The term almond syrup is a catch-all term for any syrup made from almonds, water and sugar which includes orgeat, orzata, horchata or orxata. These syrups are often used in cocktails, but they probably originated as coffee syrups or as “Italian soda” type drinks. But these almond syrups seem to work wonderfully well in cocktails and a prime example of this is the Mai Tai cocktail. The original Mai Tai called for the finest ingredients and that included the finest French orgeat, but the brand was never specified (aside from the self promoting Trader Vic brand which came later). So what makes a good almond syrup and is there really a difference between brands? Let us see.
The process for making classic almond syrup is pretty simple, basically you pulverize almonds in water until the you form a water / fat emulsion and screen out any left over material. After that you add copious amounts of sugar which then makes it a basic almond syrup. If you want orgeat, then you will add Orange Flower Water. There are a lot of variations for almond syrup, with some using vanilla and other flavours to enhance the almond syrup. Obviously the key is almonds, sugar, water.
If you look at the ingredient list of most commercially available almond syrups, you may notice that they pretty much all use natural or artificial flavour extracts, instead of almonds. This is understandable since the process to make orgeat syrup doesn’t work well on an industrial scale, at least cost wise.
Since most of the almond syrups are made from flavour extracts this has the potential to limit variability between brands. You might want to think this, but it is not the case. The quantity of extract used has a big role in whether the almond syrup is more simple syrup or almond syrup. The amount of sugar, and type, also plays a role as well as the addition of a wide range of other ingredients, such as citric acid and the “clouding” agents. Yes, that is right, most almond syrups use an artificial ingredient to make the syrup cloudy, to keep to the original look of orgeat. The Sonoma Syrup Company doesn’t add a clouding agent and their almond syrup is clear. Monin only mentions cane sugar, water and almond flavour in their ingredients, so their is no indication of a clouding agent, but the Monin has the classic orgeat look.
In homemade orgeat, the oils in the almond form an emulsion with water, resulting in a opaque, cloudy looking, liquid. In commercial products they usually use an oil, such as coconut oil and an ester gum which form the artificial cloudiness. So, depending on how accurate you want to be in your cocktail creations, and your tolerance for artificial ingredients, these factors may affect your choice of almond syrup.
In Part II of this post I’ll take a look at 5 almond syrups (Sonoma Syrup Co., Torani, Fee’s, Trader Vic’s and Monin) and do a comparison of flavours and their best application in cocktails.