingredients. All those variations though were hard to keep up with, and the current form of “The Works” represents a streamlined version of one of the Flathead Valley’s most extravagant drinks.

 One of the key players early on in envisioning “The Works” was Sam Keirle, a former cook at the Sitting Duck who died in 2020 after a deer ran in front of his motorcycle, causing a fatal crash. Keirle was a friend of Hopkins’ and a beloved member of the Sitting Duck staff. A mock-up comic book cover with the title “The Killer Chef” sits behind the bar and shows Keirle astride a motorcycle with a kitchen knife. The comic book cover had been a birthday present for Keirle the year he passed. Above “The Killer Chef” are Keirle’s motorcycle handlebars.

The Sitting Duck’s Bloody Mary with the works in Woods Bay on August 11, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“He was a phenomenal chef. A dreamer, for sure. I don’t think I ever worked with anyone who had a more positive vibe,” Hopkins said. “He was definitely one of the guys sitting at the bar with us when we were talking about doing this, and he was like ‘I got some ideas.’ He was always that guy who just, ‘I could make that work!’”

The fruits of Keirle’s dreaming, Hopkins’ tweaks, and the contributions of other bar and kitchen staff over the years have resulted in a bloody mary recipe that is a closely guarded secret. The mix is made from scratch, and Hopkins said he doesn’t use pre-made mixes. Hopkins himself said he will never order a bloody mary at a bar, saying he could never do that to another bartender. And yet, he loves the drink dearly.

 “Having a good bloody mary is a blessing and a curse,” he said. It’s not uncommon for one or two people to order “The Works,” and then other patrons quickly follow suit once they see the drink in its final form.

“Saturdays and Sundays are always death by bloody mary,” Hopkins said. “Once one person sees one, everybody wants one.”