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:

picassoojen(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:

Ojen Cocktail

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.)


14 Responses to “Classic New Orleans: A Brief History of Ojen”

  1. Not a big fan of the anise-flavored liquors either, but that’s fascinating. I’m trying to think of the last place – apart from Martin’s – where I saw a bottle, and I can’t. Huh.

  2. I’ve never heard of that! Great info.
    I also fall on the anti-anise-flavor side of the isle. (I tried hard to develop a taste for Pernod while in France, but it never happened).

    I’ll certainly pick up some Ojen if I ever run across it.

  3. I have had an experience with more than one Ojen and I can assure you the proverb should be followed religiously. with summer approaching, the afternoon delight of an Ojen over crushed ice on a back patio with a grill warming up has me excited.

    Great article, even better blog.

  4. Captn Will Says:

    I bet if a girl like La Fille really loved her Papa she’d aquire a bottle of such a rare elixer for him. Especially if he were (as he is) a lover of most spirits sourced with anise such as ouzo, Pernod, or Strega…fine hallucinogens each and every one. The key to maximum enjoyment with atomic beverages such as these is a slow pace and limited volume glassware. Especially if you prefer them neat as I do.

    An interesting and informative lesson, Mademoiselle.

  5. […] or Mardi Gras and been saddened because I had missed my chance to own and consume a part of that Ojen history. No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. Leave a comment […]

  6. I grew up drinking Ojen as a young teenager with my father after hunting trips. Yes, he and all of his hunting buddies were indeed (and still are) in Rex. We always had a bottle of it in one of our liquor cabinets. They all called it “Old Hen.”

    I don’t know about there only being 25 bottles left. That seems a bit questionable. I just picked up 3 bottles at the Martin’s in metry. I left one at my father’s house and brought two back here to SF. Granted, they were the last 3 on the shelf, but I bet they have a lot more in the back.

    • la fille Says:

      I was curious as to who cleaned out the shelves at Metairie! They brought some more down from the store in Mandeville to fill the gap. Martin has several cases set aside for wholesale, etc, but as far as retail goes, what’s in the stores right now is pretty much it.

  7. Daniel Espada Says:

    I´m from Ojén, my family has been part of the history of that liquor you are talking about ( in the “Juan Espadas e Hijos” age ) the original and genuine liquor that has that fame not exist anymore since 1930. It was ( Tomas Morales e Hijos, Casa en Ojén, Fábrica en Ojén ).

    So it´s a pity but you and me will never taste that liquor, and of course it´s not either similar to the liquor in your photo…

    More info:

    Anyway… there are many others liquours to drink in Ojén and all over the world… so you´ll be welcome in Ojén to look for the origin of that liquor…

    Sorry for my english… see you!!

  8. […] A Brief History of Ojen […]

  9. scurvy Says:

    It’s gone. I think I was the one who grabbed the last bottles.

  10. Hi, i’ve got a Juan Espada Fernandez Ojen bottle, and i would know what is its price. Do you know?

  11. Mesdames et mesieurs, it with the greatest regret that I inform you that on or about 17 july 2009 Martin Wine Cellar reported that it’s last bottle of Ojen had been sold. It seems as if the famed liquid fire from Spain has gone the way of the T-rex. My sincere condolences to the members of Krewe Rex.

  12. Interesting article. I haven`t tried it yet, this is one of those things i would love to review and play with on my cocktail blog, ( but maybe one day i`ll be able to get me a bottle. You take nice photos!

  13. […] Ojen (pronounced OH-hen) is an anise-flavored liquor produced in Spain. It’s not the same as absinthe though they have far more in common than, say, Ojen and gin do. Ojen gained popularity in New Orleans at the beginning of last century and over time became an old standby, especially during Carnival season. In fact, some went so far as to claim that New Orleans’ consumption of Ojen surpassed that of all of Spain – and considering how folks down here tend to enjoy a drink every now and then I believe it. Martin Wine Cellar was the last company importing Ojen into the US and they received their final shipment in the mid-1980s. Since then they had been slowly selling through it with no replacement coming because the distillery had stopped production [click here for a much more detailed history]. […]

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