Tales of the Cocktail discusses some of Bourbon Street's legendary drinks, but does that mean we should drink them?
Tales of the Cocktail celebrates the mixed drink at its finest, so how did a panel on Hurricanes, Hand Grenades and Shark Attacks make the cut? When the annual celebration of cocktail culture begins Wednesday, one of its opening panels will deal with the redneck cousins of the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz—drinks that are distinctly New Orleans, but associated with co-ed wild nights on Bourbon Street that end with karaoke versions of “Fireworks” more than literary confabs in salons that produce “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Why did these last?” asks cocktail writer Wayne Curtis, who’ll moderate the conversation. “The Hurricane is not as old as the Manhattan and the Martini, but it’s a little younger than the Bloody Mary and pretty much contemporaneous with the Zombie and the Mai Tai. It’s been around 75 years now, and that’s pretty impressive. Is it just advertising? The theater aspect of them? It’ll be interesting.”
The panel, which takes place in the Royal Sonesta’s Grand Ballroom North at 10:30 a.m., also includes writer Rien Fertel, Bourbon Street historian Richard Campanella, and GQ contributing editor and James Beard award winning writer Brett Martin, whose time living on Bourbon Street gave him an appreciation for the Shark Attack, a drink like the Hand Grenade developed at The Tropical Isle. Martin’s affection for the drink has as much to do with the theater of its presentation as the drink itself. Most of the ingredients are poured into a plastic cup, and grenadine goes into a plastic shark’s mouth. Then warning bells and a voice over the PA announce that there has been a shark attack, and the plastic shark is turned up in the drink so that the grenadine pours like blood into the cocktail.
“You’re served the drink with the shark sticking out of it,” Martin says. “To me, it instantaneously felt like a genuine and joyful of expression of New Orleans in the most unlikely place. Paradoxically, it was as authentic an experience of New Orleans as you could have anywhere in the city.”
Martin’s affection for the Shark Attack was partly a love for the low-rent theater, but it was an oppositional performance on its own since championing the drink could make people apoplectic. “When you come here, there are a lot of people who’ll tell you a lot of rules about how you’re supposed to like New Orleans and how you’re not,” he says, and for them mentioning a Shark Attack and Mardi Gras Indian practice in the same breath was heresy.
The three drinks share a connection to the mythology of Bourbon Street. The Hurricane enjoys “a degree of faux sophistication” according to Curtis because it’s sold in glassware for consumption inside rather than in the street, but the packaging is part of the sale in each case, and the containers advertise the drinks to others. Each promises a strong drink that will lead to the sort of craziness that couldn’t happen anywhere else, but the buzz is a sugar rush as much as anything. The drinks are part of Bourbon Street's participatory culture, Curtis says. “You’re supposed to go out in the street and do something with them.”
Martin agrees. The Shark Attack’s presentation is silly, but to call bullshit on it “takes a small and priggish mind,” he says. “You’re aiding and abetting, embracing the juvenile aspect of it for sure.”
The panel will be accompanied by versions of all three drinks, made less industrially than those on sale at Tropical Isle and Pat O’Brien’s. According to Curtis, all three are pretty sweet and one note. “You might die of Diabetes before alcoholism,” he says. A Hand Grenade per se will not be served; instead, they’ll serve a very, very similar drink with a different name because Tropical Isle owner Earl Bernhardt reminded Curtis that the Hand Grenade is trademarked and can only be made at his bar. That is part of what makes the drink unique, along with the possibility that it is the only cocktail with a dancing, inflatable mascot version of itself. “It’s one of the few drinks that is independently advertised,” Curtis says. “When he flies banners over Jazz Fest—Enjoy a Hand Grenade—he doesn’t have to say Come to Tropical Isle because no one else can sell it. That might be unique in the industry, that somebody only advertises the drink but not the maker or location.”
The Hurricane is the official drink of Tales of the Cocktail this year, and Curtis was among the judges of the competition for best recipe. The version sold at Pat O’Brien’s is made from a mix so it can be more quickly mixed and sold, but there were 200-300 submissions, and “there were very few you could dismiss out of hand,” he says. “The winning one was really nicely balanced.”
The Shark Attack is fun, but is it good? Curtis advises me to order one but doesn't say anything about putting it in my mouth. Martin is diplomatic. “It’s not the worst thing you’ll drink.”