Spiking a vodka and tomato juice with clam essence is cocktail bliss for Caesar-swilling Canucks, but the combination in this oh-so-Canadian cocktail wasn’t always so obvious. In fact, according to Alberta researchers, it took months for Calgary bartender and Caesar inventor Walter Chell to hit the perfect proportions.
A mixologist at the Calgary Inn before mixologist was a title, Walter was tasked with creating a cocktail to celebrate the 1969 opening of the inn’s new restaurant, Marco’s Italian. Inspired by his favourite Italian dish, spaghetti vongole, Chell set out to create a cocktail that would capture the pasta’s hearty clam and tomato flavours.
Eventually he came up with the recipe Canadians have come to love: vodka mixed with clam-infused tomato juice, lime, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, with a delicious celery salt rim. If we’re being honest (and after a few Caesars, who can lie?), the thought of a clam-based cocktail is a little strange — even for those of us who know how good it is. But surprisingly, Walter Chell wasn’t the first to come up with the concept. As Michael Platt notes in an article for the Calgary Sun, a 1900 copy of Modern American Drinks contains a recipe for a clam juice cocktail, as does a 1951 Betty Crocker cookbook. “So then what did Calgary’s beloved father of the Caesar really do?” asks Platt. “That’s like asking what Henry Ford did for the motor car or The Beatles did for music.”
Simply put, Chell perfected the recipe, taking it from clammy outlier to a red hot hit. Soon after, Mott’s beverage company released what is arguably the world’s best-known clam-infused tomato juice, Clamato.
Chell invented the Caesar, but widespread distribution of Clamato brought it to homes and bars across the country. According to an Ipsos-Reid poll commissioned by the company in 2009, the Caesar or Bloody Caesar, is the most popular cocktail in Canada; Mott’s estimates that more than 350 million are consumed each year.
But beyond the occasional American article praising the “Canadian Bloody Mary,” Chell’s blend of sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter notes hasn’t gotten much love beyond our borders. Never mind – here, it’s not only a source of pride, but it’s a symbol of Canada’s changing demography and Canadians’ expanding palates.
Modern variations reflect international influences, substituting or enhancing British Worcestershire sauce with horseradish, wasabi, kimchi, chipotle, sriracha, teriyaki, tandoori, jerk spice, Dijon mustard or any number of flavours. A staple at Canada Day celebrations and weekend brunches and a drink as red as our flag, the Caesar is a cocktail that can rightly claim that it came, it quenched, and it conquered Canada.