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Orgeat Works was born out of necessity. In the early 2000’s, I became obsessed with tiki: the glamorous fezzes, the leopard print muumuus, but above all, the tropical libations pioneered by great men like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. The Immortal Mai Tai, famous then as now, was my chosen favorite. But in those days, obtaining quality ingredients for mid-century cocktails was a challenge.
In developing my Mai Tai recipe, I needed four main components to recreate the original and genuine recipe: a blend of rums, lime juice, orange curaçao, and orgeat syrup. I sampled various run combinations trying to imagine what the original 17 year old Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum might have tasted like. As it has been out of production for decades, there are precious few souls on earth who truly know that experience! The lime juice component I had down, as they haven’t managed to take that away from us yet. But orange curaçao options in those days were also few and far between. Most curaçao was a gently glowing nuclear orange, found consorting with the likes of “Apple Pucker” in the liqueurs section of the spirits store.
The situation was even worse with orgeat. The syrups I encountered were mass-produced, cloying perfumes. Though nominally an almond syrup, one was hard pressed to identify any aspect of the fine nut in the preparation of these sugary concoctions. I kept up my search: I thought there had to be something better than these middling offerings, but there wasn’t.
Although I could only assume what taste profile Trader Vic would have used as his orgeat, I sought to create an interpretation of orgeat as it was first imagined in the early 19th century. I researched the history of orgeat to get a sense of how it was made. The syrup, as referenced in Edith Wharton novels was a favorite tea time accompaniment for New York’s upper crust. Without going into a dissertation on how French barley water was transformed into what we now know as orgeat, I had created an orgeat that would work in a Mai Tai, but also go on to be utilized in the much wider context of modern classic cocktails.
In my process, one area of departure from “traditional” orgeat is the practice of toasting the almonds. Toasting further unlocks and intensifies the profile of almond flavor in the syrup with only a minimum of almond “essence” needed to revive the taste as it encounters the richness of the cane sugar. Toasting also provides a mild bitterness associated with the traditional use of bitter almond in orgeat without the potential of a cyanide chaser!
I began experimenting with various methods and procedures to produce a passable product for my own consumption at home. As I worked on variations in the flavor profile, mouth feel, and appearance, it occurred to me that I should get the professional opinion of my buddy Damon Boelte, whiskey expert and the founding father of the cocktail program at Brooklyn’s famous Prime Meats. He sampled my fledgling formula and thought well of it. I was lucky to have Damon’s input on how to improve the orgeat beyond the context of the Mai Tai. Damon went on to utilize the orgeat in his original drinks like the Alpine Sour and the Give ‘Em Hell.
With Prime Meats as a test-bed, word spread fast among bar folk and requests for the orgeat started to find their way to my attention. The next development came when Tiki pirate and barman extraordinaire Brian Miller chose my orgeat for his Appleton’s Rum International Award winning drink, the Sugar Hill Gang. A few months later, I received a call from New York City cocktail pioneer Julie Reiner. She wanted to place Miller’s Sugar Hill Gang on her Ohana menu at the now dearly departed Lani Kai. Brian had mentioned my orgeat as a necessary component of the drink. Our meeting was quite productive, and helped move Orgeat Works to the next level. The orgeat was also featured in Lani Kai’s house Mai Tai.
During Lani Kai’s beloved but brief reign, they served just short of 20,000 Mai Tai’s, by my calculations. As Julie hails from Hawaii, I also brought her an “experimental” Macadamia Nut syrup, which would end up being used in Julie’s fabulous Tree House cocktail.
As the gospel of the almond spread, more of NYC’s bars requested the orgeat. My pitch to the trade became, “Let me save you the hassle of making your house orgeat.” And now I make the same promise to you.
I’m lucky to have been encouraged by so many creative drink professional who have offered invaluable feedback and a myriad of cocktail applications. Inspired by Thomas Waugh and Jillian Vose during their tenures at Death & Company, we collaborated in developing proprietary orgeat with unique flavor profiles that expanded the traditional definition of the syrup.
With all this going on, I thought the time was right to legitimize the business and bring the product directly to the drink enthusiasts. While the T’Orgeat will always be the workhorse of the lineup, we have expanded our offerings and have added a partnership with the great Jeff ‘Beachbum” Berry’s Latitude 29 series.
- Tiki Adam