I was sitting in a bus going from New Orleans to lower Plaquemines Parish when a lady from the back asked if I would like an “old hen.” I declined.
Then I had second thoughts. “A what?” I asked the elegant woman from Uptown New Orleans who was not the sort to be giving away aged poultry. “An Ojen cocktail,” she answered. Since the passenger list consisted of officials from the Rex organization and their wives, plus a few scruffy media types such as myself, I learned something about Carnival culture that day: The Ojen (pronounced – “o-hen”) is the preferred cocktail of the Rex ruling class.
We were on our way to bury a time capsule near the spot where on that date 300 years earlier, March 3, 1699, Canadian explorers, led by Iberville, had spent their first night on Louisiana soil. After depositing the capsule at Fort Jackson we took a ride in a tugboat to visit the spot where that first night was spent. Since that date also happened to be Mardi Gras in 1699, the explorers named the stream where they camped, “Bayou Mardi Gras.” Sitting around the campfire that night might be considered the first Carnival celebration in the new world.
Unfortunately the importance of the event did not match the condition of the site. Bayou Mardi Gras is now little more than a dried-out ditch. There were objects that sparkled from the surface, but rather than gold or silver, as explorers might have hoped for, they were beer can pull-tab tops. Still, it was right of the men of Rex to pay homage, if not to the spot, to the date.
Exploring is hard work, so on the way back a second Ojen cocktail (made with the liqueur along with Peychaud’s bitters, sugar and water) was in order. That was when I made my second big discovery of the day. The factory in Spain that made the anise-flavored Ojen liqueur was closing. After the current stash of cases was sold, the Ojen would be as extinct as the water in Bayou Mardi Gras. There was some good news though: Rex was riding to the rescue. A consortium of businessmen, including W. Boatner Reily III, a former Rex monarch and krewe captain, had arranged to buy the remaining cases. Martin Wine Cellar would handle the distribution. At least the liqueur would spend its last days in deserving hands.
One Saturday soon after, I visited Reily’s Garden District home where he happily put on a demonstration of mixing the drink. He stirred the ingredients with perfection. What impressed me the most though was his crushing of the ice. Reily, whose family business, Wm. B Reily and Co. is a purveyor of coffee and condiments, was a man of wealth. He could have afforded the finest ice crusher. The proper Ojen required something different. From a kitchen drawer he pulled out a square of canvass from Foster Awning Company. He folded the ice into it and then with a hammer pounded the chucks into a cocktail-worthy fineness. This was no ordinary canvass. Foster Awning Company had for years provided the decorative canvass used on the floor at the Rex ball. Another former Rex Captain, who was connected to Foster Awning, donated the canvass.
Thus was Rex’s preferred flooring a factor in preparing Rex’s preferred booze.
Boatner Reily died this year on January 5, the eve of Twelfth Night, the first day of the Carnival season. There are many other stories about his involvement with Carnival, including his having started the Royal Run; to which Rex and his Queen, along with followers, meet in Audubon Park for a dash on Mardi Gras morning (Amazingly the Queen has been declared the winner every year, even though she is usually driven away on a limousine before the run is finished.).
Supposedly the last bottle of Ojen was sold in 2007, though there are no doubt some partially full containers in area liquor cabinets. Sometimes legacies are best preserved by sipping slowly.