I love Mai Tais, and yet I rarely make them at home.
Orgeat syrup. A French-inspired syrup made with almonds, sugar, and orange blossom water, orgeat is an essential ingredient for a Mai Tai. It’s not hard to come by – you can buy a 32-ounce bottle for about $8, or you can make some at home.
Mai Tais all around right? Not so fast.
For as long as I’ve been making drinks at home, the most readily available orgeat syrup has been one made by Fee Brothers.
With apologies to Fee Brothers, who make a wonderful line of bitters, let me be clear: this stuff is shit. It says “imitation” right on the label, so you know right off the bat that you’re not getting the real thing.
But “imitation” is too kind a word. This is a mockery of orgeat syrup. It’s overly bright, sickly sweet, and chemical-forward. I don’t think it even tastes like almond.
If you’re making a Mai Tai with bottom-shelf liquors and a lot of sweetener, this stuff will blend in just fine. But if you’re using higher-quality spirits and fresh juices, it stands out for all the wrong reasons.
The other option is to make it from scratch, which I’ve done several times. It makes for a fun afternoon project, and the result is far superior to the Fee Brothers product (though that isn’t saying much).
But I have yet to find a recipe that I truly love. The one I’ve been using results in a syrup that’s tasty but very strong. It dramatically alters the flavor profile of every drink I use it in, so I can only deploy it in small quantities. And because of that, even a small bottle takes forever to use up.
So it might be months before I’m in a position to make a new batch with a modified recipe – if it doesn’t go bad in the meantime, which has happened.
Best of Both Worlds
A new solution presented itself this winter when I was browsing in the Boston Shaker in Davis Square. Liber & Co., based in Austin, Texas, makes high-quality cocktail syrups that bridge the gulf between commercially made and homemade syrups.
They’ve been at it since 2011, when its makers recognized there were no high-quality syrups to go along with the top-notch spirits and bitters that have proliferated during this cocktail renaissance.
I sampled Liber’s orgeat syrup in the store that day and was hooked. It has all the notes you’d expect in a good orgeat syrup – dominant almond, delicate orange, balanced sweetness. But the makers also add bitter almond oil, which gives the orgeat an unexpected note of marzipan.
I wasted little time in trying the syrup in the most iconic of tiki drinks. Liber & Co. helpfully includes a Mai Tai recipe right on the label, but I used my own, which I’ve cobbled together from published recipes that aim to recreate the original Trader Vic version.
- 1 ounce Papa’s Pilar dark rum
- 1 ounce Appleton Estate amber rum
- 1 ounce lime juice
- ½ ounce Liber & Co. orgeat
- ½ ounce orange liqueur
- Mint garnish
Fill a double rocks glass with cracked ice. Shake all ingredients, except the mint. Strain into the glass, and garnish with the mint.
Hands down, this is the best Mai Tai I’ve ever made.
Working with a blend of high-end rums certainly didn’t hurt, but the orgeat made a substantive difference. It contributed to the drink’s flavor without overpowering it, resulting in a smooth drink without too much sweetness.
I also tried a drink called the Army Navy. I wasn’t familiar with this cocktail, but since the recipe was on the orgeat label, I figured I’d give it a whirl. Here’s the recipe, courtesy of Liber:
- 1½ ounces gin (I used GrandTen Wireworks)
- ½ ounce orgeat
- ¾ ounce lemon juice
- Dash of bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
What I found especially interesting about this drink is that orgeat is typically used with dark spirits, like rum.
The crisp, herbal gin showcased the nutty notes of the orgeat in a different way. The drink was decent, but it didn’t blow me away. I’ll probably stick with Mai Tais.
What a find. Liber & Co.’s orgeat isn’t bogged down by artificial ingredients, and its thicker than usual texture adds a nice creaminess to cocktails. It delivers the quality you’d expect of a homemade syrup with the convenience of the commercial version.
The retail price for the orgeat is $10-$13 for an 8.5 ounce bottle – not cheap, but not cost-prohibitive, especially considering it’s used in small quantities and should last a while in the fridge. The label says it makes 10 to 17 cocktails, so unless you’re a Mai-Tai-a-day kind of drinker, you should get some life out of this.
Liber & Co. offers a range of syrups, and I look forward to trying their grenadine someday. Maybe I can finally make a Jack Rose that doesn’t taste like ass.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.