History

Toasting New Orleans' Eternal Love Affair with Anise

Postcard illustrating Old Absinthe House in New Orleans
New Orleans' Old Absinthe House was an epicenter for French and Spanish aristocracy in its early days. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Admit it. You love the taste of black jelly beans — the lonely left-behinds of Easter. Those sinister-looking eggs are your secret candy crush with their bittersweet licorice flavor provided by the flowering herb anise.

A member of the parsley family, anise or aniseed has for millennia been considered a wonder drug. It was often ground and mixed into healing elixirs to treat upset stomachs, as a cough expectorant, to stimulate menstruation or increase one’s libido. The centuries of medicinal anise consumption lead to the inevitable — the herb grew beyond its doctoring properties and into an agent of flavor. When aniseed is distilled, the oils released help create a sweet liqueur favored over ice in countries like France, Spain and Italy.

The commercial distillation of anise liqueur began in France with Marie Brizard and her development of anisette in the 1750s. The sweet freshness of anisette provided by green anise created a soft, palatable liqueur. It quickly found success in France as a delightfully sweet digestif.

But it was in the 1790s when anise began its rise to worldwide fame. A French doctor by the name of Pierre Ordinaire began distilling wormwood with a few herbs (including anise) as a potion for his patients. The elixir known as absente was so delicious, the recipe was bought from Dr. Ordinaire in 1797 by Major Dubied and his son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod who hoped to commercialize the concoction for more pleasurable pursuits. Under Pernod’s guidance, absinthe consumption quickly spread throughout France and Europe. Absinthe fever eventually found its way to America and the people of New Orleans — many of whom hailed from France and other anise-loving nations. Absinthe and anise liqueurs like Brizard’s anisette provided the residents of the city a connection to their homeland.

By the end of the 19th century, New Orleans had helped to create one of the country’s greatest inventions — the cocktail. By no coincidence, the newly conceived concoctions often contained absinthe and anisette.

Anise liqueurs and anisette in early cocktails

In Frank Caiafa’s “The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book,” a small section toward the back contains the old bar’s Pousse-Cafe cocktails. These likely would have been sipped after dinner and were only served in the most elegant hotels as their creation had to be carried out with great precision and skill. In other words, these tiny tipples required a vetting process before you were even allowed to concoct them. A handful of cocktails contained anisette. Due to their potent, sweet nature, Pousse-Cafes were meant to be taken down slowly and chased with a cup of black coffee or espresso. The equal parts Joker, for instance, was served in a sherry glass and contained ⅓ ounce of the following: Marie Brizard anisette, creme Yvette, Benedictine and heavy cream.

A Pousse-Cafe was nothing short of punch in the face if not respected by its consumer — hence that coffee chaser.

In the 1891 compendium “The Flowing Bowl,” a more palatable anisette concoction can be found for the modern drinker in the Imperial Opal. The cocktail calls for a pony of absinthe, a dash of anisette and a dash of Yellow Chartreuse, shaken to chill and served up in a cocktail glass with a drop of creme de rose. It’s a cocktail which can easily be riffed with any number of anise liqueurs including ouzo or Pernod.

“The Flowing Bowl” also lists an anisette cordial recipe which called for six quarts of Cognac, four ounces of pulverized star anise, four ounces of anise, two lemon peels and a cinnamon stick. After four weeks in a warm, dry place, two and half pounds of lump-sugar were added before it was “refined and cleared” in three quarts of boiling water and bottled.

Vintage 1944 Legendre Herbsaint booklet A 1944 Legendre Herbsaint booklet from historian Jay Hendrickson's collection.

The death of absinthe

By the dawn of the twentieth century, New Orleans was the undisputed absinthe capital of America. From absinthe houses to pharmacies to cocktail bars, the spirit permeated nearly every facet of the city’s culture and bolstered its thriving tourism economy. That all fell apart in 1912 when absinthe was banned in the United States followed eight years later by Prohibition.

It should come as no great surprise that the city would keep the eternal flame for absinthe and anise burning for the next 100 years. New Orleans would champion the spirit’s resurrection and birth substitutes like Herbsaint while rallying around imports like the Spanish anise liqueur ojen (OH-hen).

Ojen

This sweet anise liqueur was first produced in Andalucía, Spain in the 1850s by the Morales family. When the the last male heir died, it’s said the recipe went with him. Ojen was saved from obscurity in the 1930s by Manuel Fernandez who took up the mantle for this “Spanish absinthe.” Hoping to capitalize on the void left by absinthe, an ambitious Fernandez expanded ojen’s market to a city full of anise lovers half-way around the world in New Orleans.

The city was still mourning the loss of its beloved absinthe. Many of New Orleans cocktails including the Sazerac had been left naked without it. There had been attempts to bring absinthe and other anise liqueurs back once Prohibition was repealed but nothing quite caught on with the city’s bartenders like ojen.

Ojen’s ties to its adopted city run deep, including its grandest tradition, Mardi Gras, which crowned the Ojen Cocktail (two ounces of Ojen and a dash of Peychaud’s over ice) the festival’s drink of choice. The spirit was yet again enjoying its popularity when news broke in the 1990s that the Spanish distiller was shutting down production. Cedric Martin of New Orleans’ Martin's Wine Cellar bought the last 500 cases to keep the city supplied in ojen. The final bottle was sold in 2009.

