Orgeat is a powerful weapon in the mixologist's toolkit. Little known outside of bartending circles, it's a crucial ingredient in many great Tiki drinks -- most notably the Mai Tai -- and in other classic libations, like the Japanese Cocktail.
Originally a French barley water, orgeat (pronounced or-zhat) in its current form is a sweet almond syrup with hints of orange flower and/or rose water. I'd never even heard of orgeat until a little over a year ago when I first started exploring the Mai Tai. Since then, however, I've become a devotee of this succulent nectar.
I've accumulated several varieties of orgeat over the past several months, and decided to put them to the test. I sampled each of them straight out of the bottle to determine which had the best and most authentic flavor. I found the results to be both expected and, in a couple cases, somewhat surprising.
Routin 1883 Orgeat
Price: $9 (1 liter)
Notable Ingredients: Cane Sugar, Natural Flavor
Final Grade: B+
Very good overall -- my favorite of the mass-produced brands. Although it has only a slight nuttiness, it has a rich, satiny flavor that was quite tasty.
Fee Brothers Orgeat (Almond) Cordial
Price: $9 (32 oz)
Notable Ingredients: Corn Sweeteners, Sugar, Natural & Artificial Flavors, Various Chemicals
Final Grade: C+
Sweet and a little spicy, but no almond taste I could detect. Inoffensive, but didn't do anything for me.
Monin Almond Orgeat
Price: $11 (1 liter)
Notable Ingredients: Pure Cane Sugar, Natural Almond Flavor
Final Grade: C
Has a nice richness, but just tastes sweet. No flavors of nut or anything else. (This surprised me because I thought I hated Monin's version of orgeat. It wasn't bad, though; just dull.)
Small Hand Foods Orgeat
Price: $16 (8.5 oz)
Notable Ingredients: Organic Cane Sugar, Almonds, Apricot Kernels, Organic Lemon Juice, Orange Blossom Water, Brandy
Final Grade: A
Now we're talking! A craft syrup produced on a small scale by San Francisco bartender Jennifer Colliau, Small Hand Foods Orgeat is the real deal. It tastes and smells of almonds and orange, with a rich, balanced flavor and texture. I could happily swig this stuff right out of the bottle.
Torani Almond Orgeat
Price: $6 (750 ml)
Notable Ingredients: Pure Cane Sugar, Natural Flavors, Various Chemicals
Final Grade: C-
A big disappointment. Smelled chemically and had a bland flavor with an odd aftertaste. This used to be the everyday orgeat in my house, but no more. Tasting it on its own, and alongside its competitors, the Torani fell short of acceptable.
B.G. Reynolds Orgeat
Price: $12 (375 ml)
Notable Ingredients: Sugar, Golden Cane Sugar, Almond Extractives, Apricot Kernel Extractives
Final Grade: A
Another stand-out, handcrafted syrup, also made by a bartender. (In this case, Portland's B.G. Reynolds.) Tastes rich, nutty, and delicious. I couldn't detect any notes of orange, but this has the authentic almond flavor you want in a cocktail. Looks and tastes the most like fine homemade orgeat, but isn't nearly as much trouble. Great stuff.
Sonoma Syrup Vanilla Almond (Orgeat)
Price: $12 (375 ml)
Notable Ingredients: Pure cane sugar, natural almond extract, vanilla extract, orange blossom flower water
Final Grade: B
Smells and tastes like simple syrup with almond extract and vanilla in it. (Which, it turns out, is basically what it is.) Good quality syrup with a nice nuttiness, but the presence of the vanilla really changes the flavor profile. Tasty stuff, but definitely different from typical orgeat, and I'm reducing the grade because of that. This would work well for many uses, but it would change the taste of a Mai Tai or other cocktail.
Price: $11 (600 ml)
Notable Ingredients: Sugar, Glucose/Fructose Syrup, Flavoring, Bitter Almond Extract
Final Grade: B-
Scant aroma and a mild flavor reflect a rather lackluster impression overall. Tastes sweet with a faint nuttiness, but nothing more than that. I had high hopes for this brand, but was underwhelmed. It's acceptable if you can't find anything else, but not worth seeking out.
It should come as no surprise that the two best-tasting orgeats were the ones produced by hand in small batches by bartenders. Unfortunately, they're also the hardest to get and most expensive. However, they can both be ordered online, and in my opinion it's worth the trouble and expense. Either that or you should really consider making your own.
If you can't get either Small Hand Foods or B.G. Reynolds, the Routin 1883 can also be ordered online and is not prohibitively expensive. It doesn't have the same rich, homemade taste, but it's still very good.
Sadly, the two brands that are most ubiquitous and cost the least -- Monin and Torani -- are ones that I can't really recommend. (This is especially disheartening since I have a couple unopened bottles of each.)
There are a few other brands available that I didn't include -- Finest Call and Trader Vic's come to mind. I ruled them out based on their use of high fructose corn syrup. In my experience, HFCS just doesn't mix well in cocktails, so I avoid it whenever possible.
In a future post, I'll discuss the process for making your own orgeat, which I have done twice now. One time it came out really good, and the next it came out just okay. It's not a difficult process, nor an especially costly one, but it does take some time and effort. The results are probably worth it, though.