I’ll admit it: I don’t like caesars.
Yes, I know it’s our nation’s official drink, and it’s not that I’m a poor patriot: I’ll happily pour myself a glug of rye whisky or crack a can of craft beer. I’ll mind my mimosa while my friends put back rounds of salt-rimmed caesars at brunch, but I’ll pick up their caesar mix for cottage weekends.
I just never understood the allure of the tomato juice and clam broth-based drink. In my mind, it’s simply a hangover saver — a silly brunch trope, not a serious cocktail. Nevertheless, 400 million caesars are consumed annually in Canada alone. What am I missing? I recently hopped on a plane west to figure it out.
400 million caesars are consumed annually in Canada
Shortly after I arrive, I throw open the curtains of my hotel room, and the Calgary Tower seems within touching distance. While the prairies seem flat, wherever you walk in this city, you can catch a glimpse of the Rockies in the distance, still snow-capped despite the warmth of the summer season.
There are many tall tales about the origin of the caesar. Some say it hails from Caesars Palace in Vegas. Others trace its roots back to a 1900 copy of Modern American Drinks containing a recipe for a clam-juice cocktail. But most are in agreement that we have one man to thank for the classic Canadian cocktail: Calgary’s Walter Chell.
In 1969, Chell served as the food and beverage director of The Calgary Inn (now the Westin Hotel). He was well-coiffed and frequently seen sporting a carefully curled moustache, a tailored blazer, tie and white oxford shirt. As lore goes, one night he was manning the Owl’s Nest bar when the hotel owner asked him to make a signature drink for the new Italian restaurant. Chell’s mind immediately went to one of his favourite dishes: spaghetti alle vongole, a briny, brothy, clam-topped pasta.
So, Chell carefully put some celery salt on a plate, dipped a highball glass into it and filled it with ice. In a shaker, he added four dashes of worcestershire sauce, a turn of pepper, a shot of vodka, a dash of oregano and his vongole-inspired mix of clam and tomato juice. Chell shook it hard and garnished the drink with a celery spear and a sprig of parsley. The caesar was born.
At the time, Chell’s caesar cost $1.80. Now, it’s a little pricier, but there are plenty of fans who think it’s worth splurging on. “We have visitors who come from all over and make the trek here for our caesar,” says Michael Batke, the Westin Calgary’s executive chef. “It’s spicy and briny and gets your mouth watering: It almost makes you hungry.”
“This year, we’re hoping to make the world’s largest caesar,” he adds.
While Chell garnished his caesar conservatively, the city’s other bartenders do no such thing. The first stop on my caesar crawl is Cleaver on 17th Avenue, a high-energy pub opened by Irish expat Barbara Spain. It’s a big hit with the late-night crowd.
Here, the caesar is so stacked it lives on the food menu, not the drinks list. One glance and you’ll understand why: The garnishes blossom from the top of the glass. It’s fully loaded with fried chicken wings (plural), a jalapeno waffle, house-made corn dog, a stacked beef slider and a slice of bacon, for good measure.
Spain eyes the Goliath-sized caesar, “I keep trying to take it off the menu, but I can’t. It’s so time consuming for us.” Every single topping is made in-house, from the waffles to the brioche buns to corndogs, ground down from scratch with local pork. Chicken is brined for days then sous-vide in chicken drippings. When it’s a full house on a Friday night, she says, “It’s a bitch for the kitchen, but our customers just love it.”
Where better to start my caesar indoctrination? I sidle up to the wooden bar at Cleaver and brace myself for a sickly sip of vodka-spiked soup. But Cleaver’s caesar — my first since a friend slid hers across a table for me to try over a decade ago — is delicious. It balances salty, savoury, sweet and spicy in one sip. Flavours are nuanced but refreshing, balanced but piquant, and each slurp has a good kick of sambal to offset the brightness. Despite my brain’s instinct that I hate caesars — who blends vodka, clam broth, hot sauce and worcestershire? — I am a convert. I love it.
As I continue on my caesar crawl across Calgary, I learn a few things. My biggest lesson: the drink isn’t something to chug — that’s a mimosa’s job — it’s something to savour. (When your drink is stacked like Cleaver’s, perhaps that’s a given.)
“I can only ever have one or two caesars,” says the Westin’s Batke. “It’s just a lovely way to start off a night.”
I also learn that while the caesar is a historic Canadian drink, the recipe doesn’t need you to follow tradition. The caesar is a blank canvas, a place to play for bartenders. Add different citrus, swap in tequila, pile on your garnishes or pour in the hot sauce.
“It’s simple,” explains Lauren Mote, an award-winning bartender, caesar aficionado and author of the upcoming book A Bartender’s Guide To The World. “It’s just a really great drink. It’s no wonder that the caesar is so popular — it’s the ultimate customizable drink.”
While caesars are served at almost every restaurant in Calgary, each one is completely unique. “Ultimately, there are just two things needed to make a caesar: the umami and the garnish,” says Mote.
“The powerful umami sensation, whether it’s clams, black garlic or white soy, makes a big difference,” she explains. “When it comes to the garnish, be it a classic celery stalk and celery-salt rim, or something more intense, like a mini burger or a bouquet of pickles, the sky’s the limit. The iconic drink is typically served in a sturdy, tall glass for a reason, so load up the toppings!”