New Orleans was reliving the death of absinthe.

Ojen could be considered the Lazarus of liqueurs as was once again it was resurrected from obscurity. This time by New Orleans own Sazerac Company. The recipe took over two years to perfect but by Mardi Gras 2016 ojen cocktails were being served in bars around the city.

In an article for Tales in February 2016, Arnaud’s Chris Hannah talks about using ojen in his cocktails. He recommends cutting the sweet liqueur with a bitter agent. Ojen provides enough sweetness in a frappe, for instance, that he ditches the sugar and adds a little black tea to keep the cocktail in balance. Even by New Orleans sweet standards ojen can be a bit much on the palate but in cocktails the liqueur works once you play around with it a bit.

Vintage 1944 Legendre Herbsaint booklet A few helpful drinking tips from a 1944 Herbsaint booklet from Jay Hendrickson's collection proffers advice such as guzzling olive oil to prepare for a night of drinking, and drinking a warm glass of milk to stave off a hangover.

Herbsaint Original

With the repeal of Prohibition, the void left by the continued ban of absinthe needed to be filled. Former New Orleans absinthe makers like Jung & Wulff and Solari threw their hats into the ring with anise liqueurs like Milky Way and Greenopal. Neither created the allure or the taste of absinthe. That changed in 1934 with J.M. Lengendre’s Herbsaint.

Lengendre’s liqueur was high-proof and tasted of absinthe with a strong anise flavor. He called his elixir Legendre Absinthe. Despite it not containing wormwood, the name got him into trouble with the Feds. He quickly rebranded the liqueur as Herbsaint; drawing inspiration for the new name and the label from New Orleans and the French-speaking residents who referred to wormwood as herbe sainte (holy herb). Clever marketing, nostalgia and a familiar flavor catapulted Herbsaint passed its competitors. Once Herbsaint landed in the city’s official cocktail, the Sazerac, those other anise liqueurs were finished.

The story of Herbsaint might have ended there but after being sold to The Sazerac Company in 1949, the company reformulated the recipe. The liqueur was a shadow of its former self. Like ojen, Herbsaint would find its savior in an unlikely place with an even more unlikely hero. A soft-spoken graphic designer out of Houston by the name Jay Hendrickson.

Hendrickson, who had been fascinated with absinthe since he was a young boy, discovered its substitute Herbsaint in the 1990s after joining an online absinthe board. Finding little information on the anise liqueur, Hendrickson has spent nearly 20 years amassing a sizable collection of original Herbsaint bottles (often full or half-full,) labels and old advertisements.

He is now considered Herbsaint’s premiere expert.

“Even Sazerac was coming to me for bottles and information which is what lead to the development of Herbsaint Original,” Hendrickson says of the 2009 release of the original formula in commemoration of Herbsaint’s 75th anniversary.

After attending the 2005 Tales of the Cocktail with a bottle of 1934 Herbsaint, Sazerac got in touch with Hendrickson to inquire about procuring a sample in order to recreate the original formula. He sent the company a sealed, 1940s 120-proof mini bottle with two stipulations, “All I wanted back was the bottle and a note saying this was the bottle from which the original formula was created.”

Sazerac kept their word and blew Hendrickson away with the release of Herbsaint Original, “They hit the nail directly on the head with this Herbsaint. It tastes so much like the vintage bottle I gave them and really has that absinthe flavor and its characteristics.”

Herbsaint Original uses three basic herbs found in absinthe: anise, fennel and a variation of artemisia absinthium wormwood call mugwort or artemisia vulgaris. Despite using a “garden variety,” legal wormwood, Herbsaint Original is still not considered an absinthe, though it features similar characteristics. Unlike the sweet, licorice flavor of an anise liqueur like pastis, Herbsaint Original is softer with an herbal profile and hints of anise.

Hendrickson recommends using Original in an Herbsaint Frappe with a couple of dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. As for his Sazerac, “Herbsaint Original. Hands down. It’s a standout and it makes the drink for me.”

“Herbsaint Original is a unique flavor and not like any other anise liqueur. It’s kind of alone in its category,” Hendrickson says. “This Herbsaint is not an absinthe or a pastis. To me it is simply New Orleans.”

Sorry, absinthe.

Vintage 1944 Legendre Herbsaint booklet A handful of old-school New Orleans anisette cocktails. We're curious about "the Big Tomato," which "looks dangerous but is really delightful."

Hendrickson provided Tales with a few vintage recipes from Legendre Herbsaint which he finds really lets 2009 Herbsaint Original shine.

December 1933 Repeal Legendre Absinthe Frappé

  • 1 teaspoon Benedictine
  • 2 tablespoons Legendre Absinthe (use 2009 Herbsaint Original)
  • 4 tablespoons water

Fill large glass with shaved ice. Cover glass with a shaker and shake until frosted-strain into small glass and serve. Hendrickson omits the water and serves over cracked ice.

Herbsaint Punch (from 1944 Herbsaint recipe booklet):

  • 1 bottle of Herbsaint (Original formula)
  • 1 pint of charged (soda) water
  • 4 ounces of simple syrup or one cup of sugar

Fill a punch bowl with two to three large chunks of ice. Add Herbsaint, water and sugar. Stir well and serve.

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