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Is more really more when it comes to garnishing a cocktail? Christine Sismondo learns that it's not so much excess that's best, but building a drink into an experience

When it comes to cocktail garnishes, there are two distinct schools of thought. The minimalist camp holds that a garnish should only ever be used if it adds a dimension to the drink's flavour. Those on the other side of the debate use garnishes to make a statement. And lately, when it comes to the Bloody Caesar, that statement seems to be go big or go home.

It's a story of excess – with a cherry tomato on top. At the Clamato Best Caesar in Town competition held during mid-November's Gourmet Food and Wine Expo in Toronto, a war of escalation saw garnishes from edible flowers and corn to deep-fried oysters wrapped in deep-fried bacon, maple-cured pork belly to pumpkin pie, molasses, a cookie and whipped cream, which topped a pumpkin-spice Caesar served in a hollowed-out, applewood-smoked pumpkin made by Chris Denham of Halifax's Niche Lounge.

GARNISH OPTION #1: The Butcher Shop Caesar (One-Eighty Sports Pub, Peterborough, Ont.). Sriracha celery salt for rim; Franz’s Gold Medal thick-cut double smoked bacon and house kielbasa; Franz’s beef jerky and pepperette; old cheddar, jalapeño havarti and triple-cream brie; pickled asparagus, spicy bean, dill pickle and olives.

This sweet twist might represent a new direction for the Caesar contest, which usually sees contestants maxing out on savoury spices and meat. Two years ago, for example, the contest was won by Toronto bartender Simon Hooper, whose Spirit of Canada Caesar had an entire Peking Duck crowning the glass. Gimmicky? Maybe. But the whole package – drink and garnish – was delicious (assuming you like duck).

"You've got to blow people's minds, because, with the Caesar, it's all about creating an experience," says Hooper. "Drinking tomato and clam juice with whatever kind of booze plus a bunch of spices is already pretty weird, so if you're going to go all out with Caesars, it has to be larger than life."

Although Hooper still works in the spirits industry as a brand ambassador, he is no longer tending at a bar, meaning we can't order up his duck-adorned Caesar. We must console ourselves, therefore, with alternatives, such as the Bloody Jerk at Harlem, a downtown Toronto restaurant, which comes with a skewer sporting chicken and waffles as well as candied plantain and deep-fried okra and pickles – pretty much everything you need to tackle a hangover.

GARNISH OPTION #2: The Bloody Jerk (Harlem, Toronto). Celery salt, cayenne and jerk spice for rim; 1 piece fried chicken; deep fried pickles; deep-fried okra; candied plantain; waffle; cherry tomato; house maple syrup (on the side); hot sauce (on the side).

Most people trace this gluttonous trend to Vancouver's Score on Davie, where a profligate, 5,000-calorie Checkmate Bloody Caesar involves onion rings, a burger, a pulled pork slider, chicken wings, a whole roasted chicken and a pork mac-and-cheese hot dog (whatever that is). Oh, and a brownie. The cocktail has received a lot of press over the years, no doubt satisfying the motive for offering it in the first place.

"You know how they say 'Pics Or It Didn't Happen'?" says Hooper. "If you can get a couple of crazy photos on Instagram and people start re-posting, it creates a bigger kind of platform. A lot of bars and restaurants have stopped using marketing agencies and just use social media, instead."

That said, not all reactions to extreme Caesars are positive, since they're starting to slightly resemble those photogenic soft-serve ice cream cones with the crazy toppings or, worse, something Guy Fieri would eat. Even though Hooper, himself, has tried to conquer the Checkmate (with friends), he thinks that, over all, the "bigger is better" approach is a little "macho." Instead of a pile-on of every greasy food in the house, he'd like to see a more streamlined approach to garnish construction, one that references the establishment's speciality in some way. Hooper recalls a special event at which a steak house garnished its Caesar with a piece of prime rib, and he's a fan of a seafood joint that topped its version of the drink with a lobster tail.

GARNISH OPTION #3: Tartare Caesar (Marché Bar à Tartare, Montreal). Crouton; classic beef tartare; horseradish; cornichon; boiled quail egg

Joshua Linde, owner of Walter Craft Caesar Mix, a natural-tasting, MSG-free alternative to standard commercial clam cocktails, says bartenders are starting to move away from gleeful excess. For one thing, he's seeing more build-your-own options that allow customers to choose from a "smorgasbord of toppings." Linde points to L'Gros Luxe in Montreal, which offers slider, spring roll and mini grilled cheese garnishes. Similarly, Peterborough's One Eighty Sports Pub offers artisanal meat from the family's butcher business: pepperettes, thick-cut smoked bacon, as well as house-made pickles. Here, a customer could order all the toppings – at which point, it would be called a Butcher Shop Caesar – but Lang Freeman, the pub's partner and director of operations, says that most people don't go Full Fieri and are content with some artisanal double-smoked bacon and a pickle or two.

Linde predicts that the next big Caesar shake-up will be the addition of unorthodox ingredients to the drink itself; he recently tasted recipes submitted by home enthusiasts that make use of seaweed, dashi, mirin, tamari soy, beef stock and an aquavit-herring oil that was "surprisingly good."

Ten years ago the use of tequila, or a piece of fried chicken, or a lobster tail would have seemed odd. Now, there are bars that use peat scotch whisky as the cocktail's base. It's a brave new world.

THE OG Bloody Caesar

  • Celery salt (for rim)
  • 1 lime wedge
  • Ice
  • 1½ ounces vodka (tequila, aquavit or gin are all good options)
  • 5 ounces Clam Cocktail
  • 1 dash Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tabasco sauce
  • ½ teaspoon horseradish
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • Dash sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper

Sprinkle an ample amount of celery salt on a small dry plate. Cut a slit in the middle of the lime wedge and rub it around the rim of the glass. Place the rim of the glass in the celery salt. Add ice to glass, then build the cocktail by adding all ingredients. Stir and start to garnish.

PHOTO SHOOT CREDITS Food styling by Michael Elliott/Judy Inc. Prop styling by Jason Charles Hutton/Judy Inc.