Unmasking the Past: The Colorful History of the Ojen Mardi Gras Cocktail

Posted by Michelle Lentz on Feb 21, 2023 at 10:09 AM

[Editor’s note: This week’s cover story was co-written by Hoperatives writers Michelle Lentz and Monika Royal-Fischer. At this time, our CMS is only showing Michelle’s byline, but it definitely was a collaboration. As they say in Hollywood, we’ll fix it in post. 😁]

gold mardi gras mask

Laissez les bon temps rouler! What comes to mind when you think of Mardi Gras? Likely your imagination immediately goes to New Orleans and lively celebrations, parades, beads, masks and colorfully costumed party-goers. But have you heard of the Ojen Cocktail? This centuries-old mysterious drink has a fascinating origin story that takes it from southern Spain to the streets of New Orleans, where it’s become the beloved unofficial cocktail of Mardi Gras.

Ojen, pronounced oh-hen (although some are said to pronounce it oi-yen) is a licorice-flavored liqueur, similar to absinthe but less alcoholic and sweeter. Ojen was first produced in the 1830s by the Pedro Morales family distillery, in the Andalusia region of Spain. Morales made his fortune in other ventures, but wanted to create a superior anise-flavored liquor, which led him to open a distillery to create Ojen.

At this point in history, licorice, aka anise, flavored liqueurs were not popular in Spain, so in 1883, 50 cases of Ojen found their way to Paul and Oscar Gelpi’s liquor distribution business in New Orleans. The Gelpi brothers were the enterprising sort, and they immediately began marketing Ojen to Americans as “superior to absinthe,” which was a savvy move for the time. In the late nineteenth century, absinthe was considered medicinal, and aligning Ojen this way made for easy mass appeal and profit.

Paul Gelpi continued his rise to prominence, leading to his inauguration in a gentlemen's organization called the Boston Club in 1886, when the actual Ojen Cocktail recipe was created as part of the ceremony. Someone, a bartender, Gelpi ... we’re not really sure, mixed Ojen with Peychaud’s bitters and soda water over ice, producing the signature pink louche. Over the next few years, the Ojen Cocktail continued to gain in popularity. In 1912, the drink received an unexpected boost when absinthe was banned because officials believed it to be hallucinogenic and dangerous. Ojen, with a similar flavor, proved to be a worthy, if less alcoholic, substitute, much to the relief of bartenders across the city.

The last Ojen distillery in Spain closed in 1920 and legend has it that the last male heir of the Morales family took the secret recipe for the liqueur to his grave. But, a twist! In 1960, Juan Espada Fernandez, whose father he claimed was an employee at the original Morales distillery, had a recipe, bought the Morales still and relaunched production of Ojen. Sadly this story ends in the 1990s, when the last of the Fernandez family ceased production of Ojen due to poor sales. Before shutting down, they fulfilled one legendary final order for Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans which, in a panic, ordered 6,000 bottles.

In 2016, the Sazerac Company reverse-engineered the recipe from the last of those 6000 bottles. (Sazerac produces, amongst many other things, Sazerac Rye and Buffalo Trace bourbon.) Ojen is one of the local bottlings made by Sazerac, and you can buy it in New Orleans at the Sazerac House. (Ojen is also sold in limited quantities in IL, CA, NY, TX, and WA.)

The classic Mardi Gras Ojen cocktail (still the cocktail of the Krewe of Rex) calls for

  • 2 oz Ojen
  • 5 oz Peychaud’s bitters
  • .25 oz Simple Syrup
  • Twist of lemon
    Mix, stir, and strain into a cocktail glass. Use oil from the lemon on the rim and float the twist.
    pink ojen cocktail in a coupe glass

Like absinthe, Ojen can be prepared a la louche, which is the cloudy, lavender state that occurs when you combine it with water. Mixing it with Peychaud’s bitters, as in the classic cocktail, gives it a lovely pale pink color, making it the perfect drink for Mardi Gras as we close out winter and get ready to welcome spring.

A 2020 Food & Wine Magazine article compares the flavor profile of Ojen as 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.” Other New Orleans establishments, such as Cure, have created their own twist on the traditional Mardi Gras cocktail, including the frothy Ojen Frappe. A dash of absinthe adds a bit of rock and roll to a classy gin & tonic, and I think the sweetness of Ojen might make for an intriguing take on that classic.

Instagram Post from NOLA Cure

An absinthe rinse is an easy way to add unique flavor and aroma to a cocktail without necessarily adding alcohol content. You can easily switch out absinthe for Ojen. A popular drink for an absinthe rinse is a French 75, but in this case, an Ojen rinse would complement nicely.

A simple way to add a rinse is to just chill a glass with ice (or use a pre-chilled glass). Once the glass is cold, swish or slow-roll your favorite anise-based liqueur until it coats the glass. You only want to use a little bit, because you’re then going to dump it out. From there, mix the drink as you normally would. No matter how you do it, you are adding additional nose and character to your cocktail, and yes, maybe just a bit of kick. Given the opportunity, there is quite a rabbit hole to go down, following the flavor profile and sweetness from Ojen and matching it with the botanicals in various gins.

Fun Facts about Ojen:

  • Pablo Picasso,featured Ojen in two of his paintings - the 1912 Spanish Still Life and the 1915 Bottle of Anis del Mono
  • Ojen is famously featured in Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel, To Have and To Have Not, in which protagonist Arthur Gordon knocks back three glasses of Ojen in a Havana gambling room.
  • In the 1950s, at the famous Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, you could order an Ojen Cocktail for 70 cents!