OPINION: Hail Caesar! Our national cocktail turns 50 (or maybe 119)

Phil Egan

There’s an old saying that Victory has a thousand fathers while Defeat is an orphan.

That may apply to a particularly Canadian icon. On Thursday, May 16, our national drink will mark its 50th birthday on National Caesar Day.

With more than one million Caesars downed every day in Canada, it is this country’s favourite cocktail.

The drink, Canadian mixologists will tell you, was invented at The Calgary Inn (today the Westin) by a bartender named Walter Chell. The hotel asked Chell to create a new drink to celebrate the opening of the property’s new Italian restaurant, Marco’s.

The Montenegro-born Chell was raised by Jesuits in an Italian orphanage before coming to Canada. He claimed he was inspired by the clam flavour of “spaghetti vongole,” – one of Chell’s favourite dishes. The drink consisted of 1.5 ounces of vodka, two dashes of hot sauce, three dashes of salt and pepper, and four dashes of Worcestershire sauce, topped by a mixture of tomato juice and clam broth – over time, replaced by mass-manufactured Clamato juice.

But regardless of Calgary’s claim, Chell’s concoction was not the first clam-infused vodka cocktail. Far from it.

In November of 1953, a similar drink was introduced at Manhattan’s Polonaise nightclub and christened the “Smirnoff Smiler.” Columnist Walter Winchell wrote about it, increasing its popularity.

Tabasco sauce later appeared as an ingredient in 1959 in another duplication of the formula known as the “Gravel Gertie.” Then, in 1962, the “Imperial Clam Digger” appeared at the Baker Hotel in Dallas. It added a garnish of basil and dash of lime to a version of the Smirnoff Smiler called the Clam Digger.

Calgary’s claim of inventing the Caesar grew even murkier in 1968, when Seagram (located in Manhattan two blocks from the Polonaise nightclub) and Motts (creator of Motts Clamato juice) attempted to patent the “Clamdigger” cocktail and ran a national campaign to promote it.

But the basic concept of a clam cocktail may be even older. As writer Michael Platt revealed in an article for the Calgary Sun, you can find a recipe for a clam juice cocktail in a 1900 edition of Modern American Drinks. Even Betty Crocker’s 1951 cookbook contains a version.

Calgary’s Chell, it seems, added the celery-salt rim, a celery stalk, and the lime wedge.

Hmmm. Inventing the Caesar might not be as impressive as Calgary claims. But they deserve credit for one thing – they promoted the drink into a national staple.

So, Happy Birthday, Caesar! Whether you’re 50 or 119, Canadians still love you.