One of the more fun things about being a flavor researcher is that you can whip up a batch of Hurricanes on the clock. That’s exactly what International Flavors & Fragrances research fellow Neil Da Costa did at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society on Tuesday. Da Costa and other researchers unpacked some of the chemical secrets of fine spirits at a symposium called “the Chemistry of the Bar.”
Hurricanes were an appropriate choice for the New Orleans meeting, given that the sweet pink concoction is a common sight among the tourists that flock to the French Quarter.
The drink hails from the 1940s, when wartime conditions made scotch, bourbon and other whiskeys hard to find. Rum, however, was in abundance, and distributors were looking to unload it as quick as they could. Barkeeps might have to buy up to 50 cases of rum just 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,” Da Costa said in a statement. “The name stuck."
Drinking a Hurricane involves a complex bouquet of chemicals. You have the smoky phenolics that flavor rum, the citrals from lime juice that add a fresh note. From passion fruit, you get a sweet kind of compound called esters that is cut with a hint of sulfur. Though you might associate sulfur with rotten-egg smells, sulfur volatiles also contribute to the flavor of raw potatoes, Da Costa explained in a phone interview.
Since the Hurricane is such a sugary drink, Da Costa doesn’t recommend going for ones made with top-shelf rum; the quality liquor flavor is drowned by the other ingredients. He also doesn’t think much of grenadine, which provides a lot of sugar and red coloring, but not much flavor.
“It might be better to just get some pomegranate juice,” Da Costa said.
Cocktail science wasn’t the only kind of research on tap. University of Illinois researcher Elizabeth R. Genthner provided some historical perspective on the science of oak wood aging and alcohol spirits. One of the more important kinds of chemical compounds contributed by oak wood barrels are the so-called “whiskey lactones,” which give off a coconut-like scent.
Some scientists specialize in the aftermath of alcohol. University of California, Davis, researcher Alyson Mitchell said at the ACS meeting that an old New Orleans hangover cure called Yak-a-mein Soup, or “Old Sober,” might actually help ease the pain.
"Hangovers have been called a 'metabolic storm,’” Mitchell said in a statement. "They result from high blood levels of ethanol and the accompanying dehydration, direct toxic effects of the body's breakdown of alcohol into acetaldehyde and toxic effects of substances called congeners that are present in darkly colored liquor like scotch and bourbon."
Yak-a-mein, supposedly brought back to New Orleans in the 1950s by U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea, is usually made with beef and soy sauce broth, and contains noodles, meat, onions and sliced hard-boiled egg. Many of these ingredients, Mitchell says, can help clear the body of the chemical consequences of a hard night of partying.
The cysteine in eggs is thought to help clear out acetaldehyde, while the salts in broth replace what you’ve lost thanks to the diuretic effects of drinking (similar to how a sports drink replaces the electrolytes an athlete loses in sweating).
A hangover cure like yak-a-mein “may be a good example of intuitive science -- an effective remedy, and with the scientific basis revealed only years later," Mitchell said.