The history of New Orleans is soaked in booze. It’s dripping in cocktail culture, influential bars, and cocktail legends. Then there’s Bourbon Street: 13 blocks of strip clubs, bars, and debauchery. And where there’s debauchery in New Orleans, there’s a good chance there’s a bright, Ecto-Cooler green Hand Grenade in a plastic container nearby.
Hand Grenades rule Bourbon Street, for no other reason than it gets the job done and everyone else has one. Few people are drinking a Hand Grenade for taste — yet the draw of the drink is undeniable. The Flubber-colored drink tastes like sweet melon, and is made with a proprietary mix of liqueurs guarded by the Tropical Isle bar.
“It just tastes super sweet and sugary, and then after about a half hour you suddenly feel super tipsy,” one review on Yelp writes. Another adds, “Must get one. It will leave you dancing on bourbon street.”
That strong, cloyingly sweet drink holds a special place in New Orleans history. What it lacks in cocktail society influence, it makes up for in sheer volume and notoriety. Don’t think for a second, however, that the story and power of the Hand Grenade is trivial.
The Tropical Isle bar debuted with great success at the New Orleans World Exposition in 1984. The theme of the fair was “The World of Rivers — Fresh Waters as a Source of Life.” There was record- low attendance for a world fair, and it was widely considered a flop. But for Tropical Isle owner Earl Bernhardt, it was a success. He rolled money from his concession booth at the fair into a small dive bar 50 feet from Bourbon Street. A dive bar, however, proved harder to sustain.
“We were losing money, and one Saturday night we were looking at Bourbon Street and everyone was walking away with a Hurricane,” Bernhardt tells me over the phone. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something to cut into that market.'”
Bernhardt and his partner settled on a name — the Hand Grenade — and a color: green, for the military. For three weeks, he tested out different recipes. Finally, he settled on a 13-ingredient mix.
The Tropical Isle’s catch phrase exclaims: “Hand Grenade Drink from Tropical Isle is New Orleans Most Powerful Drink!” It’s the same sentence you hear today while walking past vendors hawking the destructive liquid from hole-in-the-wall spots facing the sidewalk. You hear it, you want one, so you try to go into the nearest bar and order it like you would any other drink.
But not just any bar can sell them. Legally, Hand Grenades can only be sold at the six Tropical Isle locations, thanks to trademarks the bar holds. Every single Hand Grenade you see littering the streets of New Orleans is from one company.
Tropical Isle has four active trademarks registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. One is for a non-alcoholic Hand Grenade mix filed in 1993. One is for prepared alcoholic cocktails filed in 1993. One is for a low-sugar Skinny Hand Grenade filed in 2011, and one is for the phrase “Home of the Hand Grenade” filed in 2002. And Tropical Isle is ready to go after anyone trying to infringe on those trademarks.
“A $250 cash reward is offered to anyone furnishing information that leads to the identification and termination of the illegal use of our federally registered trademark the Hand Grenade or Grenade,” the Tropical Isle website reads. Bernhardt confirms to me that chasing down impersonators isn’t a rare occurrence. He’s hired a full-time trademark firm to track mentions of Hand Grenades and keep people in check. He’s never lost a trademark case in court.
Complete ownership has paid off for Tropical Isle. Bernhardt tells me he sells one million Hand Grenades every year. He swears the recipe hasn’t changed, but Tropical Isle’s locations couldn’t keep up with demand while making each and every cocktail by hand. Today, 55-gallon tanks full of Hand Grenade concentrate are mixed with alcohol and water, and then pumped through refrigerated lines to the bartender.
I’ve personally never strolled down Bourbon Street without seeing one, and very few times have I strolled Bourbon Street without buying one (Bernhardt says he’s more of a Crown Royal-on-the rocks-with-a dash-of-water type of guy, but he’ll enjoy the occasional Hand Grenade). And if you want variety, Hand Grenades have that now, too. They come on the rocks, frozen, low sugar, and in a Martini version (vodka with Hand Grenade flavoring).
It’s important to stick to just one, though. Tropical Isle itself warns what can happen if you drink too many. Three Hand Grenades “will result in complete loss of your inhibitions.” At five, well, “you’re on your own! We don’t recommend drinking 5!”
Five Hand Grenades deep is not where you want to be while in New Orleans — or anywhere for that matter. New Orleans is one of the best drinking cities in the world. It deserves every bit of credit for its influence on modern drinking culture. It’s also a land of tacky tourist traps that have become as much a part of the culture as Sazeracs, whether you like it or not. Hand Grenades are literally protected by U.S. law. So embrace it, and embrace the Hand Grenade.