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Our Resident Bartender Deconstructs the Mai Tai

Our Resident Bartender Deconstructs the Mai Tai

Finally, I had secured my place behind the bar, a casual joint on Lake Michigan that served Bacardi Diets in pints and a damn good Friday Fish Fry. I was freshly 20, a long way from finding my confidence as a bartender, so when this woman ordered a Mai Tai, I went full college house party: all the rail rums, O.J., pineapple, a swirl of neon grenadine, even extra Malibu—because “tropical,” right? I speared three cherries instead of one, masking the fact that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. She loved it like a kid sucking down a Capri Sun, but unbeknownst to both of us, I had gotten it horribly, horribly wrong.

We Americans love tiki drinks for lots of reasons, namely their promise of transporting us far away from our 50-hour work weeks to a place we can dig our toes in the sand and smell salt in our hair; a place synonymous with kitschy vessels overflowing with rich rum. Though it’s true that the precise blending of various rum styles is the foundation of a Mai Tai, perhaps the most essential ingredient that’s often overlooked is orgeat.

Spirits critic Jason Wilson calls orgeat (pronounced or-ZHA[T]) essential in his book, Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. He writes: “… the reason the Mai Tai evolved into such a laughably bad cocktail is mostly due to the disappearance of orgeat syrup by the late twentieth century.”

French for “barley water,” orgeat’s original bland barley base was swiftly replaced with almonds, creating a much more flavorful addition to the arsenals of bartenders in the pre-Prohibition era. Once tiki culture began to sweep Americans off their feet in the 1930s and 1940s, orgeat became ubiquitous, especially at Trader Vic’s in Oakland, Calif., where Victor Bergeron created the world’s first Mai Tai, a straightforward blend of rum, orange liqueur, lime juice and orgeat.

“Orgeat makes or breaks a good Mai Tai,” says Kevin Beary, cocktail expert and beverage director of Chicago’s Three Dots and A Dash. “It’s not just a flavor, it’s that beautiful, thick mouthfeel from the fresh almond milk.” To preserve the integrity of the almond flavor, Beary skips the traditional addition of orange blossom or rosewater, resulting in a clean-tasting orgeat that no doubt propelled the speakeasy to be named one of “The World’s 50 Best Bars” by Drinks International.

That’s not to say buying bottled orgeat will ruin your Mai Tais. If it’s not practical to go homemade, just be sure to choose a supplier that skips the artificial garbage. Thankfully these days there are many quality orgeat options on the market.

“Making orgeat can be tricky,” admits Beary. “If you don’t have the time or patience to make your own orgeat, I suggest using Liquid Alchemist’s Orgeat, a small batch syrup made in Los Angeles.”

Whether you’re crafting a traditional Mai Tai or a Hawaiian version with pineapple, prioritize orgeat and you’ll serve up a cocktail worth remembering.

“ Though it’s true that the precise blending of various rum styles is the foundation of a Mai Tai, perhaps the most essential ingredient that’s often overlooked is orgeat.”
– Brianna Rupel, Restaurant Inc. Resident Bartender

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