Nobody can accuse the organizers of Tales of the Cocktail, arguably the world’s premiere festival for bartenders and spirits professionals, of being elitist snobs. The “official cocktail” of 12th annual festival, expected to attract more than 20,000 people to New Orleans this week, is not some highbrow cult classic or trendy new concoction. It’s the mighty yet maligned Hurricane.
Created in the French Quarter in the 1940s, this sweet and potent potation harkens back to other Tiki classics that devolved over the decades as they became a popular yet bastardized staple in bars around the world. But in 2014, as both the cocktail and Tiki revivals show no signs of slowing, why not celebrate both with a drink that screams Bourbon Street excess?
Tales of the Cocktail and New Orleans are the perfect venues for such a celebration. Spotlighting “what’s new and what’s next in bartending,” the festival proudly keeps its reverence for traditions intact, never overtly pandering to its sponsors and the spirits companies. It gives everyone from experienced professionals to fledgling bartenders to laymen a unique chance to mix and mingle with the biggest names and brightest minds in mixology for seminars, dinners, competitions, tasting rooms, and product launches.
This attitude and spirit (pun intended) can be attributed to both the festival’s location in perhaps North America’s most culinarily independent bastion, and the organizational efforts of the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, a non-profit organization that strives to protect the unique cocktail culture in New Orleans and around the world through education and outreach. Proceeds are invested back into the international spirits community through educational programs, scholarships, training programs and financial aid. Last year, Tales (aka TOTC) attracted a record 22,770 attendees for more than 200 events that brought more than $14 million into the New Orleans economy (plus $1.1 million in state and local tax revenue).
The integrity of the event also gives added credibility to the annual Spirited Awards, which will be presented on Saturday (July 19). The top four finalists in 23 categories were announced in June and include some of the top names and bars in the worldwide cocktail movement [see all the finalists]. Among our favorites is author and Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book (Potions of the Caribbean). (Click here for our recent story on Berry’s many projects, including an upcoming New Orleans bar, Latitude 29.) The Tiki movement is also represented by Martin Cate and his San Francisco rum paradise Smuggler’s Cove (Best American Cocktail Bar), and Chicago’s Three Dots and A Dash (Best New American Cocktail Bar).
Can modern mixoloists tame the Hurricane?
An even more Democratic contest was held in the months leading up to Tales of the Cocktail, when the call went out for entries in the official cocktail competition, dubbed “Taming the Hurricane.” There were only a few rules: One of the base spirits must be rum, one of the sweet elements must be passion fruit, and the color of the drink must be red. And there was a long list of “participating products,” one of which must be included. The challenge was to pay homage to the original while creating something creative and new while still working within the rules. The judges were a who’s who of modern Tiki and rum luminaries: Ian Burrell, Wayne Curtis and the aforementioned Beachbum Berry, who will also be appearing at multiple seminars and special events.
So what made the original Hurricane so special? Hailing from Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street, it was a by-product of a whiskey shortage after World War II. Rum was plentiful and according to legend, bartender Louis Culligan created the Hurricane to use up the huge surplus. The name comes from the distinctive glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. According to the TOTC website, the original recipe was 4 ounces of gold rum, the juice of 2 lemons, and 2 ounces of fassionola, a now rare bottled red passion fruit mix. More common is the vintage recipe attributed to Culligan and published by Beachbum Berry in his books Grog Log and Remixed (plus the Total Tiki app): 2 ounces of fresh lemon juice, 2 ounces of passion fruit syrup, and 4 ounces of dark Jamaican rum. Simple, right?
Tales of the Cocktail had thrown down the gauntlet to every mixologist who ever thought they could improve upon this primitive classic, including me. I happen to have an affinity for this particular concoction, even beyond my nom de plume. Unfortunately, the contest was open only to bartenders “currently working in the bar, restaurant or spirits industry.” My full-time journalism career kind of puts a crimp in that scenario, so I’ve been relegated like many of you to playing along at home (and at my favorite Tiki bar).
But how to re-imagine this classic? My inspiration came from my most obvious influence: The Mai-Kai, the legendary 57-year-old Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale that boasts some of the best tropical drinks in the world and recipes that date back to Don the Beachcomber. (Check out our Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide.) I tried to imagine what a Hurricane would taste like if it were found on the menu at this Tiki institution by employing similar combinations of ingredients.
The Mai-Kai Hurricane turned out even better than I expected, and I’ve included the recipe below. I even talked Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei into serving me one in The Molokai bar on the eve of the contest deadline in April (see photo). Tales of the Cocktail announced its winner in May, the formidable Hurricane Caesar by Joe Cammarata, a bartender at Backbar in Sommerville, Mass.
The TOTC official drink was chosen from more than 240 submitted recipes from across the globe, a daunting task for the judges. It edged out the Hurricane 2.0 by Naren Young of Bacchanal in New York City and the Island Slingshot by David Delany Jr. of Grandpa Johnson’s in Los Angeles. So how does The Mai-Kai Hurricane stack up? Check out both recipes below and see which drink you like best. My somewhat biased critique follows.
(By Joe Cammarata of Backbar, Sommerville, Mass.)
* 1 1/2 ounces Bacardi 8 rum
* 1 ounce Rhum Clement V.S.O.P.
