A very gracious lady seated next to the ice chest in the back of the bus made me an offer. She asked, as I understood her, if would I like “an old hen?” My reaction, I am afraid, was less gracious as I replied: “hunh?!”
I had been invited to take a field trip down the spine of Plaquemines Parish to the site of Fort St. Phillip. The date was March 3, 1999. Nearby was the location where, in 1699, Iberville and his gang spent their first full day in Louisiana territory. As fate would have it, the date was Mardi Gras of that year. That coincidence would forever trigger the observation that from the moment that Frenchmen first arrived in the area, it was Mardi Gras.
Back on the bus, I had a second pour of what I now understood was properly known as an Ojen (o-hen) cocktail, and not an ancient chicken at all. The drink, I would learn, originated in Spain, but New Orleans, and Rex, are critical to its survival. Perhaps because of early men’s clubs the drink would become popular with the Carnival set. It is the classic Carnival insider’s cocktail. I would want to learn more.
Boatner Reily III was quite the man about town. The Reily coffee company executive had been a Carnival Captain, had reigned as Rex and was active in various other pastimes appropriate to Uptown gentlemen. What brought me to his Garden District home later that year 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 Ojen from Spain. The anise-flavored liqueur was named after the town 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 Ojen, New Orleans must have been the epi-center of their existence. Here the drink was appreciated as a mixer for the main ingredient in an Ojen Cocktail.
Unfortunately, the product did not mix well with the economy. In the early 1990s the folks at Ojen 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 such as Reily, Martin became the world’s purveyor of Ojen.
When I visited Reily, he had agreed to make his rendition of the Ojen Cocktail. With skilled hands he poured two ounces of the Ojen into a cocktail shaker, followed by a dash of Peychaud’s bitters, a splash of water and 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, Ojen was heading for obscurity once the remaining bottles were poured for the last time. But wait, Ojen has had a second savior – the Sazarac Company, the locally based purveyor of several brands, including the native Sazerac, acquired the rights to produce Ojen. (Owned by New Orleanian William Goldring, most of the company’s products are produced at the company’s Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, as well as a few smaller satellite facilities.)
Which brings us back to Boatner Reily putting the final touches on the drink. He pulled out a two-foot square 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 flaming banana dessert, provides the floor-wide canvas, with the Crown in the center, used at the Rex ball.
Meanwhile, Ojen has moved from near obscurity to legendary status with the opening of the new Sazerac House museum on Canal Street. The place does a brilliant job displaying the city’s cocktail history, including the Ojen, which is now 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.
Oh, and as for the cocktail’s other key ingredient, Peychaud’s bitters, Sazerac now makes that too. The ice you will have to get on your own.