In a city best known for its cowboys, landlocked Calgary seems an unlikely birthplace for Canada’s national cocktail: the Caesar. Tomato-juice-based with the key addition of clam juice, it balances sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter notes so well that 400 million Caesars are consumed annually in Canada alone (that’s 10.5 per capita). Different origin stories for the Caesar circulate, but most agree that Walter Chell played a central role in its development and that its final iteration happened in Calgary. In 1969, Chell was the hotel manager for the former Calgary Inn (now the Calgary Westin). Some say he was asked to create a new signature drink to celebrate the hotel’s new Italian restaurant. As an Italian himself, Chell drew inspiration from one of his favourite dishes, spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), and experimented with tomato juice, clam broth, vodka, Worcestershire, hot sauce and spices to create the new cocktail. Rachel Drinkle, organiser of YYCaesarFest (YYC is Calgary’s airport code), offers a different origin story. “Actually, he was making spaghetti alle vongole in the kitchen, but the sauce was too thin and couldn’t be saved so he brought it out to the bar to see what he could do with it there.” If you’ve ever had a Caesar, you know that it’s entirely plausible that you were drinking thinned out tomato sauce. The cocktail itself is delightfully spicy, briny and piquant, but saucy as well; there is texture to this drink. Who invented the Bloody Mary? Where was the first Singapore Sling poured? Regardless of the version you believe, the creativity that fuelled the drink’s conception is undeniable. And Calgarians continue to reinvent this beloved cocktail with increasing whimsy and virtuosity, which is why Drinkle created this two-day festival (taking place this year on May 19-20) celebrating the Caesar cocktail. Forty local restaurants, pubs and distilleries are taking part in this inaugural celebration, overlapping National Caesar Day (the Thursday before the long weekend in May), which was declared in 2009 by Calgary’s then mayor to commemorate the cocktail’s 40th anniversary. As Calgary’s greatest contribution to Canadian culture continues to evolve, the city has elevated the Caesar to epic proportions. The vivid colours, the garnishes, the vessels – there’s a lot to play with here. After all, this is a cocktail with clam juice. It’s not subtle. It practically dares you to make it more dramatic. Drinkle easily rattles off Calgary establishments that offer Caesar flights, Caesar trolleys (old-school dim sum-style) and even DIY build-your-own Caesar bars. At Cleaver, the Caesar Stack (C$25/US$19) is so stacked that the cocktail is listed on the food menu, not the drinks menu. It’s top-heavy with fried chicken, jalapeno waffle, jalapeno corn dog, beef slider and house bacon, all made fresh in-house. Each “garnish” is made to order in such precise detail that proprietor Barbara Spain secretly wishes people would stop asking for this labour-intensive cocktail. But it’s a fan favourite. The Caesar is bright and acidic with a hefty kick to it thanks to the addition of horseradish and sambal, and lighter than most others in town. For those who love the flavour but not the buzz, Hawthorn in the stately Fairmont Palliser hotel offers a zero-proof Garden Caesar (C$14) made with Seedlip Garden 108, a premium distilled non-alcoholic spirit. This is a deeply seasoned cocktail with a fresh, briny finish. It comes in the classic preparation or generously stacked with optional garnishes. Calgary might be unified in its love for the Caesar but there is one highly contentious point that divides all Caesar enthusiasts: which Caesar mix to use? The two main tomato and clam juice mixers are Mott’s Clamato and Walter Craft Caesar Mix (named after Walter Chell). Clamato is thinner in texture and brighter in taste, whereas Walter is more “authentic” to the origin story in that it’s richer in tomato flavour, thicker in texture and seasoned with oregano. At the Westin, they naturally use Walter to create a truly classic, well-balanced Caesar. And while the hotel likes to pay homage to the original creator by using this full-bodied mixer, executive chef Michael Batke quietly mentions they also carry Clamato for those who request it. But at Eau Claire Distillery, Clamato is the clear favourite. Master distiller Caitlin Quinn unabashedly prefers the brighter, lighter taste and texture of Clamato, and it complements the distillery’s flagship, seasonal dill pickle vodka, a speciality product that sells out every summer. No matter how you prefer your Caesar – stacked, pickly, zero-proof or classic – it’s a taste of Calgary, any way you serve it.