“It’s kind of like a Bloody Mary—but better,” is the way Canadians typically describe our confounding signature cocktail. “Clam juice?” visitors from the U.S. or U.K. reply, doubting the necessity of the seemingly exotic ingredient. But it’s precisely that alchemy of sweet and spicy and citrusy and, yes, a little fishy that creates the umami the Caesar is known and celebrated for—at least within our borders. Outside of Canada, drinkers are often baffled by the Caesar. Some might try to argue that the common Bloody Mary is our national drink. It is not.
It’s known nationwide as our country’s cocktail, but credit for the Caesar really goes to Calgary. The best Caesars in Calgary may indeed be the best overall. A half-century ago, a bartender at the Calgary Inn (now the Westin) was charged with mixing a cocktail to mark the opening of the hotel’s new Italian restaurant. Taking his inspiration from linguine with tomato and clams, Walter Chell invented the Bloody Caesar.
The cocktail’s success was aided by synchronicity. Mott’s portmanteau of a beverage, Clamato juice, became widely available in Canada in 1966, just three years before Chell mixed the first Caesar. For both the drink and its key ingredient, the timing couldn’t have been better—and yet when it comes to the element of time, the Caesar manages to defy it. Think of it this way: there’s a certain gaucheness to asking for a Negroni or an Old Fashioned before (let’s be generous here) 4 o’clock. A Caesar, however, can be ordered without any awkward feelings as soon as the bar opens and right up until it closes. In some Canadian airports that means 24 hours a day.
How and why did Caesar achieve this elevated, okay-to-order-at-breakfast position over most other alcoholic beverages? “It’s like a meal on its own,” says Aisha Zaman, bartender and general manager at Calgary’s Deane House. “Because of the tomato juice, I find that a lot of guests who had a big night the night before, they’re going to go for it. It’s a good way to get some salt and some vitamins in you. Plus it’s just part of that meal—when you think of brunch or when you think of a big breakfast, you think about a Caesar.”
Deane House sits on the edge of a city park in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood. Its surrounding gardens are the source of some of the restaurant’s local-ingredients-only menu items. Recently, its Tenement Bar also switched over from using imported cocktail-making elements to those that could be grown within a small radius of the city. For the Caesar, that means forgoing lemons and limes and replicating their citrusy flavour with sea buckthorn berries. It’s evidence that the city’s inventive new wave of cocktail culture, while continuing to evolve, hasn’t forgotten its signature drink. As Zaman mixed me a Caesar (gin instead of vodka and Walter’s small-batch Caesar mix featuring sustainably sourced clam juice instead of Mott’s), local miniatures artist Tom Brown made his own tiny version, created using handmade, functional tools smaller than the size of a Canadian quarter.
Fans of the cocktail can also order well-garnished Caesar flights at Calgary’s Free House or drive out to the foothills of Turner Valley to visit Eau Claire Distillery where Winnipeg-born, Scotland-raised master distiller Caitlin Quinn will chat about their meticulous gin-making process while the house bartender mixes what might be the best and spiciest Caesar in the province. Taking advantage of the fact that I was accompanied by a designated driver, I had two.
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