In honour of Canada’s impending 150th birthday, we’re re-publishing some of the most Canadian content from the Billy vaults … This article was originally published on May 17
Friends, bro-mans, countrywomen, lend me your cheers. I come not to toast the caesar, but to bury it.
Well, not bury it – but to give it a little kick it has long deserved, and I don’t mean extra Tabasco sauce.
Today is National Caesar Day, which is one of those made-up social media holidays meant to draw attention to someone’s public relations or marketing client. (If you think I’m being cynical, you are a precious, innocent flower.)
“I am so bloody tired of the caesar.”
With Canada’s 150th anniversary approaching as well, I fear the patriotism factor will cause the country to overflow with its usual exaggerated mania for the oddball drink. As usual we will cast too great a share of the spotlight on one particular actor, thus upstaging every other worthy contributor to the starry firmament of Canadian mixology. Having been a drinks writer in Canada for 11 years and counting, I am so bloody tired of the caesar. Please let’s refocus our attention in a way that’s a little more balanced.
And in the predictable snooze of a social media campaign, what dreams may come? What will National Caesar Day bring on Twitter and Pinterest and Instagram? The thought harrows me with fear and wonder.
For the caesar is hardly ever just a caesar anymore. No: As a nation, we seem helpless to resist a thousand motley, foolish variations. What was once a simple, humble and nearly perfect formula – a concoction of vodka, Clamato and spices with, like, a celery stalk thrown in if you were lucky – must, in the fashion of the day, be festooned with wedges of pickle, skewers of shrimp and jerkies of beef. Discretion may be the better part of valour, yet the bartenders have been at a great feast of garnishes, and stolen the scraps.
Bewildered American readers may exit the ride here
(And don’t even get me started on the newfangled alternative replacements to the flavour backbone of a classic bloody caesar: Good old Mott’s Clamato and generic celery salt, neither of which can really be improved upon. Each of the upstart caesar rims thinks itself the best shake-salt in the country. Yet nothing can out-celery salt celery salt.)
Et tu, Brute?
Look, the caesar is a fine drink, especially when kept simple. I do enjoy one, especially on a summer’s day. What could be more lovely, or more temperate? What I’m saying is the caesar is not Canada’s only cocktail. You can even argue it is not really Canada’s.
The origin story you will read over and over and over again, whether you seek it out or not, claims that Walter Chell invented the (bloody) caesar in Calgary at Marco’s Italian Restaurant in 1969.
“The Calgary story doesn’t add up.”
Alas, as I reported in the National Post a bunch of years ago, this is a tale told by a marketer, full of Calgary, signifying – nothing. My 2010 caesar-debunking story has essentially vanished from the web, but you can do better anyway: Jana G. Pruden recently surpassed my work with a more deeply researched caesar-smashing story in the Globe and Mail; for the patriotic fan of the drink, it makes for sobering reading.
What all (bloody) caesars looked like until about 2004
The gist of both of our articles was that the Calgary story doesn’t add up: The late Walter Chell certainly popularized the caesar in Canada under its present name, but there’s plenty of evidence that spicy vodka-clam-tomato-worcestershire concoctions date back to the 19th century. The ancestral versions of the caesar were probably conjured up as hangover cures, and most likely came from the United States.
Among facts that Pruden uncovered (and I had missed): The weirdness that is Clamato juice entered the world in 1953 – far too early to have been a response to Calgary’s caesar craze, as is sometimes claimed. Needless to say the people of Mott’s probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on a tomato-and-clam juice product if there wasn’t already a market for one – it seems obvious that it was developed as a base for those ancestral proto-caesars (which were called the “clamdigger,” the “Smirnoff smiler,” the “Dewey clam juice cocktail,” among other things).
Nevertheless, countrymen and women, Chell deserves our praise for his work on popularizing the drink he renamed, and as national cocktails go, the caesar isn’t a bad one – for one thing, it’s charmingly quirky. I mean: clam juice!
We know what we are, but know not what we may be
The real shame of the caesar’s dominance over Canadian cocktail-talk is that it overshadows all sorts of other cocktails worth our attention. (And by the way, just about any cocktail makes a more suitable potion than the caesar from late afternoon onwards.)
Take the habitant cocktail, for example, which emerged from Quebec City somewhere around the 1950s. That’s a half-ounce each of maple syrup and freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus 1½ to two ounces of something stiff and brown – cognac, or rye whisky, or (my choice) apple brandy – shaken well, and served up, with an optional cherry. These days decent bartenders across the country have at least heard of a habitant and can quickly Google how to make one, so try ordering it instead of a caesar.
“The caesar overshadows all sorts of other Canadian cocktails worth our attention.”
Another overlooked gem from Canada’s annals of mixological greatness, once again from a midcentury hotel bar: the Vancouver cocktail, which combines gin, the liqueur Bénédictine, and sweet vermouth into a bracing, orange-and-spice-scented cousin of both the Manhattan and the martini.
Better known among cocktail cognoscenti is the Toronto, which is similar to an old fashioned but with the addition of Fernet-Branca, a potently bitter Italian digestif. The Toronto is fashionable at better cocktail bars at home and abroad, including in the States, in a way the caesar never has been.
The only atlas you really need
For a taste of what’s going on in Canada’s mixological realm today, see some of Billy’s past articles about great places to drink in Canada. And for a deeper advance scout – or to make some of the best of contemporary Canadian cocktails at home – see the recipes and recommendations in A Field Guide to Canadian Cocktails by Scott McCallum and Victoria Walsh (published in 2015 by Appetite by Random House).
Among the cocktails you can read about in the book and then seek out in Toronto: David Greig’s celery rickey at the (Black Hoof) Cocktail Bar – a savoury take on a refreshing classic, the rickey; and from Bar Raval, Robin Goodfellow’s Torontonian, which adds elderflower to the Toronto cocktail to sweeten things up. When in Montreal, head to Nora Gray and try Ryan Gray’s amaro, whisky and apple concoction called the “polar vortex.” And at Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn, try ordering Jacob Luksic’s “the 52%,” which combines Earl Grey-infused rum with flavours of ginger beer and blueberry. And so on.
O brave new world, that has such cocktails in it! However you may celebrate Canada this year, I implore you to try some novel refreshments. A diverse country needs diversity in its drinks. If we can’t get past the same old story, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.