A Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s

Waiters outside Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans. Photo by David Lansing.

I was flipping through a slick New Orleans magazine in my hotel room when, in a typical “What to do in New Orleans?” story, I came across this rather amazing statistic: “A Times-Picayune survey reported that 95 percent of all first-time tourist to New Orleans go to Pat O’Brien’s.”

Well, I’m a first-time tourist in New Orleans and I’d hate to drag down the 95 percentile, so I decided to search out Pat O’Brien’s which, according to the story I’d read, is the bar that invented the ‘Hurricane’ cocktail. Only problem was, I’d never heard of a Hurricane cocktail. But I was guessing that, like most drinks given strange tiki or tropical names, it had something to do with rum and sickly-sweet fruit juices. Which it did.

Pat O’Brien’s, which opened its doors on Dec. 3, 1933, just before the repeal of Prohibition, started out as a speakeasy with the password, “Storm’s brewin’.” In 1942, it moved to its present location at 718 St. Peter Street. Pat O’Brien was a bootlegger in Louisiana and Mississippi who, so the story goes, passed through New Orleans, got stuck there, and opened a small package liquor store/speakeasy. He was a retail dealer and his eventual partner, Charlie Cantrell (whose name you see on the bottom of the Pat O’Brien’s sign), was a wholesaler. They had met on Louisiana’s Bootleg Highway during Prohibition.

The way the bar tells the story, during WWII there was a real shortage of bourbon and scotch, and the whiskey companies sent “missionary men” out with regular salesmen and coerced bar owners into buying large quantities of the harder-to-unload rum in outrageous amounts. Sometimes the bar owners would have to agree to take 40 or 50 cases of rum in order to get the bourbon and scotch they wanted.

“Four ounces of the booze nobody wanted, through trial and error, made its way into a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp with lemon juice, passion fruit syrup, and crushed ice—and became the most famous drink in the most famous bar in New Orleans.”

It’s not yet noon and there’s hardly anyone at the bar. Nonetheless, what few tourists there are are all drinking Hurricanes. So I order one as well. And here’s what I can say about the drink that 95 percent of all first-time tourists drink in New Orleans: It is the worst cocktail I’ve ever had.

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