There was a time when I didn’t really get tiki drinks. Brightly colored, sometimes with plastic parrots or tropical flowers clinging to their rims, most of them seemed all flash. I suspect it’s because they were impostor “tiki” drinks at beachside bars, which get away with cocktail felonies by virtue of being on a beach. Most beach bars don’t know a falernum from a foxglove, and most customers don’t care. Skunky corn lagers? Sure! Bright pink concoctions that taste like cotton candy met lime sherbet and had a monstrous sticky baby? Bring it on! Just leave us the alcohol and get out of the way of the view.
It wasn’t till I tasted a mai tai made with true orgeat that I understood. As a longtime hater of marzipan, I was surprised to find that almond flavor — which on its own I find irritatingly pushy — has a magical quality when deployed as a background note to rum and citrus. Shakespeare’s Ariel could have been describing what happens when you add orgeat to a drink: It doth suffer a sea-change/into something rich and strange.
Orgeat is fundamental to tiki, says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of multiple tiki cocktail books, who recently opened Latitude 29, his tiki bar in New Orleans. It’s a star of the mai tai, the Fogcutter and the Scorpion, drinks that were superstars during the tiki heyday of the 1950s and ’60s.
Selecting Latitude 29’s house orgeat was not a task Berry undertook lightly. He knew everyone would judge the bar by its mai tai. And without orgeat, “it’s just a rum sour,” Berry says. “Almond flavor in a tropical drink just makes it so different and compelling. You want to order three.”
Of late, almonds have become a whipping boy of the California drought, which got me thinking about other nut syrups. What cocktail wonders could you get from orgeats of cashew, pistachio, other seeds? Could you still call it orgeat if it didn’t have almonds? Would it be something else, like a pistageat? I hoped not. A pistageat sounds like an obscure but critical organ of the inner ear whose failure leaves you permanently hearing Styx songs.
Happily, it turns out that the word orgeat has nothing to do with almonds; it comes from the French orge, for barley, the grain that was an ingredient for centuries. I have yet to find a satisfactory answer as to how the barley in orgeat recipes got lost over time, but out of curiosity, I tested an orgeat with the orge in it: boiling barley, then pressing out the liquid, which resulted in a glutinous mass of pale goo resembling the acid-blood of the Alien in the sci-fi movies of the same name, only less appetizing. But thinned out with brown-sugar syrup and a touch of vanilla, it was delicious, a bit like the milk that remains at the end of a bowl of sweet cereal. The glutinous quality added heft and density to the syrup, giving it a thicker mouth feel.
I might have played with it more had I not preferred that our kitchen not look like an extraterrestrial exploded in it, and had Dave Arnold — the genius behind the terrific Booker and Dax in New York — not provided such good guidance on how to science the pants off the whole orgeat business. “Liquid Intelligence,” Arnold’s James Beard Award-winning cocktail book, gives tips on how to use a blender, gum arabic and xanthan gum to turn any nut into an orgeat.
It’s Arnold’s technique that Lukas Smith, bartender at cocktail haven Dram & Grain in Adams Morgan, uses for the bar’s orgeats. The gum arabic serves as an emulsifier, helping incorporate the rich oils of the nuts into the liquid. Once the Dram & Grain team started working with Arnold’s technique, they played with black walnuts, pecans and peanuts — Planter’s peanuts, which went, amusingly, into a planter’s punch variation.
They now use a pistachio orgeat in their delicious Thousand-Yard Stare. Smith even considers the season. “It’s summertime, so a fairly light toast will do. You want to smell the nuts, not the fire,” he specifies. “As we progress into the darker seasons, we’re probably going to roast them heavier and heavier as we go along, to get those richer flavors that you want when it’s cold outside.”
Roasting turned the key for Todd Thrasher years back, when he was figuring out a cocktail variation of a pecan petit-four. Thrasher, the bartender and general manager at Restaurant Eve and PX, wasn’t happy with the results from raw pecans and noticed the restaurant’s pastry chef taking peanuts out of the oven. “They’d gotten all oily, and I was like, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.’ . . . I thought how when you’re making a caipirinha, you want all the oils to come out of the lime peel. . . . So then I roasted the pecans till they got brown and oily, and I put them in the water at that point.” Roasted to the point of fragrance, the darker nuts provide the core of his SweetMeat, a drink that makes me nostalgic for all the good food of the South.
Both Smith and Thrasher, who’s planning to open a tiki bar in the District’s wharf area in 2017, recommend dashing most orgeats with a hit of salt. You’ll barely notice it in the final cocktails, but the salt elevates the flavor of the nuts and subtly enhances the final drink.
These syrups are different from the classic orgeat (though both work pretty beautifully with aged rum). Traditionally, orgeat has notes of orange flower and sometimes rose, which play into tiki concoctions as well. But these roasty syrups provide their own kind of heft, adding earthiness and fire that can deepen your drinks. I’m planning to see what I can get from pistachios, walnuts and honey. I’m hoping for liquid baklava.
NOTE: Those dabbling in orgeat but too busy/lazy to make it might be interested to know that the orgeat Jeff Berry chose for Latitude 29 can soon be ordered from Adam Kolesar’s Orgeat Works, as can a Heavy Duty version developed for Death & Co. and a macadamia nut syrup developed for Clover Club’s Julie Reiner. Go nuts.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.