Claiming to have the No. 1 Bloody Mary in the city is a big declaration, but Jerry Stenstrup has no qualms about doing so. In 1985, Stenstrup and his wife, Cheryl, opened Steny's Tavern & Grill, 800 S. Second St., and introduced their signature, award-winning Bloody.
"We haven't changed our Bloody Mary since day one," says Stenstrup.
Stenstrup says it's the secret sauce that makes Steny's Bloody the tastiest in town, but neither he, nor bartender Julie Severson, are willing to divulge what's in the mystery sauce other than Worcestershire. However, Severson is willing to share other ingredients that make their Bloody Mary unique.
"We use Clamato instead of tomato juice," says Severson. "This makes a big difference for me. I really don't like tomato juice."
According to Stenstrup, Clamato – made from tomatoes, onions, celery, spices and clam juice – is more watery than tomato juice which makes the drink go down easier and allows people to drink more than one.
"Because Clamato makes it thinner, people drink more than one, which is not usually the case with Bloodys," he says.
In fact, people drink so many Bloody Marys at Steny's that the bartenders mix them in large containers prior to opening and then have trays of pre-poured, half-made Bloodys that just need booze and garnishes. This comes in handy, particularly during football game weekends when Stenstrups says they'll serve 175 to 250 Bloody Marys per day.
Stenstrup says they also prefer to pre-mix the drinks in five-gallon containers so they have a consistent taste. "Otherwise, every bartender would make them differently. We like them to be consistent," he says.
The Steny's Bloody comes with celery salt on the rim, something Cheryl learned from working at the now-defunct Captain's Steak Joint on 27th Street a couple of decades ago.
Because the recipe for the drink is so good, Stenstrup says the Steny's Bloody does not require a lot of garnishes. He acknowledges that many other bars and restaurants pack their Bloodys with everything from meat sticks to pickled Brussel sprouts to cheese chunks, but the Steny's version comes solely with a pickle and an olive.
"It's the drink that's important, not the garnish," says Stenstrup.
There are a few catch phrases that have evolved at Steny's that are inspired by the Bloody Mary. The most popular states that the Bloody Mary "is not just for breakfast anymore." Stenstrip says other one-liners like "lick the salt off my rim" and "eat the pickle, swallow my olive" are also common expressions among Steny's sassier staff and customers.
The Steny's Bloody Mary costs $5 or $4 on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Stenstrup says people drink Bloody Marys day and night at Steny's and that they truly aren't just for breakfast anymore.
Drinkers can pick any beer on tap for a chaser, including Guinness, Spotted Cow, MillerCoors and more.
"The chaser, like the garnish, doesn't matter with a Bloody Mary. It's about the drink. And the chaser is just a Milwaukee thing. It's like bar dice, we're the only state that does it," he says.
During a recent visit, we decided to try Steny's Bloody Mary for ourselves to decide if, indeed, it's one of the city's best. (The Wicked Hop consistently wins Best Bloody Mary in the OnMilwaukee.com's Best Bars & Clubs contest that's held every February during Bar Month.)
We decided that everything Stenstrup said about his Bloody Mary is true: It isn't as thick as most Bloodys which makes it very drinkable, and the drink itself, which has bite but isn't super spicy, is very well blended. Although we would have liked more than one green olive (which may be available if you ask, we didn't), the large pickle spear made up for it. And the celery salt on the rim is a really tasty touch, especially for those of us who are sodium seekers to begin with.
Whether or not the Steny's Bloody Mary is the best in the city is subjective, but we'd definitely recommend it to anyone who already likes the drink or wants to try one that isn't made with tomato juice.
"Come in and try one. You'll want to drink another one if you do," says Stenstrup.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.