What Is Orgeat Syrup And What Cocktails Can It Be Used In?

Orgeat syrup is one of those ingredients that slips into cocktail recipes and can leave you scratching your head. It's not something everyone knows like lemon juice, or even something a little more obscure that most cocktail lovers would still recognize like bitters. You might find a cheap bottle on the bottom shelf of your local grocery store's liquor section and wonder, "What is that?" but very few people would have it on hand. But the thing is, you should have it on hand, because orgeat syrup is a complex and delicious sweetener that is an essential part of some classic cocktails.

First off, to spare you any consternation or confusion, it is pronounced or-jjott, according to Food & Wine. Secondly, and more importantly, orgeat is a sweet syrup made primarily from almonds and sugar, with some aromatics like orange blossom water added, depending on the brand. It is made quite simply, by infusing a warm sugar syrup with almonds for several hours, and then straining out the nuts before adding any extra flavorings. 

Orgeat is sold by some names that may be familiar to you, like Torani syrups, but it's good to check the ingredient list because like many other cocktail mixers, cheaper versions can be made with artificial ingredients and flavors instead of real almonds. It also has a longer history than you might think for something primarily associated with modern cocktails.

The origins of orgeat

Like the words for so many things we eat and drink, orgeat comes from French. Surprisingly enough, it does not have anything to do with almonds, it comes from the word orge, which is barley. That's because, according to MasterClass, orgeat started out as barley water, which in the Middle Ages was saved as leftovers from the process of boiling barley. As we move closer to the modern era, it became common to add things like ground almonds, sugar, and citrus to flavor what had been a pretty boring ingredient. Eventually, the barley was dropped altogether from the concoction and what we use as orgeat syrup today was born.

Orgeat was early on the scene as a cocktail ingredient. The Alcohol Professor says its first recorded use in a mixed drink dates to 1862. New York Bartender Jerry Thomas, author of classic cocktail compendium "The Bar-tender's Guide," created a drink called the Japanese cocktail which featured orgeat, supposedly for a member of the first Japanese delegation to the United States who was a regular at his bar. 

While that means orgeat can claim an ancient history as far as cocktails are concerned, it was a later craze that made it a staple. Victor Bergeron, aka Trader Vic, used orgeat as the primary ingredient in his mai tai, and VinePair says the syrup was embraced by the tiki boom, making its way into other favorites like the fog cutter and earning a permanent place on bartenders' shelves.

What does orgeat taste like?

As expected for something made from almonds, orgeat lends a nutty flavor whenever it's used. Food & Wine says it is best used as a sweetener when you want something more complex and interesting than simple syrup. The Spruce Eats compares the flavor to the almond paste marzipan, but also notes that orgeat can have a little more bitterness to even out the syrup. Its sugary richness means it works well with flavors that are more sour and bitter, hence the many tropical cocktails that pair it with lime.

Orgeat also has some floral notes, which come from the other primary ingredient, which is usually orange blossom water. This helps add depth and complexity that elevates the syrup beyond a cloying sweetener. Bon Appétit says many brands of orgeat will add spices like cinnamon or substitute other floral flavors like rose water in for the orange. The flavor can even be impacted by the nuts used, with pistachios and macadamia nuts sometimes making up part or all of the blend. Because of the possible variations, it helps to have a go-to brand whose flavor you're familiar with, but as long as they are high quality, all of them should still work in a recipe that calls for orgeat, with the main differences being in the more subtle spices.

Orgeat cocktails

If you're looking to try your hand at an orgeat cocktail, the obvious starting point is tiki drinks, especially the mai tai. It pairs orgeat with its natural companion, rum, and is the dominant flavor in a drink that has become an enduring favorite of beachgoers, or those just dreaming of the tropics. Serious Eats also suggests another tiki classic, the scorpion, a combination of orange juice, lemon juice, orgeat, rum, and brandy that tastes great and will absolutely lay you out if you're not careful. If you need more inspiration, we recommend perusing the menu at your local tiki bar, which likely features a whole host of cocktails using orgeat.

If you want to move beyond tiki, it would only be fitting to try the original: the Japanese cocktail. It needs only bitters, brandy, and a bit of lemon peel and is a great way to see how orgeat can blend with spirits other than rum. Imbibe says orgeat works great as a balancing ingredient with both whiskey and tequila, with that creamy sweetness mellowing out their harsher edges. The Casper brings back orgeat's friend lime juice and pairs it with tequila and grated nutmeg for an agave twist on tropical rum cocktails. But don't let us force your hand, any drink that needs a sweetener is one where orgeat is a possibility, so don't be afraid to sub it in and discover the next great cocktail for yourself.