O IS FOR ORGEAT
By Matthew Latkiewicz
O is for Orgeat, which I dislike saying even more than liqueur, but which I love as a cocktail ingredient because it is one of the secret syrups that makes many a Tiki drink a Tiki drink. And I love Tiki drinks.
Orgeat is an almond syrup, which are two words I don’t say often say together, flavored with orange and rose flower water. I don’t have too much to say about the syrup itself, I just needed something for O and I didn’t want to do the Old Fashioned or god help me Orange Wine, so I will use it as a symbol of what makes Tiki drinks so unique and special in the drinking world.
Tiki drinks, the real ones, not the ones served in divey chinese restaurants, are hard to make, but so easy to drink. They are the double black diamond of bartending as far as I’m concerned – molecular mixologists take umbrage if you must – but each Tiki drink requires like 8 heavy hitting ingredients, including obscure almond syrups, lots tangy, freshly squeezed juice and multiple rums, one of which is often Bacardi 151, which is 75% pure ethanol! It’s so easy for Tiki drinks to be too much and cloying, which is also true of Tiki culture in general.
But when done right, when the bartender manages to make it down the tiki slopes and balance out all that booze, sugar and citrus, the Tiki drink is a marvel. After one Zombie, you think, why don’t I drink these all the time? It’s so delicious and the buzz is incredible because the citrus, sugar and booze are doing cartwheels in your brain. And then three Zombies in, you realize you have flown too close to the sun and you are gonna crash hard. And that is why you don’t drink Zombies all the time. But every couple weeks, or months, or days, I don’t know how strong your stomach is, every drinker needs a good Tiki high.
The trouble is, it’s hard to find bars making real Tiki drinks and even harder to make them at home unless you happen to have orgeat and fresh pineapple juice in your fridge. You can make orgeat, here’s a link to a solid recipe and history of almond milks and syrups, but even that is hard.
Luckily for us all, Tiki goes in cycles and it appears again to be reemergent, so hopefully you will have access to a well made Mai Tai soon – with it’s necessary non-industrial Orgeat – if you don’t already. I happen to live in Los Angeles, the birthplace of Tiki drinking culture, and so have been able to sample many a fine and powerful Tiki drink in bars old and new. Sadly, the bar that started it all on Hollywood Blvd in the 30s – Don the Beachcomber – is no more, but you can still visit the Tonga Hut and the Tiki Ti, two places where I have been very drunk and which both opened in the late 50s during the original wave of Tiki madness sparked by Don the Beachcomber and the early, but ultimately more successful Oakland copycat bar Trader Vic’s. In a chicken and egg sort of situation, these two bars helped fuel and were fueled by a post war pop culture obsession with all things south pacific. But eventually that faded, and except in stalwarts like the Tonga Hut and the Tiki Ti, the tiki drink became synonymous with greasy Chinese food and headaches.
You may still get headache from all the sugar and booze, but it will be well earned and much more palatable than the imitation Mai Tais and Scorpion Bowls most of of us are familiar with. And should you decide to become a Tiki enthusiast yourself, you can now find all the almond syrups and fruit juices you need on the internet. And hopefully also at an authentic, hard working, easy going tiki bar in your area.
O is for Orgeat, but also really for Tiki.