Too many nights spent holed up in my windowless wine cellar while waiting out the pandemic has led to some bleary-eyed mornings, so I whipped up some hair of the dog to celebrate National Caesar Day last week.
Unbeknownst to many, the Caesar was invented in Calgary’s very own Westin Hotel (then called the Calgary Inn) way back in 1969. Behind the bar was a master mixologist called Walter Chell, who landed a job with the Westin Hotel chain in Canada after an illustrious career throughout the finest restaurants in Europe.
Hotel management had tasked him with creating a new drink to celebrate the opening of a fancy new Italian restaurant in the hotel. After experimenting for three long months, he settled upon a mixture of tomato juice, hand-mashed clams, Vodka, Worcestershire sauce, salt & pepper, and a stick of celery as garnish.
You may question how any sane person could arrive at the idea of mashing up clams and mixing them into a cocktail, but there is a very fine line between genius and madness. For the record, Chell was trying to develop a drink that would complement the restaurant’s Spaghetti Vongole, which was made with tomatoes, spices, and clams.
Luckily for the boozing public, the Caesar has been a roaring success in Canada! In fact, with over 350 million guzzled a year, the Caesar is Canada’s most popular cocktail, beating the Screwdriver and Rum & Coke by a handy margin.
Back in 1969, you could not simply pick up a bottle of Clamato juice at the corner store, so you had to squeeze the clams by hand if you wanted a Caesar. Soon after Calgarians had begun quaffing Caesars in the fancy new hotel restaurant, a small New York company called Mott’s came out with their now-famous Mott’s Clamato.
The easy availability of pre-mixed Clamato juice helped make the Caesar much more accessible, and it rapidly gained a wide following. Calgary’s then-mayor Dave Bronconnier declared the first municipal Caesar Day in May of 2009, which was followed by the Canadian Parliament upgrading it to National Caesar Day in 2015, celebrated the Thursday prior to the May Long Weekend every year.
Despite a little friction between Mott’s and Walter Chell as to who exactly invented Clamato first, they eventually kissed and made up, with Mott’s hiring Chell as a spokesman to promote their product.
The Caesar is sometimes referred to as the Bloody Caesar, due to its similarity to the Bloody Mary cocktail so popular in the USA. The Bloody Mary is like a bland and uninteresting Caesar, made with Vodka and tomato juice, and a few of the same spices as a Caesar.
Interestingly, Clamato juice has never enjoyed the same popularity in its home country of the USA has it has in Canada. Many Canucks have been greeted with blank stares when requesting a Caesar at a bar south of the border, although it can be found in popular tourist spots from NYC to Tijuana.
Many restaurants and bars like to differentiate themselves with their own unique spin on the Caesar, substituting the celery stalk with pickled asparagus, or swapping out the Tabasco for Frank’s Red Hot, or switching from vodka to tequila.
As a traditionalist, I prefer my Caesar to be prepared using the classic 1,2,3,4,5 rule. Start with 1 shot of vodka, add 2 dashes of Tabasco, 3 dashes of salt & pepper, 4 dashes of Worcestershire, and 5 ounces of clamato in a rimmed highball tumbler containing a celery stalk and lime wedge.
The only deviation I make from the classic recipe is to substitute the traditional Mott’s Clamato juice for the Vancouver-based Walter Caesar mix, a small-batch crafty Canadian alternative to the USA-based Mott’s. As an added bonus, the Walter Caesar mix is gluten-free, uses sustainably-sourced North Atlantic clams, and is named as homage to the one and only Walter Chell, the skilled bartender who invented the Caesar in Calgary’s Westin Hotel back in 1969.
Walter Caesar mix has only been on the market since 2015, so is still very much the underdog against Mott’s Clamato, which has all the marketing muscle of the Kraft Heinz conglomerate behind it. To support our domestic booze industry, I try to keep my Caesar ingredients as local as possible, with the craftier Walter Caesar mix from Vancouver, along with Alberta-made vodka from one of our many fine craft distillers. Isn’t it time you made yourself a Caesar?