Our beloved national cocktail is as Canadian as the maple leaf – or is it?
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It is Canada's cocktail, a drink that has been described as both "a national treasure" and "a fixture of Canadian life," and that stands atop the bar as red and bold as the maple leaf itself. The Bloody Caesar is Canada's most enduringly patriotic cocktail, its creation in Calgary part of our national story.
Of course, like many legends, there are holes in the narrative. Certain ingredients that just don't combine, and questions that linger like celery salt around the rim. But we'll get to that.
The oft-told history of the Caesar reads like a hero's tale. Born in Montenegro to a countess who died during his birth, Walter Chell was raised in an Italian orphanage by Jesuits, then learned the hotel business in Switzerland before immigrating to Canada with his wife, a beautiful switchboard operator. A romantic character with Clark Gable looks who spoke seven languages and sang Figaro in the shower, Mr. Chell was working at the Calgary Inn when he was asked to create a new cocktail for the 1969 opening of Marco's Italian Restaurant.
Taking inspiration from a dish of his homeland, he hand-mashed the liquid from baby clams and mixed the juice with tomato, alcohol and seasoning in a boozy nod to pasta vongole. He experimented with the formulation of the drink, which he called the Caesar, for three months before he found the perfect mix. When he did, the story goes, there happened to be a British man at the bar who tasted it and declared, "Walter, that's a damn good bloody Caesar," thereby giving the drink its full and more formal name.
From there, as Mr. Chell said in 1994, the Bloody Caesar "took off like a rocket."
The 2014 book Caesars: The Essential Guide to Your Favourite Cocktail, written by Mott's "Caesar Mixing Officer" Clint Pattemore, says that after Mr. Chell's innovation in 1969, the Duffy-Mott Company "made life easier for bartenders and Caesar lovers alike by introducing Mott's Clamato cocktail … later that same year." By the mid-1970s, the Caesar was the most popular mixed drink in Calgary, a staple of business lunches and a favourite among high-powered oil executives, its popularity spreading steadily to the rest of the country.
While others have attempted to sidle up to the Caesar market in Canada – among them former teen idol Bobby Curtola's SeaCzar, and a newer artisan brand, Walter, named for Mr. Chell – Mott's Clamato has maintained a stronghold on the Caesar, and today is almost synonymous with the drink itself.
Mott's spokeswoman Alison Bing says Mott's Clamato juice accounts for about 95 per cent of the country's Caesar mixes, and that Canadians drank a staggering 33 million Mott's Caesars every month in 2016, or well over one million Caesars every day. Mott's marketers were behind a petition to Parliament to officially declare Caesars the country's national cocktail, and are partnered with a vodka company in promoting National Caesar Day.
As another Mott's spokeswoman said, at the time of Mr. Chell's death in 1997, "You can say our success was tied to Walter's."
If only the story could end there.
But there are rudimentary clam and tomato cocktails dating back more than 100 years, and mixing clam, tomato and Tabasco into something specifically called " clamato" juice goes back to at least 1953 in the United States, when "the nation's homemaker" Ida Bailey Allen published her own clamato recipe in papers around the country.
A year later, famed newspaperman Walter Winchell took to his nationally syndicated column to extoll the virtues of a cocktail called the Smirnoff Smiler. "Add a jigger of vodka to a glass of half tomato juice, half clam juice, plus a dash of Wooooshhhtasheer Sauce," he wrote, in a clear attempt to avoid looking up the proper spelling for Worcestershire. It was, he promised, "The best pick-me-up since Eve winked at Adam."
A company called McCormick was hawking its premade clamato juice in the United States by 1961, and Mott's was selling its clamato there in 1966 – a full three years before it was released in Canada in apparent aid of Mr. Chell's Bloody Caesar.
In fact, at the same time Mr. Chell is said to have been experimenting with his recipe, newspapers stateside were running stories about the sweeping success of the Clamdigger, a trendy new cocktail that had "shown all the signs of being America's newest vodka sensation."
According to an October, 1968, story by the Associated Press, the Clamdigger was conceived by vodka marketer Victor Fischel and Mott's salesman Ray Anrig in New York earlier that year. Their recipe: Wolfschmidt vodka with Lord Mott's Clamato. It was, in essence, a made-in-America Caesar.
But was Mr. Chell's Canadian creation, just months later, a case of cocktail copying or innocent reinvention? And what exactly makes a Caesar, anyway? Is it simply vodka and clamato, or is it defined by the combination of seasoning and garnishes? Is it the celery stalk? The Wooooshhhtasheer?
There are varying accounts of Mr. Chell's exact original formulation, but he told a reporter shortly before his death that his secret ingredient was a dash of oregano, and that his Caesar contained no Tabasco. The record is sadly silent on when celery came on the scene, and there's inconsistency around lemon and lime wedges in the cocktail's early days.
Adding to the mystery, a 2007 letter to the editor claiming that another employee at the Calgary Inn, and not Mr. Chell, had been the drink's true creator.
After nearly 50 years, unravelling the truth appears impossible.
Mr. Chell died on Easter Sunday in 1997, at the age of 71. Marco's Italian Restaurant is long closed, and the Calgary Inn is now a Westin, part of Starwood Hotels, one of the biggest hotel chains in the world. Mott's belongs to the conglomerate Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.
And, despite any questions about its origins, the Caesar remains inarguably a Canadian cocktail. There were an estimated 418,947,000 Caesars consumed in Canada last year – or about 12 for every man, woman and child – and it remains the country's most popular mixed drink. As stories about Caesars are always quick to point out, ask for one at a bar in the United States and you'll most likely be met with a blank stare. (Ask for a Clamdigger, and you'll probably get the cocktail you want, but let's not harp on that.)
To a Canadian, a Caesar is immediately recognizable and infinitely inspiring. Modern iterations have seen them topped with everything from spring rolls to an entire roast chicken, and rimmed with everything from bacon bits to Tim Hortons coffee grounds. The website for National Caesar Day shows one garnished with the traditional celery and lime, along with a piece of fried chicken, a hamburger, a clubhouse sandwich, a lobster tail, and, most importantly, a crisp Canadian flag.
Somehow, by whatever means, a man named Walter Chell captured the patriotic heart of Canadians, put it in a glass and called it a Bloody Caesar. It may not be exactly ours, but we'll take it.