Few liqueurs are as closely tied to a city’s cocktail culture as Ojen is to that of New Orleans—ironic, considering it wasn’t invented stateside at all. Rather, it finds its beginnings a century ago and an ocean away in Andalucía, Spain.
First created by the Morales family in the mid-19th century, the original recipe for the sweet, anise-flavored liqueur was short-lived, having been taken to the grave by the distiller’s heir. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that another distiller, Manuel Fernandez, decided to revive the liqueur, creating a similar product to sell under the same name. Before long, with grand ambition, he began exporting Ojen abroad, prompting it to land in New Orleans.
It was there that Ojen found what would become its cultural, if not its ancestral, home. The absinthe ban had left a palpable void in the city, and Ojen—similar in flavor, but with a lower proof and higher level of sweetness—soon gained such popularity that it inspired its own namesake cocktail, a simple mixture of Ojen and Peychaud’s (the latter, a New Orleans tradition in its own right) swizzled over ice. Weaving itself deeper into the cultural fabric of the city, Ojen became the preferred drink for the Krewe of Rex during Mardi Gras, who considered drinking it as good luck before the parade.
The city continued to import the liqueur for decades until the 1990s, when Fernandez’s Spanish distillery ceased production of Ojen, which had fallen out of favor in its home country. Recognizing its significance to the city, New Orleans importer Cedric Martin offered to buy the entire final batch—a whopping 6,000 bottles—which proved enough to slake the city for nearly two decades, until the last bottle was sold in 2009.
After the Ojen ran dry, it didn’t take long for the Sazerac Company to begin reverse-engineering their own recipe, working from a few existing bottles that’d been stashed. Released just in time for this year’s Mardi Gras, Legendre Ojen received a warm welcome from bartenders around the city.
“For me, the Ojen Cocktail is one of the most perfect drinks,” explains Neal Bodenheimer, partner at the city’s Cure, Bellocq and Cane & Table bars. “Its so simple and dry . . . but it has amazing mouthfeel.” Bodenheimer’s interpretation of the classic, a simple swizzle of Ojen and Peychaud’s, includes an optional measure of orgeat or simple for richer texture. “There are still few drinks that I want to drink more,” he says, “especially during Carnival.”
Meanwhile, at Compère Lapin, Abigail Gullo gives the liqueur—”near and dear to us New Orleaneans”— a new-school spin, using it as at the base of her Ojen Piña Colada alongside overproof rum, coconut and lemongrass.
Despite it’s limited availability, Ojen has appealed to bar owners outside New Orleans, especially those looking to channel the flavors of the city. “For years Ojen was just one of those things that you heard about but never really saw,” explains Chad Arnholt, bartender at Los Gatos’ The Bywater. “Like crème de rose or Sasquatch.” Although it’s still not available in California, Arnholt has had the opportunity to experiment with Ojen on occasion, his preferred method being to shake the liqueur with dry vermouth, watermelon and lemon juice in the refreshing Flamenco Cooler.
Doubling down on the anise flavors and lighter herbal liqueurs (“great bedfellows” with Ojen), Stephen Palahach at Brooklyn’s NOLA-inspired Maison Premiere stacks Ojen atop absinthe and swizzles it with yellow Chartreuse in the Imperial Opal. As for how Maison acquired its bottle of Ojen—otherwise unavailable in New York—rumor has it that it was gifted by Chris Hannah, head bartender at New Orleans’ legendary Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. Explains Palahach, “I imagine he had a good look at our back bar as if to think, ‘Hey fellas, I think you’re missing this.'”