‘Storm’s brewin’: Pat O’Brien’s and the birth of a New Orleans icon
During Prohibition, Benson Harrison “Pat” O’Brien was a bootlegger who operated a French Quarter speakeasy, Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, at Royal and St. Peter streets. The password — every speakeasy had one — was “Storm’s brewin’.” On Dec. 3, 1933 — two days before Prohibition was repealed — it was reborn as Pat O’Brien’s. Over the years, business was so good that O’Brien started looking for larger quarters. In December 1942, he and his business partner, Charlie Cantrell, moved the bar to its present location at 718 St. Peter St., in a building that had been built in 1791. It was there that the hurricane, the drink for which Pat O’Brien’s is best known, was invented.
With its bar, dueling copper-topped baby-grand pianos, courtyard and restaurant, Pat O’Brien’s is still outrageously popular, a magnet for visitors looking for a souvenir hurricane glass and locals who still regard it as a neighborhood bar.
- The hurricane, Pat O’Brien’s signature drink, consists of rum, fresh lemon juice, passionfruit syrup and crushed ice.
- More than 500,000 hurricanes are sold each year, said Shelly Oechsner Waguespack, Pat O’Brien’s president and sole owner.
- The drink was created during World War II. Like so many other features of wartime life, it was the result of necessity — in this case, a shortage of whiskey. To buy a case of whiskey, liquor salesmen forced bar owners to buy as many as 50 cases of rum, which was plentiful. But how to use all that rum? According to the bar’s website, a liquor salesman helped devise the drink, which acquired its name after a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp was used to serve the fruity red concoction.
- The bar menu has no shortage of other weather-related drink names, including the cyclone, the rainstorm, the Cat 5 Margarita, the squall, the typhoon and the rainbow.
- In the courtyard one night, Richard Simmons, the New Orleans-born fitness guru, and his posse jumped onto the wrought-iron chairs for an exercise session.
- Cantrell said in a 2008 interview that he never minded that O’Brien’s name, and not his, adorns the landmark saloon. In that interview, he also quipped that he was glad his partner had a nickname, saying, “Can you imagine anyone coming to Benson Harrison O’Brien’s bar?”
- Among the notable customers who have been spotted at Pat O’s are Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Carol Channing and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who sent a note thanking staffers for their hospitality.
- Yes, the other Pat O’Brien – the actor best known for playing the good guy opposite James Cagney in 1930s crime dramas – showed up, too.
- There are also Pat O’Brien’s bars in Orlando and San Antonio.
For nearly 90 years, Pat O’Brien’s, known as “the house that hooch built,” has been one of New Orleans’ more distinctive watering holes. That achievement is the result of its location; savvy marketing; a massively promoted drink served in a distinctive glass bearing the bar’s name; its over-the-top offerings, such as dueling pianos and a lush courtyard, to name two; and, perhaps most of all, its ability to draw hordes of tourists without alienating a loyal local clientele. In a 2008 interview, Waguespack said that, despite the fame and the famous tipplers that have graced the bar, “locals are the heart and soul of what we are all about.”