AKA Abraham Bacoln

Liquid history
April 2, 2009, 10:03 am
Filed under: tidbit

Most of you who read this blog know my history, but for those of you who don’t, allow me to get you up to speed.

In February of 2002 I started work as a stockguy at Martin Wine Cellar down here in New Orleans. I had zero understanding of wine, other than some was red, some was white, and I had heard the words ‘Cabernet’ and ‘Chardonnay’ but didn’t know what they meant other that which one was which color. Putting those bottles on the shelves all day long and having my managers’ patient tolerance for my questions quickly increased my wine knowledge. One area that remained mysterious a bit longer was the liquors and liqueurs section – a side aisle filled with oddly-shaped bottles with incomprehensible flavors and fascinating foreign names. Unlike wine, these weren’t sampled out to customers every day. No one openly debated the merits of one cachaça over the other, or which kirsch would add the best flavor to a fondue. Sure I knew what whiskey, tequila, vodka, and gin were, but cream made from the fruit of the Marula tree? I thought chartreuse was a color, not something that would be bottled and sold.

I wish I could claim that the first time I saw a bottle of Ojen it caught my eye and I was spellbound – I had to buy it that very day and taste it that very night … but had that happened I wouldn’t be writing this, so you know it’s not true.

A glass of disappearing history

Ojen sat on the top shelf at the Uptown store right next to the Herbsaint, Pernod, and all the other absinthe substitutes. I hardly noticed it, because I didn’t have to restock it very often (if at all). It did get my attention somewhat because of its interesting bottle shape but in an aisle of interesting bottle shapes it didn’t stand out that much. During the only Mardi Gras I worked as a stockguy it got pushed to the front of the store as a floor stack or maybe just a front door display. I asked about it and was told, “Some of the guys in one of the parade krewes use it in their drinks” or something to that effect. I learned that it was an anise liqueur not because it was sitting beside the other absinthe substitutes but instead from the day that a customer dropped (and broke) a bottle at the front of the store and almost instantly the entire place was flooded with the intense rich smell of licorice. The mop continued to smell of licorice for days afterward.

After moving to the inventory department I heard the story about how the distillery in Spain that had produced Ojen had shut down years ago, but right before they closed up shop we asked for one last run. Therefore sitting in our warehouse was the last of it, all the Ojen that was or would ever be. That one last stack of cases seemed a bit sad.

I moved away from New Orleans.

Three years and two months later I came back to New Orleans.

In that time I’ve come to appreciate the city a bit more. I’ve also learned to enjoy the history of this crazy place, especially that of Mardi Gras. One of the things I’ve realized is that it wasn’t just “some krewe” that was buying Ojen for their parade cocktails, it was the Krewe of Rex, the big krewe that rolls on Mardi Gras day itself. Rex was founded in 1872, over forty years after the production of Ojen began. The cocktail had been popular in New Orleans at the turn of the century and perhaps longer, maybe even as long as this venerated krewe has been parading.

Still it didn’t sink in what I was looking at. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re at the cusp of change until the corner has been turned.

The lightbulb moment for me happened last Saturday. Casey and I went to the Absinthe Museum to watch Jeff Hollinger talk about – and pour – absinthe cocktails (in case you haven’t heard, absinthe is legal again). He is the general manager of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco and had come to town more or less to do this appearance. While he was mixing and talking someone in the audience asked him, “What all are you going to do while you’re down here? Anything in particular you’re looking for?” and his reply was, “Well, I plan to eat at such-and-such restaurant, and also I hope to pick up a bottle of Ojen.”

That made me realize that this man, a man who is involved in all things absinthe and absinthe-related, didn’t even have his own bottle. I’m sure he’s had an Ojen frappé at some point, I’m sure he’s tasted it at the very least, but this guy doesn’t have his own bottle – and hopes to find one. That realization solidified in my mind the idea that Ojen was not a nation-wide product. Hell, it’s not even regional. It is, as far as I know, only available in New Orleans itself. I talked to Jeff and told him where to pick up a bottle, and then Casey and I went on our way to go enjoy the rest of our day.

My mind was churning, though, processing all this information. I looked at the numbers and we have very few bottles left on the shelves, probably less than twenty-five. It made me realize that this cocktail has been a New Orleans institution for decades and now it’s on the verge of dying out because of unavailability. Past that it made me realize that I would be a fool not to buy a bottle for myself and enjoy it – but never hoard it, or dole it out in drips and drabs. Just occasionally have a glass of this Spanish “aguardiente anisado”, this tiny New Orleanian tradition, and if worse comes to worst in the upcoming years at least I’ll know I had my time enjoying it.

I would hate to have seen it mentioned in a book on the history of New Orleans or Mardi Gras and been saddened because I had missed my chance to own and consume a part of that Ojen history.

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Nice thoughts, beautifully written.

Comment by lafille

Perhaps if I’d known all this I would have appreciated it more…


Comment by Editor B

lovely. enjoy it.

Comment by liz

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