It’s funny how certain ingredients hang around for decades based on a quirky, once-popular cocktail. That bottle of Galliano you often see on a back bar, for instance, is a relic of the fern bar era, when the Harvey Wallbanger reigned.
So is orgeat a classic or an essential, or is it just obscure (and thus a waste of time and effort for most of us)? To help you decide, ask yourself: Do I appreciate a good mai tai? Or more broadly: Am I a fan of tiki? If your answer to either is yes, then orgeat should be in your fridge. If your answer is no, perhaps you could try a different bartender’s rendition of the mai tai. And if the answer is still no, well, perhaps a further consideration of orgeat is in order.
What is orgeat, anyway? People mostly describe it as an almond syrup, but it just as easily could be defined as a rose-water-and-orange-blossom-water syrup, because those are important components to the flavor as well. It’s used in place of simple syrup in the same way grenadine or a sweet liqueur is used in certain drinks: to give depth of flavor and texture. Although the homemade version works best, there are also orgeats from commercial brands such as Fee Brothers and Torani, and smaller labels such as Trader Tiki. The best I’ve found is the craft-made orgeat from Small Hand Foods, which you can order online. (The company also makes craft grenadine and pineapple syrup.)
Contrary to common wisdom, orgeat was not invented by Trader Vic during the mid-20th-century tiki craze. Orgeat actually predates Prohibition, by a long stretch.
Cocktail historian David Wondrich dates orgeat to the mid-19th century. In his 2007 book “Imbibe,” Wondrich writes of orgeat’s role in one of the most popular — and important — pre-Prohibition concoctions, the brandy-based Japanese Cocktail.
Before about 1860, the only acceptable additions to spirits were a pinch of sugar, a bit of lemon peel and a dash or two of bitters, absinthe, maraschino or curacao. The Japanese Cocktail, said Wondrich in an e-mail, is “one of the very first ‘evolved’ cocktails on record, where the additional ingredients are more than a dash.” In fact, Wondrich writes, the Japanese Cocktail might be the only drink in Jerry Thomas’s “How To Mix Drinks,” history’s first cocktail guide, that Thomas actually invented.
The Japanese Cocktail did not come from Japan and has no Japanese ingredients. The original mix of cognac, bitters and orgeat was so named in June 1860 to honor the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the United States. Wondrich writes that the Japanese visitors, staying at a hotel a block from Thomas’s bar, were introduced to American drinking customs by a young attache in the legation nicknamed “Tommy” who loved the ladies and the cocktails, “from breakfast to supper,” according to newspaper accounts.
I’ve tasted a Japanese Cocktail or two, and I don’t know why I hadn’t experimented with it more. Though it predates the Old Fashioned, in its simplicity it shares similarities.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve made Japanese Cocktails with cognac or Armagnac, both on the rocks and up, and with varying amounts of bitters and orgeat. In the end, “Professor” Thomas’s classic works best straight up, with a rich Armagnac or a higher-proof cognac such as Pierre Ferrand 1840. I also experimented with other brandies and found that Brandy de Jerez from Spain, with its bold, nutty, caramel character, mingled well with orgeat. I’ve included here my updated Coctel Japonese, as well as the classic.
Both of them, for me, moved orgeat — once and for all — out of the haze of the obscure and into the realm of the essential.
Wilson is the editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.