Some Mardi Gras krewes celebrate with signature cocktails
It may come as a surprise, but Mardi Gras celebrations haven’t always been the pious, civilized and staid affairs they’re known for today.
Well, actually, the surprise would be anyone thinking they are pious, civilized or staid today, but the point is, they used to be worse.
For more than a century after the first noted Mardi Gras celebrations began in the early 1700s, they were routinely banned by both the church from which the Lenten period originated and by government bodies and law enforcement officials who wanted Lenten abstention to include the destructive, debased and drunken parties that Mardi Gras had become.
It was not a time to invest in plastic bead stocks.
What saved Mardi Gras was a secret. In truth, it was a whole bunch of secrets held by mysterious and mystic society clubs who sought to temper the public activities in the celebrations while promoting parades and their own private parties — parties restricted to their oh-so-exclusive membership.
Often credited with saving Mardi Gras and making it what it is today, especially in New Orleans, is the Mistick Krewe of Comus. This club of elite males from New Orleans society, mostly Protestants, formed in 1856 and began organizing elaborate parades and an oh-so-secret ball. The inspiration for all of this came from Mobile, Alabama, where Mardi Gras, as it’s known today, originated. Mobile had earlier created a similar society with annual parades called the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.
Other secret clubs followed with The Knights of Momus forming in 1872 and the Krewe of Proteus in 1882. Memberships in all three, then as now, were complete secret, giving rise to masked balls that would protect members’ identities.
Today, there are almost 80 krewes in New Orleans with many of them far from exclusive. Galveston has more than a dozen. Qualifying for membership to these krewes ranges from somewhat difficult to just sign here and volunteer.
While all of this secret club stuff added a whole new, intriguing level to Mardi Gras festivities over the centuries, one thing it didn’t change was drunken, debased and destructive parties. A lot of partiers just dressed better.
As for what cocktails are allowed in these elite gatherings, acceptance requires proof, generally 70, 80 or 100 proof. Innumerable contacts were made with Galveston’s krewes, but only one returned with what would be considered a signature cocktail.
The Z Krewe was formed in 1994 with the aim of keeping Mardi Gras traditions alive, but with a difference. The secrecy and solemnity of old krewes were the first to go. Members, known as Zanies, are chosen through application available online. Even being chosen as king and queen, known as King Zanie and Queen Zanie, is a piece of cake. Literally. Members select pieces of cake with different color plastic babies inside. The two who manage to get the gold ones become king and queen. The head Zanies are called Big Daddy and Big Momma — Big Daddy being chosen by past Big Daddies and Big Momma being chosen by the newly chosen Big Daddy. Among their responsibilities is to host a party the night before the annual Z Krewe ball.
As for the cocktail, the krewe drinks an odd concoction called a Key Lime Pie Martini. Pam Iltis, the Z Krewe treasurer, recalled the drink came about several years ago when that year’s Big Daddy and Big Momma decided to include a martini-making contest during their party.
“We probably had a dozen or 15 martinis in the contest,” Iltis said. “We had a crew of judges and a full tasting. The Key Lime Pie Martini won, and then it got to where every year someone was asking for it to be served. That’s how it became our drink.”
Where krewes gather on balconies overlooking the parades along The Strand in downtown Galveston or in restaurant private party rooms, the most common drink provided is punch, the kind that packs one. Yaga’s Café, 2314 Strand, uses concoctions heavily laced with rums. Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center usually creates a different punch every year it features in its lobby bar.
For anyone who wants to step back in time and imbibe in what became the true Mardi Gras cocktail more than a century ago, the search will lead to a bottle of Legendre Ojen, an anise-based liqueur once made in a town by that name in the Andalusia region of Spain.
Pronounced oh-hen, the liqueur has a long history starting in 1830, but with the part about how it became popular in New Orleans during Mardi Gras never clear. It just kind of showed up and stayed.
Sweeter and less potent than its cousin absinthe, Ojen was popular in New Orleans from the early 1850s right on through the mid-20th century when it was the drink to have during Mardi Gras to ensure good luck. It became known as the preferred cocktail of “the Rex ruling class,” a reference to the traditional king of the carnival and the most celebrated parade. Krewe of Rex began in 1872 to highlight the visit of Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, an heir to the Czar.
It found the spotlight in 1883 when two young brothers, who had opened a liquor distribution company specializing in imported wines and spirits about a decade earlier, began an advertising campaign for Ojen, declaring it “Superior to Absinthe as an Appetizer and Tonic.”
The campaign was obviously successful because it soon became the drink for the secret clubs, which, not coincidentally, the brothers were quite active in. Ojen often opened parades and was even used by King Rex to toast his queen. Only officers of these krewes got to have the Ojen, as one participant explained, adding, “The rest of us had to drink Champagne.”
The liqueur found its way to the masses some 80 years ago, particularly when Brennan’s, the famed Royal Street restaurant that begat Brennan’s of Houston, began selling the Ojen Frappé for brunch. The drink’s popularity only increased.
Unfortunately, the Ojen distillery in Spain shut down in the late 1980s with the last of the family owners taking the recipe for the drink to the grave. By that time, New Orleans was the only sizable market for it outside of Spain, where, even though being the country of origin, it wasn’t especially popular. When news of the shut-down reached New Orleans, fans became desperate. Seeing a thirsty and frightened market, one of the city’s importers, Martin Wine Cellar, bought every last bottle it could find. It’s estimated more than 6,000 bottles soon arrived in the city. A story in the Atlantic Monthly noted that the last bottle to officially sell was in 2009, but that many are still tucked away in private homes and exclusive restaurants for whatever grand and special occasion might warrant opening them.
But nearly 30 years after the Spanish company’s demise, the famed New Orleans-based Sazerac Company decided it had successfully duplicated the original Ojen and released a small batch of it in New Orleans in time for the 2016 carnival. It has been producing it ever since.
Unfortunately, there is no distributor in Texas that carries Ojen, but because it’s a liqueur, people can bring to Texas a limited number of bottles, available at many locations in New Orleans, or order them online.
The Ojen cocktail is a simple thing for a drink with such a vivid history. Combine 2 ounces of Ojen, four drops of Peychaud’s Bitters and a splash of soda water over crushed ice in a rocks glass and stir. It produces a fairy-like pink drink, but then, poof, you’re royalty.
Just keep the secret.
Z Krewe’s Key Lime Pie Martini
This is the “official” drink of Galveston Mardi Gras’ Z Krewe, a krewe formed in 1994. It first appeared several years ago at a Z Krewe martini contest held the night before the group’s annual Mardi Gras ball.
3 ounces vanilla-flavored vodka
2 ounces KeKe Beach Key Lime Liqueur
2 tablespoons pineapple juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ teaspoon good quality balsamic vinegar
Lime juice and graham cracker crumbs for rimming glass
Mix the first five ingredients in a shaker half-filled with ice. Shake, then pour into a chilled martini glass rimmed with lime juice and ground graham crackers.