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Elements: Orgeat

What do an ancient alt-milk and a famous tiki drink have in common? A tricky to pronounce historic concoction called orgeat (or-zhaat). “The word orge is French for barley, and orgeat was basically like a barley water or barley milk that people would use when real milk wasn’t available. But we’re talking about the Middle Ages here,” says Jennifer Colliau, a longtime Bay Area bartender and creator of the Small Hand Foods line of syrups. “Then in France and Italy and Spain, they started adding almonds to it, because barley water isn’t awesome.”

Eventually the barley was ditched altogether, and orgeat evolved into a pleasing syrupy mixture of almonds and sugar, often aromatized with orange flower or rose water. It could be mixed into lemonade or simply diluted with water, but it found a natural home in cocktails like the brandy-based Japanese Cocktail, from Jerry Thomas in 1862, and the Gaby des Lys (gin, absinthe, orgeat).

Orgeat perhaps found its widest audience in the tiki genre. “The Mai Tai is the most well-known drink with orgeat in the U.S., but that wasn’t created until 1944,” says Colliau. While bartending at The Slanted Door in San Francisco and on a quest to make a better Mai Tai, Colliau began experimenting with early orgeat recipes, but she hit a roadblock on one ingredient: bitter almonds. Now illegal to import, bitter almonds contain the chemical compound amygdalin, which—when ingested raw—metabolizes into hydrogen cyanide. Undeterred, Colliau found that the kernels of apricots (belonging to the same genus) contribute the same marzipan-like flavor, and her final orgeat recipe became the progenitor of her syrup line, now an industry go-to. “Almonds have protein and fat, and there are very few circumstances when you get those things in drinks,” says Colliau. “It’s lovely—it adds this great mouthfeel, this lush richness.”

“Orgeat is a perfect modifier to a tropical drink,” says Andra “AJ” Johnson, beverage director and partner at D.C. bars Zumo and Serenata, where she adds orgeat to her Nova Bossa cocktail to balance bright mango and dry sparkling wine. “It’s the glue that binds all of these ingredients together cohesively and provides great almond notes on the aroma.”

Today’s bartenders turn to orgeat for a complex sweetener, such as in the fresh and floral Talking Walls Swizzle from Alba Huerta at Julep in Houston, or the herbal Triple Entendre from Justin Frierson at Eleven Eleven in Chicago, where their housemade orgeat complements tea-infused vodka. “I love using orgeat,” says Frierson, Eleven Eleven’s general manager and beverage director. “Plus, people almost always ask about it, so it starts a conversation.”

Nova Bossa

The bright, tropical flavors in this frozen cocktail find cohesion with the subtle, nutty sweetness of orgeat.

2 oz. cachaça
1 1⁄2 oz. sparkling wine (such as cava or prosecco)
1 oz. orgeat
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. coconut milk
1 large, ripe mango, diced (about 6 oz. of fruit)
2 generous cups crushed ice (about 16-18 oz.)

Tools: blender
Glass: Collins
Garnish: dehydrated lime wheel

Add all of the ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a glass, then garnish.

Andra “AJ” Johnson, Serenata, Washington, D.C.

Talking Walls Swizzle

Orgeat adds body and just enough sweetness to this low-ABV swizzle. A floral-forward gin is recommended; Julep uses Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice.

1 oz. dry vermouth
3⁄4 oz. gin (see note above)
1⁄2 oz. orgeat
1⁄2 oz. fresh pineapple juice
1⁄4 oz. Suze

Tools: swizzle stick or barspoon
Glass: Collins
Garnish: pineapple fronds, pineapple wedge, edible flower

Build all of the ingredients in the glass with crushed ice and swizzle until well mixed and frosty. Top with more crushed ice, then garnish.

Alba Huerta, Julep, Houston

Triple Entendre

Flavored with black tea, this refresher works equally well with green tea, which is how Eleven Eleven prepares it in the summer months.

1 1⁄2 oz. black tea–infused vodka
3⁄4 oz. fresh lemon juice
3⁄4 oz. orgeat
1⁄4 oz. yellow Chartreuse

Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: rocks
Garnish: lemon twist

Shake all of the ingredients with ice, then strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Express the lemon peel over the drink and use as a garnish.

TEA-INFUSED VODKA Combine a 1-liter bottle of vodka with 5-6 black (or green) teabags in a wide, sealable container and steep overnight. Remove the teabags, then stir in about 6 oz. of amaro (Frierson uses Ramazzotti). Bottle and refrigerate for use within 5-7 days.

Justin Frierson, Eleven Eleven, Chicago

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