Canada’s favourite hangover cure has a secret: It’s not really Canadian after all.
Cocktail existed long before it was mixed in a Calgary hotel restaurant
It comes from shady world of hangover cure
Afrequently repeated myth has it that the unlikely fellows of clam broth, tomato juice, vodka and spicy sauces were first married in a hotel restaurant in Calgary in 1969, thenceforth to spread their tangy (and slightly fishy) deliciousness from sea to sea to sea, travelling wherever Canadians ventured.
The Caesar, beloved despite its oddball combination of flavours, has been called the quintessential Canadian cocktail, as Canadian as hockey, and an important Calgary contribution to both the culinary arts and our national heritage. A 2006 CBC poll named it the 13th greatest Canadian invention ever.
Now, are you sitting down? With a Caesar, perhaps? What if we were to tell you that the Caesar (or Bloody Caesar) was invented, albeit under a different name, at least six decades earlier — and likely not in Canada?
With the help of U.S. cocktail guru David Wondrich, I have unearthed evidence that proves the Caesar’s defining trio of vodka, tomato and clam juice were well acquainted long before meeting in a Calgary hotel restaurant in 1969.
But first, the legend, which usually goes like this: The late Walter Chell, beverage director of Marco’s Restaurant at the Calgary Inn — now the Westin Calgary — was trying to come up with a drink to celebrate the opening of the Italian eatery. He took vodka, tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce — a Bloody Mary, essentially — and, inspired by spaghetti vongole (i.e., spaghetti with clams), he added clam juice to it. The unappetizing-sounding blend caught fire with customers, but only Canadian ones. “It took off like a rocket,” Chell told The Toronto Star in 1994.
Mott’s invented Clamato in response later in 1969, and the rest is Canadian cocktail history.
The story became well known among cocktail enthusiasts and made the Westin Calgary, as the Calgary Inn is now called, into a pilgrimage destination.
Not that every Canadian heard the tale. “I can hardly believe it, it’s like no one ever really realized it was my dad who invented it,” said Joan Chell, Walter’s daughter, in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen around the time of her father’s death in April 1997.
The trouble with the story (which I repeated myself, unquestioningly, in my drinks column in the Financial Post Magazine last year) is proof that drinks recognizable as Caesars existed before 1969. At most, Mr. Chell came up with the name “Caesar,” perfected the formula and managed to popularize a rather loony proposition of a drink that had only existed in obscurity before.
The Walter Chell story always seemed a little — well, fishy — to me. Specifically, why would Mott’s create a product to go with a drink invented just months earlier, in (no offence) Calgary in the 1960s of all places? It didn’t add up.
Then one night I found something that sounded a lot like a Caesar in an old cocktail book. Frank Meier was the bartender at the Ritz Bar in Paris in the 1930s. His bar manual, The Artistry of Mixing Drinks (you can buy a beautifully produced reproduction of it at mudpuddlebooks.com), includes a Clam Juice cocktail of tomato ketchup, celery salt, Tobasco sauce and clam juice.
In Paris. In 1936. My Canadian cocktail-loving eyes popped out of their sockets a little.
Soon after, I found two separate recipes for a Clam and Tomato Cocktail in the Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide of 1972. Did the Caesar make its way from Calgary in 1969 to Trader Vic’s stomping grounds of northern California in time to be included in the 1972 book? In a conver- sation this week, his grandson, Peter Seely, agreed with me that it seemed improbable.
It was time to consult David Wondrich, a New York-based cocktail writer, whose expertise on the history of mixed drinks is arguably unmatched.
Mr. Wondrich consulted his large database of cocktail lore and uncovered five 20th-century newspaper accounts mentioning clam cocktails, some very much recognizable as what Canadians would call a Caesar. Most of the evidence points to an origin in New York state.
In the Sept. 28, 1909 edition of the New York Evening Telegram, Emma Paddock Telford offered recipes by “Andy,” the chef of an unnamed chop house. His “Dewey Clam Juice Cocktail” sounds awfully close to the modern Caesar (see sidebar).
“Once you’ve got the lemon, the tomato and the clam together, I think you’re pretty close” to a Caesar, Mr. Wondrich said.