Hawthorn Restaurant at the Fairmont Palliser hotel uses non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip Garden 108 to make a no-ABV option. It’s perfect for brunch when you’re nursing the woes of the prior evening but aren’t quite ready for a real hair of the dog — spicy, tangy and highly quaffable. Best of all, if you stay at the Westin, you can get a full DIY caesar bar sent to your room.
On weekends, slide up to The Beltliner’s weekend caesar bar. Pick your base spirit (gin, vodka or tequila), add worcestershire, hot sauce, Clamato and a smoked-chili rim, and stack your caesar from there. They offer all sorts of accoutrements, including...cupcakes.
Drive south from the city to Big Sky BBQ and taste through 13 different caesars. These range from the simple riffs (with White Owl Whisky, Hog Wild hot sauce and Clamato) to supremely strange: The $30 BBQ King caesar includes vodka, Clamato, lime juice, chicken, sausage, a pork rib, two spuds, bacon, an entire pulled pork sandwich and a garnish of brisket. Come hungry.
Outside of stackables, there are plenty of tweaks to Chell’s original recipe. Also in Calgary, The NTNL caesar at National on 17th adds a splash of IPA to its caesar for effervescence and depth. Eau Claire Distillery, located an hour outside the city in Turner Valley, distills its own dill-pickle vodka and adds it to house-made clam-tomato juice. It’s delicious in its own right (and canned so you can carry some home), but the experience of sipping it in the Prohibition-inspired distillery makes everything taste that much better.
While Eau Claire has a standard bottle shop and tasting room, next door is a clandestine, speakeasy-style bar. Slip inside a door marked ‘Alberta Temperance and Moral Reform League,’ and you’ll be greeted with strong drinks served in a space kitted out with turn-of-the-century furniture.
By this point, I was so enamoured that I caught myself ordering caesars purely for pleasure, not for ‘research.’ I stop into Orchard Restaurant, a bustling brunch spot with a verdant canopy of greenery hanging over diners, to refuel. When the server asks what I’d like to drink, I blurt out, “A caesar, please!”
Mote continues, “Over the years we’ve found new and interesting ways of adding that briny, umami flavour to the drink without clams, to ensure everyone can participate, even those who don’t or can’t eat shellfish. For those looking to add their own twist, tequila or Islay whisky work really well in place of the base spirit, or you can try removing spirits completely for an alcohol-free option.” (Though Mote herself prefers just Patron Silver tequila, celery salt, Bittered Sling Kensington aromatic bitters and “lots of hot sauce.”)
Back in Toronto, The Federal garnishes its caesars with a few Cool Ranch Doritos, while Rodney’s Oyster House opts for a curly Gulf shrimp as the crowning garnish. Score on King is happy to garnish your caesar the old fashioned way, but the showstopper is their Checkmate Caesar, topped with a burger, a pulled-pork mac-and-cheese hot dog, a slider, onion rings, a full cornish hen, hot wings, and a brownie. It’s $60 and serves a minimum of two.
The only real defining factor? Mott’s or Walter’s? Mott’s, arguably the reigning name for caesar mix, is technically an American product. Mott’s took off in the 1960s alongside the rise of the cocktail. Now, the brand is leaning into more creative flavours. They have pickled bean, cucumber basil and a fancy reserve label, made with fire-roasted jalapeno purée. They also have cans of pre-made caesars that come in flavours like gin and cucumber; chipotle lime; and sriracha.
Walter Craft Caesar mix was founded in 2013 and named after Chell, the godfather of caesars. The brand now makes a variety of flavours, including original, mild, spicy, vegan and smoky maple. In the winter season, they spike the original recipe with lobster, sage and tarragon to get you in holiday spirits. Every year, they sell enough mix to make 6 million caesars. “It’s the ultimate flavour adventure,” confirms Mote.
Walter founders are so enamoured with caesars, they’ve written a book about it, collecting recipes from bartenders and chefs. Star bartender Kaitlyn Stewart made a fish-sauce-spiked caesar topped with an oyster while Ryan Reynolds, who needs little introduction, made a martini with a dash of Walter’s to dirty it up. There are even savoury food recipes, like a caesar wedge salad with jerk shrimp from Patois’ Craig Wong to albacore tuna tostadas with a caesar marinade from Maison Publique’s Derek Dammann in Montreal.
Ontario’s Matt & Steve started their own caesar journey by making the perfect partner for caesars: Extreme Beans, a brined green bean with a big crunchy, tangy flavour. The garnishes were so popular they extended the line to include pre-batched caesars made with charcoal-filtered Canadian vodka, tomatoes, spices and a splash of bean brine in place of clam juice.
I guess the summation of the drink is its versatility. Make it spicy, add bacon, keep it vegan or go light. Regardless of how you spin it — or what you top it with — the caesar is truly Canada’s national cocktail. It’s a liquid love letter to the country, a comfort food and a Canadian passport all in one cocktail.
As I slide up to the airport bar to pass the time while waiting for my plane home, I know there is one thing on the agenda to ride out the time: a caesar, extra spicy.