The first Hurricane I ever had was in the balmy courtyard of Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans’ French Quarter. I was in my mid-twenties and it was the ’90s. No one other than Dale DeGroff and his ilk cared a sticky lick about fresh anything in cocktails. The drink arrived, a riot of red in a tall curvy glass, long plastic straw and all. I remember it was sweet! I remember having a really good time. I don’t remember much after that. Four ounces of rum in a single sitting will do that.
At its core, the Hurricane is a simple drink: a requisite mix of rum, passion fruit and lemon juice. Is it in the cocktail cannon? Hell, yeah! It’s yet another legendary New Orleans original, although there are murmurs of it possibly having been invented in other spots. But we’re throwing down and awarding the origins to the Crescent City.
“I think the first one I had was when I turned 18,” says Shelly Waguespak, the president of Pat O’Brien’s and the third generation of her family to run the St. Peter Street place, as well as its outposts in Orlando and San Antonio. “My dad closed the upper patio [at Pat O’Brien’s] for my birthday and graduation party. I think we tried every drink on the menu,” several of which stick with the weather-related theme: the Cyclone, the Rainbow, the Rainstorm.
Originally opened as a sort of speakeasy during Prohibition by its namesake proprietor, Pat O’Brien, by Repeal in 1933 O’Brien took on a partner in the form of his poker buddy, Charlie Cantrell. The operation moved a few doors down to an old Spanish theater, and its dueling pianos and flaming-fountain-crowned courtyard have been there ever since.
The Hurricane itself was a drink born of a surplus of rum. “As the decades go by, everybody has their own thought of what actually happened,” says Waguespak. “I’ve always been told by my dad and grandpa that in the ’40s it was harder to get different types of liquor because of the war. Rum was easily purchased, because it came up river from the islands. And liquor salesman would strong-arm you and say, “Oh, you can buy this bottle of whiskey if you buy this much rum,” so we had a stockpile and started experimenting with flavors. Then we’d let customers taste and see what they liked.”
Indeed, the thirsty throngs liked the Hurricane very much. So much so that today the New Orleans outpost alone sells more than half a million glasses of the stuff every year.
As for the shape of the glass, Waguespak’s family intel is that it was a glass salesman who presented the then-new curvaceous vessel to her grandfather. It looked like a hurricane lamp, the kind that protect a flame from getting snuffed out in a gust. And so it goes, the glass gave name to the NOLA-native drink.
Aside from the glass and the place, the Hurricane seemed initially to be more about using up all that rum on hand, as Waguespak says, then coming up with a bespoke set of ingredients. Rum was and is the spirit. Today, Pat O’Brien’s has a proprietary blend made for them in partnership with an unnamed distillery in Puerto Rico. Other bartenders upping the ante on the Hurricane take advantage of the influx of great rum available and follow the oft-used Tiki roadmap of blending.
“The prominence and proliferation of rum in the U.S. over the past five to eight years has really exploded,” says NOLA expat William Elliott, the bar director at New York City’s Maison Premiere, where the Hurricane has been on the menu in myriad iterations over the last decade-plus. “A lot more consumers are drinking rum-based drinks. It’s a return to the classics: the Daiquiri, Mai Tai. People off the street are realizing these are not terrible, overly sweet drinks.”
The Hurricane classically rounds out with passion fruit, often in the form of a syrup, and lemon or lime juice. That’s it. Meaning, originally, the drink was not red. Eventually, fassionola syrup, a tropical mix of fruits and sweetener with a maraschino-cherry-red hue, made it into the recipe.
(illustration: Justin Shiels)
That’s where the Tiki connection comes in. It’s certainly not the first drink that springs to mind when one conjures that tropical Mai Tai–Scorpion–Zombie oeuvre. Fassionola may sound like the name of a judgmental drag queen, but it’s the syrupy river that connects the flaming-fountain patio at O’Brien’s to the grass-hut world of Tiki. “It’s a very Tiki-esque mentality,” says Elliott of the Hurricane. “We make the passion fruit puree—nothing canned or saccharine or artificial. We put our own house-made grenadine with that—just a little to cut it—and also a tiny amount a coconut syrup we make.”
In a way, Elliott is making his own fassionola, a tropical mix of ingredients that not only gives the Hurricane color but also that “laissez le bon temps rouler” (French for “let the good times roll”) character that’s celebrated in cocktails served in funky glasses with big, bold garnishes. Of course, that’s how fassionola likely began, as a proprietary house-made mix of lovely tropical ingredients behind the bar at Trader Vic’s in the early part of the 20th century.
It’s also an ingredient that, in many ways, exemplifies the multilayered cultural history that New Orleans is built upon. At Saffron, Ashwin Vilkhu created what could certainly be considered a take on fassionola, albeit one that pays homage to his family’s Indian roots. “I developed the recipe with my mother. We roast mangoes and basically created our own fresh mango juice, which is called gudamba,” says Vilkhu, the head of the beverage program at Saffron. “We put spices, salt, pepper, sugar and also a chile from Kashmir. There’s a passion fruit element, as well, and lime.”
Pat O.’s streamlined the making of its famed cocktail to keep up with demand. It has long used a premade mix, which you can buy in a liter-size bottle or single-serve, just-add-rum pouches. “Our recipe is simple and straight-forward,” says Waguespak. And for the volume of customers the bar serves, that’s a good thing. But for other bartenders curious about ingredient authenticity, and seeking perhaps a little more balance, dissecting the flavor source of fassionola has been a way to dig a little deeper.
“Fassionola is a lost Tiki syrup, and there’s no blueprint for it,” says barman Max Messier, the co-owner of Cocktail & Sons, a New Orleans company that he owns with his business partner and wife, Lauren Myerscough. The two make ingredient-driven specialty cocktail syrups. Not long after the time when Tiki started to regain the respect and attention of bartenders and consumers alike, Messier happened upon a 2015 article by Amy McCarthy in Eater about the long-lost syrup. “It talked about people using things like Smucker’s jam to try to recreate it,” says Messier. “I view Tiki as the dark arts—its own category. There’s so much involved. But I was like, Can we make this? Let’s figure it out!”
Figure it out they did. After going through a few prototypes, they settled on a combo of fresh Ponchatoula strawberries, pineapple, mango, passion fruit and lime juice. It has become so popular with bartenders that Messier and Myerscough had to increase production. Today, it can be found everywhere from Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas to small but mighty cocktail denizens like the Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York City, where bartender Erik Trickett is poised to add the classic to his list this summer.
Will the Hurricane take the world by storm? Probably not. But what we’re getting are great versions of the cocktail in far more places than we used to. If you see one on a menu and you feel tempted by this tempest of a cocktail, it’s more than likely you won’t be disappointed.
“I talk about this all the time with industry friends,” says Elliott. “It’s the rising tide narrative. Everything is getting incrementally better and better. I firmly believe this is the best time in history to be drinking cocktails and liquor.”