Andy told Ms. Telford the drink was created in honour of Admiral George Dewey capturing the Spanish fleet during the Spanish-American War. This would place its invention way back in May 1898 — but skepticism is warranted when it comes to barroom stories about drinks.
Even further back, in 1886, the New York Star observed that “most men about town know the virtues of a cocktail of clam juice before breakfast.”
“It comes from the shady world of the hangover cure, which is not surprising. Most good drinks spent their time there,” said Mr. Wondrich, whose 2007 book Imbibe! has helped catalyze a revival for pre-Prohibition-style cocktails.
Like a tiny clam stuck to a big rock, the proto-Caesar seems to have clung to the margins of 20th century cocktail culture. “As to adding vodka to it, that comes a little later, I think,” Mr. Wondrich said.
The earliest mention of booze comes from the early 1950s. The addition of vodka would make the drink into something most present-day Canadians would identify as a Caesar. However, the New York swells who swilled these Caesar-like drinks in the post-War period knew them by other names. For example, the Clam Digger.
More on that name in a moment. For now, back to the Walter Chell legend. Just about every time a Canadian publication recounts the story, it includes an anecdote about a Canadian trying to order one in the States and being met with a blank stare. Americans could never groove to the Caesar’s weirdness.
While they may not hold it as close to their hearts as we do, a few Americans drink Caesars. They just don’t call them that. Try Googling “Clam Digger cocktail.” It turns out we Canadians could have been drinking Caesars in parts of the States all along, if only we’d known what to call them.
“That could rock the entire nation,” said Rob Montgomery, head bartender at Toronto’s Miller Tavern — and maker of a mean Caesar — when faced with the news this week. “There will be some great debates happening around the bar.”
Canada Dry Mott’s stuck with Walter Chell in a statement released to the Post yesterday.
“What Canadians have now enjoyed for 40 years as the Caesar cocktail was created by Walter Chell … in 1969,” the statement said.
“With its campaign to have the Caesar recognized as Canada’s National Cocktail, Canada Dry Mott’s celebrates the Classic Caesar Cocktail.”
The general manager of the Westin Calgary also stuck with the Chell story, writing in an email: “The Caesar’s roots remain with and at The Westin Calgary. The naming of the drink at the then Calgary Inn by Walter Chell started a cultural phenomenon that remains to this day and a cocktail that is a Canadian treasure.”
The Westin’s Ross Meredith continued: “As we have for the last 40 years, we welcome locals and visitors alike from near and far to delight in many of our Caesar inspired offerings at the hotel.”
The Post was unable to reach any of Walter Chell’s living relatives.
Mr. Wondrich — who has done his share of cocktail myth-busting and knows how feelings can get bruised — says Walter Chell deserves credit for his accomplishments, even if he was not the first to think up the vod- ka-tomato-clam-spice combination that defines the Caesar.
“He might have added the final Bloody Mary touches to it,” he said. “All we know is he wasn’t the first to mix the main components.”
Those with a stake in the Walter Chell legend can take comfort in the fact that he was able to win popularity for a drink that had never enjoyed much of it before.
“It’s one thing having a drink sort of exist. It’s another thing making it popular,” Mr. Wondrich said.
“He might have reinvented it on its own. New ingredients come along and you get similar ideas. He might have added the name to it, and the name’s important.”
And Mr. Chell seems to have pioneered a formula that made the Caesar palatable. His obituary in the Ottawa Citizen spoke of three months of labour to get the formula just right, which is believeable. Earlier recipes were not as successful. The Ritz Bar one is downright gross.
Whatever Mr. Chell’s contribution, he gave Canadian bartenders a perennial hot-seller in an otherwise cocktail-averse country, as well as a template for experimentation (see sidebar).
Canadians, said Mr. Montgomery, the Toronto bartender, “won’t abandon the drink. It’s woven into the fabric of the country, and will carry on. We own it. If anything, [the questions about its origins are] probably going to make it more popular than ever. Some people who haven’t had one in a while will say, ‘ I’m going to have one.’ ”
This country’s ongoing Caesar mania, said the American Mr. Wondrich, “says something good about Canada. It’s not an obvious drink. It’s a little bit odd, but it’s kind of hardcore and cool.”