Cocktails’ Best Supporting Ingredient: DIY Orgeat

Orgeat, an almond syrup dating back to the 1300s, has always played second fiddle to traditional cocktail sweeteners. But the old-school ingredient has a distinct personality, and is being renewed with small-batch and housemade versions around the country.

Orgeat is all supporting cast. It’s a little like successful service in a restaurant: If it’s doing its job well, you’re not bound to notice its presence. Squint, and you’ll see it rubbing the backs of your Mai Tais, or gently sweetening your Japanese Cocktails. If you’ve ever had a tiki drink, the chances are you owe orgeat its due. 

Given how long it’s been around, it’s a surprise we’re not better acquainted. An opaque, sweet almond syrup often laced just slightly with orange blossom or rose water, or both, orgeat first started making regular appearances in bar manuals in the 1860s, but was consumed outside the realm of cocktails long before then. As early as the 1300s, orgeat was served as a delicacy—then a savory barley water, without a trace of the almonds it’s made with today.

In the 18th century, an almond iteration that bore a close resemblance to almond milk made a brief cameo as a shelf-stable alternative for baking. Later still, it was made into a sweeter, syrupy cordial and enjoyed a stint in social clubs: If you were to stop by London’s Almack’s Assembly Rooms in the late 1700s, you’d be offered a glass of orgeat alongside a biscuit or a slice of brown bread.

In between the social clubs and the baking, orgeat appeared routinely in the pages of classic literature: Edith Wharton’s well-heeled characters fancied orgeat lemonade, and a version of the drink graced the menu at the Italian patisserie in Turgenev’s Spring Torrents. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and the better half of the 20th, orgeat underwent a series of minor Darwinian changes, each version slightly better than the last.

Then came tiki, which urged orgeat down a whole new path. The 1940s brought the invention of sweet, tropical drinks as a response to the Great Depression: There was more disposable income, but not yet enough to fund a trip to exotic islands. The tiny umbrellas, the plastic palms, the paneled walls and engraved drinking vesselsthese were a stop-gap. With tiki came Trader Vic, who, according to Adam Kolesar of Brooklyn Orgeat Works—lovingly referred to as “tiki Adam” in the industry—rediscovered orgeat as a sweetener.

“Pre-prohibition, cocktails had a fairly scrupulous blueprint,” says Kolesar. Trader Vic colored outside the lines. To him, a drink’s sweetener could be something beyond a bar spoon of sugar or a small wineglass of gum syrup. Tiki turned the ideas we had about cocktail modifiers on their heads, and in doing so, it changed the way we thought about orgeat as an ingredient. It was still used like a simple syrup, but it had its own voice.

Today, that voice fluctuates wildly from bottle to bottle. The spectrum of commercially-available orgeats is something like a cocktail approval matrix: one corner floral, the other sweet, the next fuller, the last liquid marzipan. Taste a few different producers next to each other, and the first won’t taste like it’s in the same category as the last. Small Hand Foods orgeat—a brand that most seasoned bartenders prefer, like Jim Meehan of PDT—tastes like something you’d want to drink by itself, after dinner and instead of dessert; it’s nutty, and balanced in a way that lifts your palate up rather than weighing it down. Kassatly, a Lebanese orgeat that Meehan also stocks, is more obviously sweet, a lot like drinking a Spätlese riesling instead of a Kabinett. Blair Reynolds, of B.G. Reynolds’ Syrups, makes one that tastes like flowery heft. Try them all again, and you’ll start to worry what a recipe actually means when it calls for orgeat.

The defense for this? Building drinks around ingredients. Meehan routinely stocks two kinds of orgeat behind his bar—a sweeter, more marzipan-driven version and one that leans nuttier. The first contributes to what Meehan calls “high-toned notes” in recipes that use lighter spirits, like PDT’s Parkside Fizz; the second gets along with drinks that have brown liquor, like the Japanese Cocktail.

Eamon Rockey, who mans the bar at New York’s Betony, prefers to keep his orgeat use consistent: When working on the housemade version, he sought a pure, pronounced marzipan flavor. According to Rockey, commercial orgeats run the gamut from saccharine to sticky-sweet to thrumming with the aftertaste of citric acid. “They’re good, but not in a natural way; some taste as though they’re engineered by a guy in a lab coat.” At Betony, you’ll find what Rockey believes orgeat was meant to be: “I pulled away all of the elements I didn’t want, and what was left was classic marzipan.”

While the aforementioned, small-batch versions will create great drinks and allow a sense for the variations in flavor, it’s not all that difficult to make your own. Rockey’s technique dictates doing it all in a ziplock bag—à la sous vide—the rationale of which is similar to David Chang’s stock theory: “If your kitchen starts to smell of marzipan,” says Rockey, “you’re losing the product.”

From there, it’s just a matter of sweetening to make a cordial. And, of course, letting it play the field in your drinks. Put it in a Mai Tai, let it shine in a floral version of a Tom Collins or make the most romantic Japanese Cocktail you’ve ever had. After all, “if it’s not romantic,” says Rockey, “it’s not a Japanese Cocktail.”