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September 23, 2019

All Hail Caesar

Vodka isn’t the only spirit that reigns over this classic Canadian drink

Photography Daniel Wood; styling Seth Van Havere

Travel outside Canada and you’ll get a quizzical look when you order a Caesar. Try describing the drink – a celery salt rim, vodka, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and Clamato  – to bartenders south of the border and you might end up with a Bloody Mary. “Cla-ma-to? You mean tomato juice?”

Though it graces nearly every drink menu from coast to coast in the Great White North, the cocktail’s popularity begins and ends at the border. The drink is uniquely Canadian; it originated and was popularized here at home. And, like the Roman Emperor for whom the drink is named, the Caesar’s popularity means that, in a cocktail climate focused on craft and experimentation, it is also a target for change.

“I was born free as Caesar”

The Caesar isn’t just Canadian, it’s Albertan. The clammy cocktail was born in Calgary in 1969 when the bar manager at the Calgary Inn (now the Westin Calgary) created a signature cocktail for the opening of the inn’s new Italian restaurant, Marco’s. Of Italian heritage himself, Walter Chell toyed with the idea of a cocktail inspired by an Italian dish, and zeroed in on a spaghetti-and-clam dish, spaghetti vongole, for his muse. Chell added his own hand-mushed clam nectar to tomato juice, spices, oregano, Worcestershire sauce and an ounce of vodka, topped it with a celery garnish, and named it the Caesar.

“The genius and the mortal instruments”

It’s doubtful the Caesar would have caught on if each bartender was expected to hand-crush his or her own clam juice, but, as luck would have it, the Mott’s company began work on its own clam-and-tomato mixture that same year. Mott’s even hired Chell to consult on its Clamato mixture and, when it was released, Mott’s used him to introduce the concept in ads. Today, Mott’s claims that more than “350 million Caesars are made with Mott’s Clamato every year” in Canada.

“Et tu, Brute?”

Like the drink’s namesake, purists would say the original recipe for the Caesar has also been betrayed. New concoctions based on the original, with minor tweaks – like horseradish and a celery salt rim, and pickled beans or asparagus instead of celery – have popped up over the years. Cask & Barrel co-owner Susan Forsey recalls a time when gin and tequila were popular substitutes for vodka. But lately, whiskey is the new rage.

The barbecue joint, Meat, just off Whyte Avenue, serves Buffalo Trace bourbon rather than vodka in its Meat Caesar, while places like Cask & Barrel serve Scotch Caesar creations. Its version, “The Suzer,” came into being when Forsey and her staff sampled an Ardbeg 10-year Scotch during a product knowledge tasting. Forsey was reminded of the spice of pepperoni – a flavour she thought would compliment the savoury salt and spice of a Caesar. She added a pepperoni garnish just to drive the point home. “It actually has quite a following,” Forsey says. “There are customers who come here just for the Suzer, and it outsells the original.”

Recipe

The Suzer

Courtesy Susan Forsey of Cask & Barrel

1 oz. Ardbeg 10-year Scotch and 4 oz. Mott’s Clamato

 dashes Tabasco and 3-4  dashes Worcestershire sauce

Celery salt

Rim glass with celery salt. Mix Scotch, Tabasco, Clamato and Worcestershire sauce. Serve garnished with pepperoni stick.

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