Canada’s cocktail hits the big five-oh
This year Canada’s favourite cocktail turned 50. And like many a middle-aged bon vivant, it has been undergoing something of a makeover.
The Caesar was famously invented in 1969 by a Calgary bartender named Walter Chell, who was tasked with creating a drink to celebrate the opening of a new Italian restaurant at The Calgary Inn (now The Westin). Inspired by the popularity of the Bloody Mary and the umami-rich flavours of spaghetti alle vongole, he mixed together vodka, tomato juice, clam nectar and spices and created Canadian cocktail history.
Mind you, that wasn’t the first time someone mixed vodka, tomato and clam juice in a glass. A similar drink called a Smirnoff Smiler was introduced at Manhattan’s Polonaise nightclub in 1953. In 1962, the Baker Hotel in Dallas served a drink called the Imperial Clam Digger. And in 1968, Seagram president Victor Fischel and Mott’s Clamato marketer Ray Anrig reportedly invented a seasoned tomato, clam and vodka cocktail called the Clamdigger at their headquarters, just two blocks from the Polonaise.
But no matter. Chell invented the Caesar, and we’re glad he did, because it has become our go-to brunch cocktail and hangover cure, as well as our preferred aperitif, nightcap and just-about-any-time cocktail.
As for the name, Chell called it a Caesar, but it also became known as a Bloody Caesar after one of his customers tasted the drink one day and said, “Walter, that’s a damn good bloody Caesar.”
Whatever you call it, the drink was, apparently, an instant hit in Calgary, though it took a little longer to become popular in the rest of Canada. It’s still never really caught on outside our borders, except in places with enclaves of Canadians. But we’re OK with that.
In 2009 Parliament declared it our official cocktail. In 2015, Canada celebrated its first National Caesar Day (it’s held each year on the Thursday before the May long weekend, making it the unofficial kickoff to summer). And according to Mott’s, the company that makes Clamato juice, we drink some 407 million Caesars a year. Not bad for a nation of only 35 million people.
Not too surprisingly, after 50 years, the Caesar has undergone some changes.
The basic recipe is still the same: an ounce of vodka, Caesar mix, a dash or two of hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, lots of ice, a celery salt rim and celery garnish. But right from the beginning, bartenders started playing with the seasonings, adding a dash of horseradish here and a splash of pickle juice there. And they switched up the spirit too, replacing the vodka with the botanical bite of gin or the smoky allure of mezcal.
Then in 2013, Vancouver-based Walter Craft Caesar Mix was introduced, an all-natural, Ocean Wise alternative to Clamato. (They now offer classic spice, mild spice, smoky maple and vegan, which is made with dulse, a type of seaweed.) In 2017 Simp’s Syrups from Kelowna introduced their Serious Caesar Mix, which is vegan as well as gluten- and MSG-free and comes in a dill pickle version. And, of course, craft bartenders have been making their own artisanal variations all along.
But where the Caesar really stands out is in the realm of garnish. Whoever suggested we Canadians were a shy retiring lot clearly hasn’t seen what we’ve done to our national cocktail. Forget the simple celery stick or pickled asparagus spear. How about a cheeseburger on a stick? Some fried cheese curds? A couple of slices of smoked salmon? A roast chicken? All that and more?
Perhaps the most gloriously excessive Caesar ever could be found this year on National Caesar day (May 16) at Notch 8 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. On that day only, you could order the Anniversary Caesar, which came topped with a chorizo calzone, deep-fried clam po’boy, two BBQ pork sliders, two prime rib-stuffed Yorkshire puddings, two fried chicken skewers, two grilled prawn skewers and a garnish of pickled vegetables and celery sticks, all for only $99.
Now that’s how to celebrate a big birthday.
Shake up your Caesar
Bored with the Caesar recipe you’ve been using since college? Head over to the Mott’s website and you can find 50 recipes for 50 years of the Caesar, enough for a year of brunches. Try the Smoked Lime & Tequila Caesar. mottsclamato.ca
A cure for what ails you?
The Caesar is our favourite brunch cocktail for many reasons, but chief among them is its reputation as a hangover cure. But does it work? Let’s see. It’s got plenty of spices to settle your queasy stomach. It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals to replenish your depleted body. It’s thirst quenching. And it’s got just enough alcohol to ease your morning after withdrawal symptoms. It may not be a complete cure for your bad decisions, but it sure can’t hurt.
Try this recipe for the Donnelly Caesar at home.
—by Joanne Sasvari