Boatner Reily III was quite the man about town. The Reily coffee company executive was a Carnival Captain, reigned as Rex, and was active in various other pastimes for Uptown gentlemen. What brought me to his Garden District home one spring day in 1999 was a lesser known, but nevertheless important, hobby of Reily’s: he was part of a small group that had invested in buying a batch of hooch from Spain.
Known as Ojén and pronounced “O-hen,” the anise-flavored liqueur was named after the town in Spain where it was made. Unfortunately its market never expanded very much, except to one place on the globe: New Orleans.
To the distillery workers of Ojén, New Orleans must have been the epicenter of their existence. In New Orleans, Ojén, which tasted like a sweet anisette, was good as a mixer or as the main ingredient in an Ojén Cocktail.
Still this global relationship could not last. In the early 1990s the folks at Ojén said they were shutting down for good. Enter Cedric Martin, operator of Martin’s Wine Cellar, who was a skilled first responder when the crisis was booze.
He bargained with the company to make one more batch, which he would buy. The company provided around 500 cases, roughly 8,000 bottles, all headed to Martin’s in New Orleans.
With that deal, and some help from his friends, Martin became the world’s purveyor of Ojén. Any bottle purchased over the last decade or so probably came from the final batch.
When I had visited Reily he had agreed to make me his rendition of the Ojén Cocktail. With skilled hands he poured two ounces of the Ojén into a cocktail shaker, followed by a dash of Peychaud’s bitters, a splash of water and some sugar.
There was one more ingredient, something that gets little attention, but this was going to be special: Ice.
With the stash now sold out, Ojén was heading for obscurity once the remaining bottles in peoples’ liquor cabinets were poured for the last time. But wait, Ojén has had a second savior. The Sazarac Company, purveyor of several brands, including the native Sazerac, has acquired the rights to the Ojén drink. Instead of Spain, the liqueur will now be made at the company’s Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, the same place where Sazerac is made. The company also has the geographic advantage and connections to try to distribute Ojén to further flung markets. After an existence of being a New Orleans-only drink, the ice may be starting to melt.
Which bring us back to Boater Reily putting the final touch on the drink. He pulled out a two square foot sheet of canvas. On it he placed ice cubes. Then he folded the canvas to contain the ice. Next, he pulled out a small hammer and began pounding. Lesser men would have been content with ordinary crushed ice, but this was an act of urban pride. The canvas had come from the local Foster Awning company. Foster, besides being the namesake for the banana-and-rum dessert, had Rex members among its officialdom and provided for the Rex ball the floor-wide canvas, with the Rex Crown in the center. If ever there was a royal sheet of canvas, this was it.
Ojén will now be home-based in a town once ruled by Spain and where the buildings in the French Quarter resemble those of Seville. The liqueur’s odyssey continues – one sip at a time.