‘Chemistry of the Bar’ symposium focuses on New Orleans’ Hurricane Cocktail and more

Note to journalists: Please report that this research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

NEW ORLEANS, April 9, 2013 — Call their taste and effects appealing or appalling, no matter. In a city that claims credit for invention of the cocktail, the Hurricane, Sazerac, Pimm’s Cup, Bayou Bash, Hand Grenade, Ramos Gin Fizz and other concoctions are the spirits of the French Quarter and its most famous thoroughfare, which happens to be named Bourbon Street.

The scientific secrets of alcoholic beverages in the Crescent City and other venues will get a thorough shaking and stirring in a symposium titled “The Chemistry of the Bar” today during the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

Abstracts on the following topics appear below:

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  • Chemistry of the Hurricane cocktail.
  • The chemistry of that sweet almond-flavored liquor called Amaretto.
  • Single-hop India pale ales.
  • The unseen plumbing in taverns that brings beer to the glass.
  • How aging affects the taste and aroma of bourbon.
  • The chemistry and anatomy of the hangover.

One of the speakers, Neil C. Da Costa, Ph.D., focused on what may be New Orleans’ most famous mixed drink, the pink stuff that tourists sip from disposable plastic cups while strolling down Bourbon Street. (New Orleans laws permit drinking in public and leaving a bar with a drink, but prohibit public drinking from glass or metal containers.)

“The Hurricane is an ideal topic for this symposium,” Da Costa explained. He is with International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., in Union Beach, N.J. “It is one of New Orleans’ signature cocktails, and its origins echo the city’s vibrant history. The drink originated in the World War II era, in the 1940s. Scotch, bourbon and other whiskeys were hard to get. But there was a big surplus of rum. Local distributors forced bars to buy up to 50 cases of rum in order to get one case of whiskey. One bar owner, Pat O’Brien, came up with the recipe for a fruity rum drink and served it in a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. The name stuck.”

Da Costa’s presentation goes beyond the history to focus on the Hurricane’s key ingredients, their chemical compositions and interactions and sensory evaluations of the resulting beverage.

The Hurricane is mainly a light and dark rum cocktail, Da Costa said, noting that some recipes also call for generous portions of gin or vodka. Besides the spirits, a typical Hurricane contains lime juice, orange juice, passion fruit syrup, grenadine (which provides the red color and added sweetness) and a simple sugar syrup.

“For the Hurricane’s fruity aroma, terpene compounds such as limonene and citral play a crucial role, giving a fresh citrus note. In addition, ‘sweet’ compound notes from the rum and sugar break down, such as various esters, vanillin, 5-methylfurfural and 5-hydroxymethylfurfural. These combine to essentially give the sweet fruity aroma of the cocktail. Of course the strong aroma of aqueous ethanol is always appealing.”

Freshness of the ingredients is the key to making the best Hurricane, Da Costa said, just as freshness affects the taste of the Bloody Mary and other cocktails with fruit or vegetable components. And Hurricanes made from powdered or bottled mixes pale in comparison to those made from scratch. Does premium or boutique rum improve the taste?

“Using pricey rum is probably a waste of money for most consumers,” Da Costa said. “The Hurricane is an intensely sweet drink, with complex flavors, and that tends to mask the taste of the liquor. If you’re going to drink one, go for the cheap bar or well rum.”

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Chemists explain the reasons for the popularity
of New Orleans’ famous beverage, the Hurricane