Classic New Orleans: A Brief History of Ojen
Yesterday, Brother O’Mara brought home a Very Special Treat: a bottle of Ojen. He’s been talking about it for a while now, and as he mixed the fiery beverage with water, a la louche, his excitement was palpable.
(photo by Brother O’Mara)
Ojen is an aguardiente from the eponymous village in the province of Malaga, Spain. Aguardiente is a portmanteau of the Spanish words for water (agua) and burning (ardiente), and is the generic reference for an alcoholic drink between 29 and 60 percent alcohol. Aguardiente de Ojen is flavored with anise and thus, like absinthe, creates a louche when mixed with water. When the two combine, the anise oils emulsify and disperse evenly throughout the water, creating the milky-looking liquid pictured above.
Luckily, last weekend’s absinthe tasting was still fresh in my mind, so I recalled enough to be able to roughly compare their flavors. In researching this article, I was surprised to find that Obsello Absinthe actually contains more alcohol than Ojen—100-proof as compared with Ojen’s 80-proof—as the Ojen had much more of that throat-burny quality. I would have put money on it being higher in alcohol. Shows what I know. Both drinks, when prepared a la louche, have that nice powdery mouthfeel, but the Ojen is much sweeter. Maybe it has to do with the fact that unlike absinthe, it contains no wormwood. Overall, I’d say absinthe is much more subtle, while Ojen is pretty in-your-face. I guess that’s why tradition recommends “una copita de Ojen”—who knows what would happen if you drank more than that.
A very famous Malagueño included Ojen in one of his still lives:(painting by Picasso)
Now you might be thinking, “All of this information is very well and good, chere fille, but why are you spending all this energy writing about Ojen when you’re not even the world’s biggest fan of anise-flavored liquors?”
I thought you’d never ask.
Turns out that New Orleans and Ojen have a Very Special Relationship. And by that I mean that New Orleans (and specifically Martin Wine Cellar) is home to pretty much the only Ojen left in the world.
Here’s the story:
Ojen gained popularity in New Orleans in the early/mid-20th Century and soon became indispensible, especially during Mardi Gras. The Ojen Cocktail became the official drink of the Krewe of Rex, and it was a staple in many a family liquor cabinets. Apparently, denizens of the Crescent City drank more Ojen than anyone else in the entire world.
Back in Spain, the last scion of the Morales family distillery (who had been producing Ojen since around 1830) died, purposely taking the recipe with him. The history of this period is a little sketchy, but at some later point Manuel Fernandez, S.A. began producing a similar product under the same name. This is “White Label” Ojen that we are familiar with now, and what you can buy at Martin.
The story gets better though. Apparently, New Orleanians didn’t drink enough Ojen to keep the producer in business. Sometime in the late 1980’s, Fernandez announced it was shutting down, thus threatening to leave our city bereft of the tasty aguardiente she so loved. Martin Wine Cellar stepped in, and the conversation went something like this (in Brother O’Mara’s words):
Fernandez: “We’re shutting down the distillery.”
Martin Wine Cellar: “We need more Ojen before you shut down.”
Fernandez: “Well we’ll run you a batch, but the smallest batch we can run is 500
cases (6,000 bottles).”
Martin Wine Cellar: “Fine, we’ll take it.”
Twenty or so years later, and there are less than 25 bottles left for retail sale in the Martin stores. There may be some dusty bottles on liquor store shelves somewhere in the world, but for the most part, that’s pretty much it. It retails for thirty bucks.
If you don’t want to buy a whole bottle, I hear that they keep some stocked in places Rex Krewe members hang out. I know for sure you can find the Ojen Frappé at Arnaud’s, Luke Brasserie on St. Charles, and at Brennan’s. You’ll probably have good luck at Antoine’s, Restaurant August, and Galatoire’s, also.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, here’s the classic recipe for you:
2 oz. Ojen
1 dash Peychaud bitters
1 tsp. sugar
½ oz. water
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake well, and strain into a cocktail glass.
(A note on sources for this article: most of my information has come from my connection at Wines Unlimited, the wholesale end of Martin Wine Cellar. I also read Ned Hémard’s 2007 article “Banana Republics and Ojen Cocktails” and a little tourist information about the village of Ojen itself.)