Is the Secret to the Hurricane’s Signature Red Color a Mysterious Syrup?
Searching for the history and origins of this puzzling tiki cocktail ingredient.
Down here in New Orleans, Carnival season has already begun. So, naturally, our attention turns to drink. And for many who have spent time in New Orleans during the season, that drink is the Hurricane—the famous fire-extinguisher red drink in the Kardashian-shaped glass.
The Hurricane is widely noted as a rum drink, but not so well known for the ingredient that makes it so crimsony. In theory, this is passion fruit. Historically, it’s often been Fassionola, originally spelled like a proper noun with a capital “F,” but now more often with its case lowered, for reasons we shall see.
So, what is fassionola? To be honest, no one is exactly sure. The best description of it may be simply a “tropical syrup.” That is, it has the bright flavors of the tropics, or at least the bright flavors as perceived by those who grew up drinking Hawaiian Punch or other canned drinks in which the chief flavor was “red.”
An obvious clue of what inspires it is the double “S” in the name. Fassionola has often claimed to convey the flavor of passion fruit, a tart, aromatic, sometimes gelatinous fruit that can taste like the lovechild of pineapple and papaya, with some secondary bloodlines representing mango and guava.
The original producer of fassionola was the Jonathan English Co., a firm founded by a barman who sold bar mixers more than a century ago. It claims to have sold fassionola since 1914, although I’ve found no documentation to support that; it’s likely that it was at first sold under a more generic name, like “tropical mix.” Note: the Jonathan English brand also sold grenadine, quinine mix, ginger ale mix, and Tom Collins mix. They also offered a “sweetened lime juice for gimlets.”
The name fassionola evidently first cropped up in the 1950s. By 1955 the Puritan Dairy Store in Bellingham, Wash., was advertising it under the banner “Fancy Foods for your New Year’s Party.” (Other items included Tom and Jerry batter, Swedish or Yugoslavian anchovies, and pig’s feet—boneless or semi-boneless.) Fassionola soon migrated to the drinks of the tiki-era, which was then entering its golden age, as it could easily bring the tropics to the suburbs without the mess or bother of fresh juices. “The perfect mixer for all exotic South Seas drinks (Mai Tai, Zombie, Daiquiri, etc.),” read one 1965 advertisement.
The origin myth of the Hurricane decrees that it was created at Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans during the whiskey shortage of World War II—the bar manager had to order several cases of rum to be allocated one case of whiskey. So he concocted a drink that contained a depletion-generating four ounces of rum, along with one once each of lemon and lime juice, plus two ounces of passion fruit syrup. The earliest date I’ve found for this recipe is 1941, in a pamphlet circulated by Ron Rico, although it’s unclear if this was the exact house recipe at Pat O’Brien’s. But by 1956, according to a Cabaret magazine article quoting a Pat O’Brien bar manager, the recipe consisted of four ounces of rum, two of lemon juice, and two of fassionola. (The bar, which is still open in the French Quarter, now makes drinks with its own proprietary mix.)
Fassionola came in three colors—green, gold and red. A brochure that tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry turned up some years ago (he sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to an address printed on an ancient bottle of Fassionola, and actually got this in return), noted that the gold was pure passion fruit flavor, the red had a hint of cherry, and the green a touch of lime. Fassionola billed itself as “The Taste Thrill of the Century.”
While the Jonathan English Co. was adept at marketing, it never trademarked the name “fassionola,” and over time it became a generic term. Two producers of a latter-day fassionola—Max Messier and his wife Lauren Myerscough, who run Cocktail & Sons in New Orleans—learned this when they sought their own trademark for the term. It was rejected, with the federal authorities noting that the mark was in the public domain. (A short while later, Jonathan English Co. applied for a trademark, somewhat tardily, and was also denied.)
As a result, we may be entering into a new golden-age of fassionola. Since nobody is quite sure what went into the original product, it’s wide open for experimentation, an adventure in bottling the tropics. Messier and Myerscough make their award-winning fassionola with pineapple, passion fruit puree and mango, which is enlivened with Louisiana strawberries and a hibiscus syrup to lend a rich, ruby red color. Their fassionola has been picked up by high-end restaurant chains and Las Vegas resorts, among others, as well as the Louisiana Superdome. Last year, they made somewhat shy of 2,000 gallons, and aim to expand production this year.
Blair Reynolds of BG Reynolds Syrups in Portland, Ore., which makes tiki staples such as falernum and orgeat, also sells a fassionola online. In his, sour cherry serves as the defining fruit. “I found that hit that perfectly wonderful spot that all great tiki ingredients offer, a sense of ‘mystery,’” he said. It also brings that cherry note of the fassionola red mix, which was likely favored by many bartenders for the hue it imparted.
Craft cocktail bars are also embracing house fassionola variations. Cane & Table in New Orleans has a “Hurricane & Table” drink on their list, made with their own tropical syrup. This was devised by co-owner Kirk Estopinal, after considerable to and fro and several false starts. He begins with passion fruit pulp mixed with water, and then adds orange peel, pomegranate molasses, sugar and a touch of salt. It’s then reduced over heat, during which he adds guava jelly and, finally, hibiscus leaves for the red color.
For their drink, it’s mixed with two rums (Coruba and Don Q) and is served in a traditional Hurricane glass. It’s more sophisticated than the famous version that comes from a mix. And Estopinal thinks that we’ll see more regional variations of fassionola in the future—he notes that the strawberry that brightens the Louisiana version and the northwest sour cherry variations make sense.
So add to the “what’s new for 2019:” Fassionola: It exists. Again.