A few years ago, I came across one of those irresistible Web quizzes. This one claimed, “We know if you like black licorice with just one question!” Oh, really? I clicked, of course. The question: “Are you eighty years old?”
Licorice doesn’t get enough respect for a flavor that apparently takes eight decades to fully appreciate. In any event, New Orleans has some age on it. The city had a well-documented fondness for licorice-inflected absinthe when it was legal before 1912, and licorice-inflected Herbsaint when absinthe was banned for about a century after that. And those licorice notes remain an integral component of the Sazerac, the city’s official cocktail.
New Orleans also developed an abiding fondness for Ojen, a sweet Spanish liqueur with prominent black licorice notes and roots in the nineteenth century. According to Southern Comforts: Drinking and the U.S. South, Ojen once starred in the famed frappé served at Brennan’s, which opened in 1946 in the French Quarter. The restaurant touted its Ojen frappé as “the preferred absinthe of the Spanish aristocracy.”
Aristocracy attracts aspiring aristocrats. Soon the Krewe of Rex, one of the city’s preeminent Mardi Gras organizations, embraced the Ojen frappé as Carnival’s cocktail. Despite its popularity in New Orleans, however, Ojen lost the interest of the rest of the world and devolved into a regional curiosity. In the early 1990s, a British firm acquired the distillery, and shortly announced it would cease production of Ojen.
The Rex crowd, distraught, devised a work-around. With the aid of a city wine merchant, they asked the distillery to produce one more run of Ojen, the entirety of which was shipped to New Orleans. Those hundreds of cases were meted out from a warehouse and helped maintain order in the city for years. Then, about a decade ago, supplies started to dwindle; Ojen bottles began selling for upwards of a hundred dollars on the black market. That’s when the New Orleans–based Sazerac Company stepped into the breach. The outfit reverse engineered the liqueur in the lab, and five years ago rolled out its own version: Legendre Ojen, which by general consensus makes for a worthy facsimile.
Mardi Gras will be celebrated in a much-diminished fashion on February 16. But don’t let that hamper your own celebration. Make an Ojen frappé at home. Swizzle until frosted. Toast the day, a brighter year ahead, and your sophisticated octogenarian friends.