A salute to gorgeous orgeat

00:00 December 28, 2012
By: David Vicari
[Courtesy of Anne Berry]

The Hawaii tour: it's one of the most coveted stations in the U.S. Navy, as my husband's parents found when they were sent, as newlyweds, in the 1960s. When my father-in-law wasn't deployed, they had a rollicking good time on the island of Oahu, with iced drinks on the beach and in any number of open-air bars.

Their cocktail of choice? The Mai Tai, during what would be the original tiki craze's sunset years.

In their honor, I made them Mai Tais at this week's Christmas gathering. I was most excited about crafting orgeat, an almond syrup bringing nuttiness and texture to the Mai Tai, among other cocktails.

It's easier to make than you think: infuse water with poached, ground almonds; strain the almond water and add sugar, vodka and orange blossom water (make your own, or use orange extract). Once shaken, orgeat is gorgeous and creamy, even.

My Mai Tais came out well but we were missing dark rum, which would have added complexity, spice and a streak of color.

I tried again, this time using my orgeat in an obscure but simple cocktail that rated a mention in Jerry Thomas' 19th-century bar guide. It calls for brandy and orgeat (I used 2:1), with a spray of Angostura bitters. Burnt grapes are the dominant flavor, with rich back notes of sweet almond.

Though it features French ingredients, this drink is called Japanese Cocktail (supposedly to honor Japanese diplomats visiting New York).

It's still a fitting homage to my in-laws, who were later stationed on Yokosuka for what would be their last overseas tour.

Find hand-crafted orgeat locally at bars including High Hat Cafe, where Ryan Iriarte adds it to tea-steeped vodka and Luxardo in the "Life of Leisure"; and at P@P, where Nick Detrich pairs it with Herbsaint in an absinthe frappé.

Some bars shy away from making orgeat because it's time-consuming, though much of that time is passive (almonds steeping, for instance). The bigger challenge to a bar program, I think, is cost and shelf life (my orgeat will last about a week, refrigerated).

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