All photos by Brian Petro.
Grain and nut-based drinks claim a long and noble history. Depending on the region you came from, the spices, the nuts being used, and the proportions would change, but the drink stayed the same. Barley (hordeum in Latin) was used in many of these drinks because of its rugged nature, standing up in weather that would not support other grains. You may have had it as horchata, a Spanish and South American delicacy that features a variety of seeds and nuts. A Korean family I was tutoring offered me sikhye, a VERY sweet rice and barley drink, every time I came over. Most of these drinks, other than in their native countries or restaurants with a similar cuisine, are no longer commonly found. Orgeat, made with almonds, syrup, and floral water (orange or rose is most common), survives as a cocktail and beverage flavoring, but not as something to sip.
Even orgeat was lost for a period of time. Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber brought it back in the tiki era, where it was then lost again as fresh, unique ingredients took a nose dive in the seventies and eighties. When the classic tiki cocktails were rediscovered, the few dusty bottles of orgeat that sat on shelves next to the bitters started to sell. Bartenders started to look for recipes to make it, and realized it was not a pretty, or simple, process. It was sticky, the yield is not terribly high, and there was a limited number of drinks that called for it. In The Bar Book by bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, it is the one ingredient he suggests you just buy a high quality version of and call it a day. In this modern world of mixologists and liquor visionaries, there are other options.
A group of Brooklyn born, California based cocktail aficionados have developed an alternative to the original, syrup-based mixer. L’Orgeat blends organic almonds with the floral notes one would expect from orgeat into a more stable liqueur. Opening the bottle for the first time, I could smell both of those components right away. It was all flowers at first, followed by the calming influence of the almonds. On the tongue it was fully the opposite; the sweetness and the richness of the almonds rolled in first, with the floral hints lingering for just a bit before leaving. Of course, when handed a bottle of spirits there are experiments to do and report upon. For this experiment, I tested it against a common, commercially available orgeat (Fee Brothers) and a batch of orgeat I made in my kitchen. The recipe was pulled from a variety of sources on the internet.
- 2 cups/ 220 g. Chopped Almonds
- 1.5 cups/ 340 g. Sugar
- 1.25 cups/ 295 mL Water
- 1 tsp. Orange Blossom Water
- 1 tsp. Brandy (or Vodka)
Mix the sugar and water together to make a simple syrup. Bring to a boil, then add the chopped nuts. (Optional: You can roast the almonds for five minutes at 400 ˚F/204 ˚C.)
Reduce the temperature to medium-low. Cover, and allow it to simmer for five minutes. Return the heat to medium high. Just before it comes back to a boil, remove it from the burner and allow it to sit for three hours.
After the three hours, strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer and cheesecloth into a clean, sealable glass jar.
Mix in the orange blossom water and brandy. Store in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
The Basics: Taste and Smell
The first thing we did with each of the subjects was taste them on their own. I previously described what we experienced with L’Orgeat, which was a strong almond note fading into a lightly floral note. When we tried a store bought brand such as Fee Brother’s syrup, the group’s taste buds were overwhelmed by citrus. If there was any almond in there, we were hard pressed to find it under the assertive flavors. After tasting the homemade orgeat, it became clear that the creators of L’Orgeat did their homework. The flavor profile was similar, with the almond being much more assertive than the floral water.
The Soda Test
On the recommendation of the brand, we mixed our three test subjects with soda water to open them up. The findings in this test were much like the findings with the basic tests, with fewer rough edges. Homemade orgeat bullied the soda water into submission. Its almond notes and viscosity stood tall against the carbonation. L’Orgeat held its head up high, but the almond flavor was not as pronounced. It started to fade into the background a little, and did not have the same mouthfeel as homemade. The commercial syrup became a fizzy Sweet Tart. Almost no almond, and the citrus became even more pronounced. I was not sure how that was possible, but it happened.
The Mai Tai
Of course, the real test of any new ingredient is dropping it into a cocktail and see how it works. There are a few cocktails that jump to mind when orgeat is mentioned: the Japanese Cocktail, the Fog Cutter, and of course this ingredient screams for tiki. My formative bartending years involved hurling gallons of Mai Tais at thirsty comedy fans. I will spare you the grisly details of the way it was made, but they were still incredibly popular. It was not until I began my own research that I discovered that Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber each had a unique way they made their Mai Tai. The modern version is a descendant of the Trader Vic version, opting for orgeat over falernum.
The version I used for the test was the one I found in The Joy Of Mixology by Gary Regan.
- 1 oz./ 30 mL Dark Rum (such as Afrohead – silver medal winner in the 2015 NY International Spirits Competition)
- 1 oz./ 30 mL Light Rum
- .5 oz./ 15 mL Triple Sec
- .75 oz./ 22 mL Orgeat
- 1 oz./ 30 mL Fresh Lime Juice
Glass: Old Fashioned
Garnish: Mint Sprig
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing tin. Shake well for 20-30 seconds, then strain over the crushed ice into the prepared glass. Garnish with the mint and serve. (For more on the technique, please see video here.)
The first Mai Tai the group tried was the homemade orgeat version. The almond flavor stood up well in the cocktail. With all of the flavor the rum was adding, anything floral disappeared into the depths of the libation. This made it a little sweeter than one would expect. The look of the cocktail was much milkier because of the orgeat, and the mouthfeel was a little richer, but not overly so. The second Mai Tai on the list was the one made with L’Orgeat. Any bitterness that may have been lingering in the almonds was completely smoothed over. There was a nice balance of almond and orange blossom, and both emerged through the other powerful flavors. It was visually less milky looking. If how your cocktail’s aesthetic is important to you, this is a huge plus over the other two options. The third option was the Fee Brothers version, and the citrus stayed as forward as it did in the other two options. Certain members of the group felt adding it to a cocktail brought out a little more of the almond notes. The milky look emerged slightly, but the mouthfeel was much closer to L’Orgeat. Of the three versions, the general consensus was that the Mai Tai made with L’Orgeat “could be enjoyed year round.” It was well balanced, light, and citrusy. It was declared the smoothest to drink of the three options.
As a bartender, the fact that there is well balanced version of orgeat in a more stable form is a benefit. In a bar with a smaller volume of cocktail sales, keeping house made orgeat may not be a cost effective option. It is very easy to pour, and adds just the right balance of the almonds and the flower water to the cocktails I tried. It allows you to add more of the floral or almond notes to the cocktail as you feel necessary. My concern about the mouthfeel and aroma was unjustified, as it was not that much further off that what you could make in house. It sat nicely in the cocktails I experimented with, including the Trinidad Sour suggested in the delightful book they sent with the sample.
Trinidad Sour (L’Orgeat recipe, adapted from Giuseppe Gonzalez)
- .5 oz./ 15 mL Rye whiskey
- 1 oz./ 30 mL Angostura Bitters
- 1 oz./ 30 mL L’Orgeat
- .75 oz./ 22 mL Fresh Lemon Juice
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing tin. Shake well for 20-30 seconds, then strain into the prepared glass.
The team that created this product did their research. Sticklers to tradition may not be wooed by it, but it is a solid addition to any bar. L’Orgeat is a quality product that should be given an opportunity in any bar wishing to combine hints of the past with the quality of the future.