Everything You Need to Know About Ojen, the Unofficial Cult Liqueur of Mardi Gras
The official cocktail of New Orleans, per the Louisiana House of Representatives, is the Sazerac, a mixture of rye whiskey, sugar or simple syrup, absinthe, and bitters. But the official cocktail of Mardi Gras day for much of the 20th century was based on a spirit that very nearly went extinct: Ojen, a sweet, anise-flavored liqueur.
If Ojen doesn’t have the same national, or even regional, recognition as the Sazerac, it’s partly because, for years, it was in very short supply. Ojen was originally produced in the mid-1800s in southern Spain. New Orleans, a town with a fondness for licorice-flavored spirits, became its most enthusiastic importer. By the mid-20th century, Ojen was popular as an absinthe replacement, and had a particular cache during Carnival season. The Ojen cocktail was favored by New Orleans high society—Brennan’s, the storied French Quarter restaurant, served an Ojen Frappe on their brunch menu in the late 1940s.
In the early 1990s, the original Spanish distiller shut down production of Ojen. Martin’s Wine Cellar in New Orleans bought the remaining run of 6000 bottles, but sold their last one in 2009. For about seven years, Ojen was a precious commodity and a kind of bartender's brag. Then, in 2016, Sazerac Company reverse-engineered their own recipe and began selling Ojen again, under the label Legendre Ojen. Though most popular in Louisiana, Sazerac also began selling the spirit in Texas, Illinois, New York, and Washington the year. (It’s also available in California.) A bottle will run you about $20.
Once you get your hands on a bottle of Ojen, what should you do with it? Ojen has a flavor that’s like absinthe but sweeter and mellower. The classic Ojen cocktail is just Ojen, Peychaud’s bitters, and seltzer over ice, sometimes accompanied by a measurer of orgeat. Iit has a bright, sweet flavor, and the bitters give the cocktail a pleasant pale pink color. “Normally you add bitters to straight spirits like whiskey, but this is a thin drink,” explained Jana Ritter, marketing manager for Sazerac Company. “Ojen is already pretty rich. Peychhaud’s bitters has a lot of complementary flavors to licorice, which is why it's such a natural fit for Herbsaint, Absinthe, and Ojen.”
The flavor profile of Ojen straight up is in the same range as sambuca, ouzo, and arak, so any cocktail you would make with those liqueurs is a good candidate for swapping in Ojen. Jena Ritter, marketing manager for Sazerac, makes a dessert drink combining creme de menthe, Ojen, and soda. ”We’ve had people make Ojen snowballs. We’ve also seen it mixed with fruity juices, like watermelon juice,” Ritter told Food & Wine.
Ojen makes an interesting addition to a French 75 or to a classic Sazerac. Added to grapefruit juice, the sweetness of the Ojen balances nicely with the bitterness of the grapefruit. Abigail Gullo, former head bartender at compere Lapin, used the spirit in an Ojen Pina Colada. Or, with Mardi Gras day fast approaching, you can opt for the simple, classic swizzle, and bring some Carnival spirit to your cocktail game.