16 February 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Orgeat Syrup

Sometimes things go awry in the kitchen. Enjoy this cocktail-related disaster.

With a complete lack of scientific or sociological research, I think that there are a few stages in the growth of a cocktail enthusiast:

1. Enjoy a classic cocktail that someone else prepared. Bask in the glow of educated mixology.

2. Begin the research phase.

2a. Have your friends the Squirrels give you what is essentially a textbook on the history of cocktails, saving you months of digging through hundred-year-old archives.

3. Purchase an obscure bottled ingredient that isn't very popular even in its country of origin. Alternatively, collect multiple orange-based liqueurs.

4. Begin amassing bitters. Worse, begin developing firm opinions on various bitters.

5. Make your own obscure, outdated ingredient.

And that's where I am. Oh, there are further levels, including purchasing your own gin distillery and developing a trendy new extract of honeysuckle blossoms, but I crossed level 5 when I made my own orgeat syrup.

Pronounced or-zhat, it's an emulsion of water and almond oil that is mixed with sugar, vodka, and orange flower water. The result is a cloudy syrup that adds flavor and structure to certain old school cocktails. Plus you get to be the coolest kid on the block by bragging that you've got orgeat on hand.

The website I linked provides the detailed instructions, but my best advice would be to purchase almonds that are already blanched (i.e. briefly boiled and skinned). Skinning half a kilo of almonds ranks as my new least favorite cooking activity, easily knocking off the following: de-veining shrimp, making pierogies, and anything related to pastry. Some of the almonds slip right out of the skin, but others fight it. The skins get everywhere and stick to everything. Your opinion of the nut quickly goes from "Hey, I don't have to eat peanuts in First Class!" to "This looks like the last time the cicadas hatched."

But after the boiling and steeping and straining, and the sugar and the vodka, I was ready for the last ingredient: orange flower water. I had a hard time finding this, and now I know why. It reminded me of three things: old lady perfume circa 1983; a product called FlyNap used to anesthetize fruit flies for genetics experiments; and worst of all, diaper rash ointment. Obviously I've led a charmed life if this one aroma evokes three distinct and disparate memories.

It tastes kind of like sweet soy milk, or just a bunch of almonds, but it's hard to get past that orange flower water smell. I considered trying it in a cocktail, but since I couldn't stand the thought of orgeat syrup or what it took to make it, I couldn't bear to potentially ruin a cocktail. So down the drain it went.

I'm not knocking the website where I got the recipe, and I'm sure some folks love the stuff. Frankly I think you'd be better off with a splash of Amaretto or other almond-flavored liqueur.


Glenn said...

Well played. This is an essential ingredient in a proper Mai Thai. I'd love to see more posts like this :) (Maybe not so much the failing part, but those are good every once in a while too.)

Benito said...

In my opinion, there are two very different yet very important kinds of kitchen disasters. In one, you make a mistake and either learn to recover from it or you do better next time.

In the other, you discover that some things really aren't worth the trouble for the home cook (bagels), cause issues with roommates (kimchi), or are doomed for failure (trying to make croquembouche when you're 14 and know nothing about pastry, custard, or caramel).

fredric koeppel said...

I had a notable failure years ago, trying to make creme anglaise, with the dinner guests standing right there in the kitchen. Three times I attempted this feat; three times it curdled and scorched. The cookbook I was using neglected to tell me to use a double boiler. We went without dessert that night.

Samantha Dugan said...

Man, I hate it when I spend a ton of time on something only to find it putrid. We used to sell Orgeat Syrup but found that not even our French customers would buy the stuff. Wonder if it is like Marzipan or Nato....things you have to grow up with to truly appreciate them.

Thanks for entertaining us with your efforts, peeling almonds, now that is a labor of love.

Michelle said...

Where did you find the orange flower water? Fresh Market carries it, I know this as I bought rose flower water a week ago there and noticed they also had orange flower water. Sorry the syrup didn't work out.

Benito said...


Somehow the kitchen disasters are always vividly remembered. You can probably go over every step of those attempts in your mind.


Wow, I'd be willing to buy a small bottle just to have on hand, but it's not sold anywhere around here. I'm not making it again, though.


I got the orange flower water at Mercado Latino, and really I could have avoided most of this drama by not including it. A full day of work was ruined by the last ingredient, which merely involved opening a bottle.

Dirty said...

I buy Trader Vic's Orgeat for Mai Tai's,

I just can't get the same effect w/ other Almond liquers.

Dig the cicada image!