The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Why the Caesar is increasing in popularity south of the border

CaesarThumbnailCanadians love drinking caesars. It seems a fact foolish to dispute, which is why many north of the border, this writer included, are shocked and almost offended the first time we realize our flavorful favorite isn't readily available in our neighboring country.

Or is it?

The first time I tried a bloody mary, the caesar's similar but distinctly different stepsibling, was at an American airport bar during a layover flight en route to Vegas. Like so many unknowing Canadian travellers, I ordered a caesar without thinking twice. After having to explain to a perplexed bartender how to make the drink, she assured me that what I wanted was a bloody mary. I gave in, and nearly choked on the unexpected thick texture and sweetness. Why, I asked myself, would Americans settle for a bloody mary when there was, in my opinion, such an exceptional alternative?

Turns out, there are a number of reasons why many Americans don't know about the caesar, and why it is slowly but steadily growing in popularity in the States.

Birth of the Caesar

What many Canadians would find shocking is that the caesar wasn't actually inventedCaesar3Bartenders at the Mount Royal University’s campus bar, the Hub, say the caesar is a very popular drink.

Photo by Tera Swanson
 in Canada. Walter Chell is widely credited with concocting the cocktail in 1969 at what is now the Westin Hotel in Calgary. He was inspired after noting the complementing flavours of clams and tomatoes found in many Italian dishes, and decided to try to mimic that flavour in a drink. However, in 2010, Canadian freelance journalist Adam McDowell uncovered an American recipe for a cocktail made with vodka, tomato and clam juice, which was made well before Chell's caesar.

What does this mean for the cocktail we so dearly call our own? Not much, according to dual-citizen Christine Sismondo, who has written books on the histories of cocktails.

"A lot of Canadian bartenders got really upset with (McDowell) when he discovered this earlier reference and there was a bit of an uproar about... the idea that our Canadian drink could be talked about as an American one," said Sismondo, who is currently completing a PhD in History at York University.

"But it's sort of irrelevant, because it didn't take off in the United States. They may have come up with a clam juice-tomato cocktail before us; but they didn't embrace it."

Bloody Mary over the Caesar

It may not necessarily be that Americans dislike the taste of caesars, but that they already have such a dominant, American-invented cocktail that is so similar in content, making the caesar unheard of. According to Sismondo, the firm spot that tomato juice and bloody marys have taken on American drink menus may be why the caesar has been ineffective at squeezing its way in.

"The marketing was really wonderful with tomato juice; for a while it was sort of conceived of as this brand new fresh thing that was really healthy, and really good for you," said Sismondo. "And it was new because the commercial processing of tomatoes into juice – it took a while before it could become a readily available commercial product.

"So when it did it was really flashy and they put a lot of money into good branding."

Nationalistic pride and a rich history could be another factor contributing for Americans' preference for the bloody mary.

Sismondo says: "The bloody mary has these great stories in the United States about the connection with Hemmingway, and Paris in the '20s, and all of these wonderful origin stories of celebrities who claim to have invented it.

"The American bloody mary stories are fantastic and there's so many of them to pick from, and then ours (the caesar's) is kind of modest and humble."

Still, the unfamiliarity of the caesar may be most likely attributed to its relative infancy. Troy Wanner, co-owner of Kelowna-based company, the Fine Art Bartending School, says that in terms of cocktails, the caesar is still fairly new.

"A lot of drinks have been around for 200 or 300 years, so 45 years really isn't that long," he said. "In another 45 years I would not be shocked if it's readily available everywhere (in the States)."

Making an American comeback

Wanner took over the 40-year-old Fine Art Bartending School company in 2003, and has been working with his business partner to open schools in the States. In collaborating with American bartending schools, creating textbooks for Canadian and American schools, and his own personal travelling experiences, he has noted a surge in popularity of the caesar south of the border in the past five to 10 years.

CaesarNatasha Gill, a bartender at Mount Royal University’s campus bar, the Hub, she makes a couple dozen caesars for patrons per shift.

Photo by Tera Swanso
Increased travel between Canada and the United States since 1969 could be a key reason for this recent surge, especially at popular travel destinations for Canadians, according to Wanner.

"(Canadians) ask for a caesar not knowing that it's a strictly Canadian drink. So people ask what it is, and over time, if you get asked for a caesar 100 times a day, the owner of the place is going to start thinking."

Wanner suggests that exponential growth in technology in the past decade has also contributed to the spreading of the caesar, and that with a faster-paced society it's easy for people to learn about the cocktail by word-of-mouth and a quick online Google-search.

"It just sort of took off," he noted. "Five years ago, going to places that have a lot of Canadians, they wouldn't serve (a caesar). You'd get tomato juice. It's been more and more in the last couple of years that you can get a caesar basically any place in the States–always in border towns for sure."

This is especially true of the Great Northern Bar & Grill in Whitefish, Mont. Dan McArthy, a bartender of 25 years, said that the caesar has always been popular in Whitefish, but has also noted an increase in their popularity with Americans in the past five years. He attributes it to a younger crowd and generation wanting to try out a new drink.

"We have a lot of Canadians come in, and then other people see them drinking it and ask, 'What's that?' and I say, 'It's a bloody mary with Clamato juice.' The next question is, 'What's Clamato juice?' and then they'll want to try it. Some people try it with Clamato and tomato juice in the same drink."

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Correction: Due to an editing error, Troy Wanner's name was mispelled in an earlier version of the story. The Calgary Journal regets the error.