The Mai Tai is the most popular tiki drink, and is certainly the most famous cocktail to contain orgeat. Orgeat, however, is not so well-known.
Orgeat (pronounced "or-zha" kind of like Zsa Zsa Gabor, with an optional "t" sound at the end) is an almond syrup that was probably once an almond milk drink, like horchata from Mexico. Before it was an almond drink it was a barley water drink (the word orgeat is based on the Latin for barley) that was a shelf-stable substitute for milk. This was later flavored with almonds to improve the taste, and eventually the barley was left out altogether.
The almond milk’s flavor was further improved with the addition of orange flower water in countries like France and Italy, or by rose water in the Middle East. Several brands of orgeat contain these floral essences today.
Lately, some bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts have been making orgeat from scratch, but by several accounts it is not an easy process. One Mai Tai-obsessive nicknamed Trader Tiki took his homemade version to the market, and also offers a hazelnut orgeat. Dominic Venegas of San Francisco also makes orgeat (not for sale) using toasted almonds and molasses as a sweetener to make his recipe unique.
This helped him win a contest that I judged for the 42Below brand of vodka. He chose their delicious honey flavor (honey and almonds- a great pairing) added some citrus to liven it up and Benedictine liqueur to give it a touch of spice. Neither homemade orgeat nor bee pollen garnish are mandatory, but both helped turn this fantastic cocktail into a winner.
By Dominic Venegas
2 fl. oz. 42Below Manuka Honey vodka
.25 fl. oz. Benedictine
.25 fl. oz. Orgeat
.5 fl. oz. pineapple juice
.5 fl. oz. Meyer lemon juice
Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with bee pollen and a light dusting of cinnamon.