* 1 ounce passion fruit-honey syrup
(2 parts Dafruta Passion Fruit Concentrate, 1 part clover honey, 1 part water)
* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
(recipe from Beachbum Berry Remixed)
* 1/2 ounce Campari
The mix: Combine all ingredients except Campari in a Boston Shaker and shake with ice. Strain into a Hurricane glass and add more crushed ice. Top with Campari.
The garnish: Grated nutmeg and a metal sword skewer stabbing a maraschino cherry through a lime wheel.
The concept: Cammarata said his idea for the drink was to “capture Caesar’s stabbing on the Senate floor.” He ingeniously used the Campari to not only strike a balance with the sweet and fruity elements, but also to represent Caesar’s blood.
The review: This indeed tastes like a classic Hurricane, the sweet passion fruit flavor pushing to the forefront, but tempered nicely by the bitter Campari and earthy agricole rum. There’s a lot more complexity here than you would expect. The orgeat is a nice addition and in no way gratuitous, and even the aromatics of the nutmeg bring something extra to the table. A worthy winner.
Ingredient note: Lacking that specific passion fruit concentrate, I substituted frozen passion fruit puree, thawed.
THE MAI-KAI HURRICANE
(By Hurricane Hayward, The Atomic Grog)
* 1 1/2 ounces Lemon Hart 80 Demerara rum
(substitute: El Dorado 8)
* 1 1/2 ounces Appleton Estate Extra dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum
(substitute: 50/50 mix of El Dorado 12, Smith & Cross Navy rum)
* 1 1/2 ounces fresh-squeezed lemon juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 1 1/2 ounces passion fruit syrup
* 1/4 ounce fassionola (see below)
* 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
(2 parts honey to 1 part water)
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 1 dash Pernod or Herbsaint
The mix: Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice. Serve in a Hurricane glass with more crushed ice to fill.
The garnish: Lemon peel and speared red and green cherries.
The concept: I sought to combine elements of the classic Hurricane in similar proportions with the hallmarks of many great Mai-Kai cocktails. The three rums are signature ingredients in many of the best Mai-Kai drinks [see story]. The distinctive OJ, passion fruit syrup and fassionola, along with the rich honey mix, are also key flavors in many classic Mai-Kai recipes. The sweetness is offset here by a touch of the Angostura-Pernod combo, a Mai-Kai staple and throwback to Don the Beachcomber. Even the garnish recalls a couple classics. The lemon peel is from the Black Magic and the speared cherries are from the Special Planters Punch. Note that it also shares many ingredients with the latter (the three rums, lemon juice, honey, bitters, Pernod).
The review: A mashup of a traditional Hurricane and Mai-Kai style cocktail. It’s sweet and passion fruit forward with a nice kick from the distinctive rums. The fassionola adds color and sweetness, combining with the honey to give the drink a savory depth. The tart juices keep it in balance, while the bitters and Pernod keep it from becoming too cloyingly sweet and also add spice. Despite its potency, this goes down way too easy. Just like a Hurricane should.
Ingredient notes: Stick to the rums noted if possible. I prefer a rich homemade passion fruit syrup, or a premium brand containing few or no artificial ingredients. The Mai-Kai is one of the few bars that still uses fassionola as it did 50 years ago. See our Cobra Kiss review for tips on duplicating this rare ingredient, plus our take on Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix. In a word: Avoid.
Hurricane Caesar vs. The Mai-Kai Hurricane
Now for my slightly biased review of how these drinks compare. Both use two required participating products. Hurricane Caesar features Bacardi 8 and Rhum Clement, while The Mai-Kai Hurricane contains Appleton Estate and Angostura bitters.
I compared the drinks in five different categories: Use of rums, color, creativity/originality, presentation/garnish, and taste. There were two ties: Color and presentation/garnish. Neither was overtly red, but both were close enough to be considered a Hurricane. I liked the Caesar’s nutmeg dusting a lot, but the cherry-lime combo wasn’t special (though a fun concept). On the other side, the traditional Mai-Kai garnishes lend a touch of class and history.
Hurricane Caesar has the most creativity and uniqueness. Though its quite trendy among mixologists, I thought the Campari added a sophisticated element and taste, while the Rhum Clement contributed even more to the drink’s elegance. But in my eyes, The Mai-Kai Hurricane comes out on top overall by virtue of its use of 4 ounces (compared to Caesar’s 2 1/2) of three distinctive rums, and its addictive taste that showcases all the classic flavors in perfect balance.
If you’re lucky enough to spend this week in New Orleans, enjoy the Hurricane Caesar along with all the many educational and extracurricular activities. Those of us who can’t make it this year will try to get by with a few Hurricanes of our own.
More on Tales of the Cocktail online
* NOLA.com: Latest news from The Times-Picayune staff
Tales of the Cocktail draws big name bartenders and each has a favorite New Orleans bar
Tales of the Cocktail announces finalists for 2014 Spirited Awards
* Houston Chronicle: New Orleans festival is world’s premier cocktail event
* GoNOLA.com: Top 5 ways to enjoy Tales of the Cocktail
* Offbeat.com: Tales of the Cocktail takes over New Orleans
* A Mountain of Crushed Ice: TOTC 2014 – A peek at some of the seminars
* NOLA Defender: TOTC hunkers down as Hurricane Ceaar blows into town