There are two categories of famous New Orleans cocktails. There are the classics that are embraced by both traditional old bars and modern cocktail dens alike as treasured heritage beverages. The Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, and Vieux Carré are in this category. And then there are the notorious cocktails that are exclusively associated with one bar, while other bars — either out of respect or snobbery — are content to let it stay that way. The Purple Drank at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and the Hand Grenade and Shark Attack at Tropical Isle are in that category.
Until recently, the Hurricane, the main claim to fame of French Quarter bar Pat O’Brien’s, was in the latter column. But that is starting to change.
New and improved versions of the Hurricane are being served at some of the hottest bars across the city, known for their exceptional cocktail programs. These new Hurricanes possess a basic personality in keeping with the cocktail that is served by the hundreds every night at Pat O’Brien’s. They are big; they are red; they are served in tall glasses; they are rum drinks. But beyond that, they couldn’t be more different from O’Brien’s beverage, which probably hasn’t been made from scratch for decades, and instead comes from a bottle or powdered mix.
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At Peychaud’s Bar, which opened in spring of last year, its rendition is made with strawberry-infused Cheramie rum, Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black rum, and Peychaud’s bitters. In the new Four Seasons Hotel, Chandelier Bar’s interpretation has a blend of three rums, Peychaud’s bitters, and what beverage director Hadi Ktiri calls “way too much mint.” Both versions have fresh lemon juice.
But the first entry in the new era of quality Hurricanes was the Hurricane & Table, introduced in 2018 after months of painstaking research and development on the part of Cane & Table co-owner Kirk Estopinal.
“We’ve already dug up those dusty drinks and worked on them for years,” says Estopinal of his reason for turning his attention to the déclassée Hurricane. “Dusty drinks” could refer to any number of old, forgotten New Orleans libations that have been proudly resurrected by New Orleans bartenders over the past 15 years, including the De La Louisiane, Creole, Roffignac, and Brandy Crusta. “We’re looking for other iconic, touchstone drinks to work on.”
And the Hurricane seems ripe for the resurrecting.
“It is an iconic drink here in New Orleans. It made sense for us to carry it,” Estopinal continues. “Being in the Quarter, tourists are about 80 percent of our guests. I would wager the Hurricane is more famous than the Sazerac among normal people.”
Part of the problem in improving the Hurricane is that there’s little agreement on what went into the original cocktail. That rum and lemon juice are part of the equation is a given. But the fruit component is a bit of a mystery. Today, the Hurricane is usually made with some form of passion fruit. But, originally, the red color and fruity taste of the drink came from fassionola, a defunct syrup made of cinnamon and various fruit flavors.
According to Estopinal, fassionola was a tropical fruit mixer that came in three colors, with no flavor differentiation among the three. It’s generally assumed that strawberry was one of the elements in the mix — and strawberries are indeed a big crop in the New Orleans area. But strawberry didn’t make sense to Estopinal as a fassionola ingredient. Instead, he found inspiration from POG, a Hawaiian drink made of passion fruit, pink guava, and orange.
The house-made syrup Estopinal eventually arrived at for Cane & Table includes passion fruit, hibiscus, and guava jelly. To this he mixes in rum and lime juice instead of the usual lemon juice.
The Hurricane at Peychaud’s Bar relies on a commercially made fassionola syrup made by the local New Orleans company Cocktail & Sons. That product is made of a complex blend of strawberries, lime, pineapples, mango, passion fruit, and hibiscus. Chandelier Bar, meanwhile, uses a passion fruit puree provided by the hotel chef. So far, the reactions of Chandelier patrons who try the Hurricane have been positive — if a bit surprised.
“Most of the commentary is they thought it would be more red,” says Chandelier Bar’s Ktiri. “Or they thought it would be more sweet.”
Part of the reason the world has had to wait this long into the cocktail renaissance for a decent Hurricane is professional courtesy. The assumption among New Orleans bar owners was that the drink belonged to Pat O’Brien’s. That is partly the reason why the Cane & Table drink goes by the name Hurricane & Table, and not just Hurricane.
“Pat O’Brien’s is still an operating business,” says Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of Cane & Table and Peychaud’s, as well as the craft cocktail bar Cure. “It kind of felt like it was theirs. You don’t see a lot of people making an Arnaud’s Special,” he adds of the house cocktail that has been made at the old French Quarter restaurant Arnaud’s for decades.
But professional courtesy only goes so far. “Over time there were so many complaints about the Hurricane,” Bodenheimer continues. “And Pat O’Brien’s showed no intention of improving the drink.” To his mind, that left the door open for his bars to take a crack at the cocktail. Bodenheimer also serves a Hurricane at Dauphine’s, a restaurant he runs in Washington, D.C.
Estopinal agrees that all bets are off now as far as the Hurricane’s future is concerned.
“Before, we felt we didn’t want to step on their toes,” he said of Pat O’Brien’s. “But, over time, you think, ‘Maybe we do have to step on their toes.’”