The easiest way to think of Orgeat is to view it like liquid marzipan – a sweet almond syrup, that instead of being used to make sweets, is used to sweeten and give depth of flavour and texture to cocktails.
Now most commonly you would have probably come across it when its mixed with outrageously spectacular Tiki drinks, but as our list of cocktails shows, Orgeat can be used use with almost any spirits and is a wonderfully complement a host of drink flavours.
And contrary to commly belief, Orgeat was not invented by Trader Vic during the mid-20th-century tiki craze. Orgeat actually predates Prohibition, by a long stretch.
How do you pronounce it?
First things first. Before we start talking about Orgeat it might be a good idea to know how to pronounce it because chances are you’re not sure, so just avoid saying it.
If you have tried to say you’re most likely saying “OR-GEE-AT” when you should be saying “OR-ZHAT” (and yes you can drop the ‘T’ if you’d like).
How long has it been around?
Although you may not think it, Orgeat is older than a Whiskey Sour. It is believed that the history of Orgeat goes back as far as the 1300s, when it was served as a delicacy, more akin to a savoury barley water, without a trace of the almonds it’s made with today. The word “orgeat” has French origins and has been interpreted by scholars to mean “barley water.”
But it was in the 1800s that Orgeat really came into its own. It was at that stage that the opaque, sweet almond syrup often laced just slightly with orange blossom or rose water, or both, that we are familiar with today, made its first appearance.
From the social clubs of the time to the literary pages of Edith Wharton novels, Orgeat was a favourite with well-heeled characters who rather fancied an Orgeat lemonade. 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.
What’s the most famous Orgeat Cocktail?
Cocktail historian David Wondrich dates modern 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.
Japanese Cocktail — the first cocktail on record to have a name not reflecting its ingredients; an artistic name, not a functional one (there’s nothing Japanese in the drink — no rice fermentate, no soy, no raw fish, no cherry blossoms — ).
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 honour the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the United States.
Among the dignitaries was Tateishi Onojirou Noriyuki a.k.a. “Tommy.” He was known for enjoying the New York City hot spots and was considered quite the infamous ladies’ man by the press of the day. Cocktail historian David Wondrich in his book Imbibe! suspects that Tommy was a regular at one of bartender Jerry Thomas’ establishments which led him to invent the Japanese Cocktail to commemorate the delegation’s visit. This cocktail appeared in the Jerry Thomas 1862 Bar-tender’s Guide and is the first recorded cocktail to use orgeat as an ingredient.
When did Tiki take over?
With Tiki, Orgeat really came into its own, both in terms of creativity and popularity. The 1940s brought the invention of sweet, tropical drinks as a response to WWII. It was an age with more disposable income and the desire to escape the everyday, with the aid of tiny umbrellas, the plastic palms and engraved drinking vessels—these were a stop-gap. One of the most prolific tiki barons was of course Trader Vic, who is heralded with rediscovering Orgeat as a sweetener.
Tiki turned the ideas that people had about cocktail modifiers on their head and showed that a drink’s sweetener could be something beyond a bar spoon of sugar or a small wineglass of gum syrup. It was still used as a simple syrup, but it had its own voice.
Now while you can make it yourself, it is often easier to buy it. Commercial orgeat brands are now easily accessable and vary widely from syrupy-sweet to nutty. If you are more inclined towards the nutty end of the spectrum then brand like Australian’s Crawley’s Simple Syrup Company, make a premium, natural, well balanced almond syrup that pops nicely in cocktails.