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The Versatility of Homemade Orgeat

Though perhaps most famous for its role in a classic Mai Tai, the almond-based syrup orgeat has been used, in one form or another, for centuries. In our September/October 2020 issue, we explore the history of the ingredient, from its origin as an alt-milk made from barley to its current role as essential cocktail ingredient. “The almond has protein and fat, and there are very few circumstances when you get those things in drinks,” says Jennifer Colliau, longtime Bay Area bartender and the creator of the Small Hand Foods line of syrups, an industry go-to. “It adds this great mouthfeel, this lush richness. It’s an essential ingredient because it’s not like others.”

But not all orgeat is created equal, with many store-bought versions containing only almond flavoring or extract and lacking the texture and body provided by the nuts themselves. Fortunately, orgeat is relatively easy to make at home, and many cocktail bars choose to make their own as well. A homemade orgeat offers the flexibility to tweak not only sweetness and texture, but to alter the flavor altogether by swapping in different nuts or seeds from pistachio to pumpkin, as well as other complementary flavors. “I love the idea that people are excited by the properties that nuts bring to drinks and how you can harness those,” says Colliau.

Pepita Orgeat

At Orchard City Kitchen, bar director Perry Hewitt regularly experiments with different nuts as seeds for their housemade orgeat, such as pepitas (pumpkin seeds). “This pepita orgeat is super unique in it’s nutty, toasty flavor and has a gorgeous smoky-green hue that sets it apart from other orgeats and can really light up a cocktail,” says Hewitt. “I specifically made this orgeat to pair with mezcal or other agave distillates.”

Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread 1½ cups of raw, unsalted pepitas on a baking sheet and roast until lightly golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Step 2: Combine the toasted seeds with 2¾ cups near-boiling water and 1 teaspoon of salt in a blender and blend thoroughly, about a minute or so, until uniformly smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or strainer lined with cheesecloth. The result will be a salty pepita “milk.”

Step 3: Weigh the pepita milk while still hot, then add an equal weight of granulated sugar and mix to dissolve. 

Step 4: In a separate glass, mix ¾ teaspoon of xanthan gum* with 2 oz. of lukewarm water and whisk thoroughly to create a slurry. Add the mixture to the orgeat and blend again to incorporate. 

Step 5: Strain the finished orgeat one final time, then bottle for use. It will yield roughly 25 oz. and will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 month. 

*Xanthan gum is a common food additive used to stabilize and can be purchased online or at most grocery stores. This ingredient is optional, however, Hewitt recommends including it for a better overall texture. “The xanthan helps to keep the orgeat from separating and retains it’s silky smooth texture, which, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons to use an orgeat in the first place.”

Pick a Nut, Any Nut At UnderTow, a subterranean tiki bar in Phoenix, orgeat plays prominently across the tropically inflected menu, and the bar staff makes four to five gallons per week. Their standard recipe uses raw almonds for the base, which they buy blanched and slivered. The nuts are soaked in hot water, then puréed and strained, with sugar added to the resulting liquid while it’s still hot. “Our syrup is really rich in comparison to most on the market, and we like that because it gives a lot of texture,” says co-owner Jason Asher. “We’re not necessarily always looking to add almond flavor to a drink; a lot of the time it’s for the richness of the nut with the texture of a rich syrup.”

It’s these very qualities that make orgeat so versatile, as nearly any nut or seed can be made into a milk that will provide a base of fat and protein to create a rich syrup. In Dave Arnold’s 2014 book Liquid Intelligence, he simply calls his recipe “Any Nut Orgeat,” which he’s utilized with pecans, pistachios and peanuts. At Orchard City Kitchen in Campbell, California, bar director Perry Hewitt always has a housemade orgeat on the menu, experimenting with everything from pumpkin seeds to pine nuts. His current pepita orgeat complements mezcal, green Chartreuse and fino sherry in the Lime After Lime. Meanwhile, at Hey Love in Portland, Oregon, a macadamia orgeat doubles down on the tropical vibes in the Pink Feather with bourbon, guava, and banana.

At the sustainability-minded Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, owner Claire Sprouse makes her orgeat with sunflower seeds. “Sunflowers are very drought-resistant,” says Sprouse. “It takes 4.9 gallons [of water] to make a walnut. Three-quarters to make a pistachio. One gallon to make an almond. Think about that when making orgeat.”

Sunflower Seed Orgeat

At Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, owner Claire Sprouse uses sunflower seeds for her house orgeat because of their low carbon footprint. 

Step 1: By weight, measure 150 grams of sunflower seeds, roasted but unsalted. Alternatively, purchase raw sunflower seeds and toast them in the oven until lightly golden brown. 

Step 2: In a blender, combine the toasted seeds with 400 grams hot water and 200 grams of sugar. Blend well until uniformly smooth.

Step 3: Strain the mixture through a chinois or fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth, then bottle for use. Yield is 1 quart.

Experimental Methodology Regardless of nut or base ingredient, most orgeats are made by starting with a “milk,” with room for experimentation depending on the desired result. “I’ve experimented with pistachio before, and macadamia which was nice because it adds a very fatty roundness,” says Asher. “But the problem with macadamia is that sometimes it loses its oomph—it’s hard to pull flavor out of macadamia nut without adding extract, so I would recommend that you toast the nuts first to bring some of that flavor out. [With other nuts] it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want a raw pumpkin seed flavor, use raw. If you want toasted pumpkin seed, which tastes very different, use toasted.”

To skip the first step altogether, Asher offers guests who inquire at the bar a recipe that simply starts with store-bought almond milk. But he advises to carefully check the label and avoid nut milks with thickeners or other added ingredients. One of his favorite hacks Asher learned from Daniele Dalla Pola, owner of Esotico in Miami and Nu Lounge in Bologna, Italy, who claims he can make orgeat in 20 seconds.

“The trick is almond paste, which you can buy or just make by blending almonds,” says Pola. To make his own, Pola Blends an equal weight of almonds and sugar. “What comes out is very messy, but you put it in a bowl and start adding warm water and working it with your hands, and little by little it becomes like a playdoh.” To then make the orgeat, Pola uses a chunk of the nut paste and blends with simple syrup until the desired consistency is achieved, then adds the traditional orange flower water. 

Further highlighting the adaptability of the syrup, he also makes a green orgeat using pistachio paste, and even a spicy orgeat, by blending pimento liqueur and ginger syrup with the paste. Naturally, Pola notes “It’s great in a Mai Tai.”  

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