The Trouble With Cyanide

How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas is usually the first reference for anyone looking into pre-prohibition cocktails. But as a confectioner as well as a bartender, I am equally intrigued by the appendix added to this book, almost as long, titled A Manual For The Manufacture Of Cordials, Liquors, Fancy Syrups, Etc. Since I know that modern commercial orgeat is not made from actual almonds, I decided to see how historical recipes were made.

424. Orgeat (or Almond) Syrup.
2 lbs. of sweet almonds.
3i ounces of bitter almonds.
3 pints of fresh water.
6 or 6 1/2 lbs. of sugar.

Take your almonds (sweet and bitter) and drop them into boiling water. This blanches them, and they are easily skinned. Having peeled them, drop them into cold water, in which wash them; when ready put them into a clean mortar (one of marble is better than bronze), and mash them; next, squeeze in the juice of two lemons, or add a little acid, and, as you pound the almonds, pour part of a pint of clean water into the mortar; mash thoroughly, until the mixture looks like thick milk, and no pieces of almonds are left; then add another pint of the spring water. Now squeeze the white mash through a hair-cloth, or other good strainer: a common plan is to have a large strainer held by two persons; as they twist the milk may be caught in a clean basin; whatever of the almonds is left in the cloth put it back into the mortar, and mash it over again, adding a little of the spring water; then strain it, and mix with the former almond milk; this done mix it with your sugar (about 6 lbs.) which must first, however, be clarified and boiled to a ” crack” (see No. 17); whilst adding the almond milk let the pan of hot sugar be off the fire; when mixed give another boil up; then remove the pan from the fire, and stir the syrup until cold;* pour in a small portion of the tincture of orange flowers, or the least drop of the essence of neroly, and pass the mixture again through a cloth; give the bottles an occasional shake for a few days afterward; it will keep the syrup from parting.
*This is done to keep it from separating and splitting up after being bottled.

This is the first recipe I came across that calls for bitter almonds to augment the sweet ones. Now, I am a methodical cook; I will happily adjust recipes to suit my tastes, but I have to make the original to the letter the first time. How would you know how to adjust it without a specific frame of reference?

So apparently I needed some bitter almonds. Turns out, they are pretty much M.I.A., at least in the U.S. Even scouring food boutiques that specialize in European foods (I’m looking at you, Boulette’s), I was only able to find some specialty varieties of sweet almonds. Delicious out of hand, absolutely. But not what I was looking for.

So I started researching it.

The bitter almond is rather broader and shorter than the sweet almond, and contains about 50% of the fixed oil which also occurs in sweet almonds. It also contains the enzyme emulsin which, in the presence of water, acts on a soluble glucoside, amygdalin, yielding glucose, cyanide and the essential oil of bitter almonds, which is nearly pure benzaldehyde. Bitter almonds may yield from 4-9mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond. Extract of bitter almond was once used medicinally, but even in small doses effects are severe and in larger doses can be deadly; the cyanide must be removed before consumption.

So this explains why bitter almonds are so hard to find in the U.S. And it explains why modern recipes never call for them. Many websites detail that the cyanide is neutralized with cooking. Which is why, I suppose, we have been able to take delight in the lovely flavor that is the bitter almond, as it flavors marzipan, Italian and Chinese almond cookies, and anything else with almond extract in it, as the heat-processing of the extract makes the result safe for consumption.

It also explains why old recipes call for whole bitter almonds, but always within the context of a highly cooked product. The cooking was necessary to neutralize the poison.

Now, in my attempt to make the original recipe, I was stymied by the lack of available bitter almonds. However, other stone fruits also contain benzaldehyde in their kernels, including peaches, cherries and apricots, as well as apple seeds. I know that apricot kernels are available in some herbal pharmacies, as they are sometimes used as a natural cancer treatment. A controversial medicine called Laetrile, first sold in the United States in the 1960s, was touted first as a cancer cure, then relegated to treatment status, and ultimately claimed to be only a preventative measure. The USDA stopped its import and sale in 2000, although there are ways to get around this ban. Laetrile is made from amygdalin, a substance found in, you guessed it, apricot kernels.

So I headed to my local herbal-specialized grocer and indeed, found a big jar of apricot kernels. They were unblanched, so I had to go through the hassle of blanching them myself, but ultimately I had enough to make the recipe. I even went so far as to clarify my own sugar using egg whites, a procedure I do not recommend unless you are happy having to forever afterwards light your stove burners with a lighter because you have completely killed the pilot lights.

I made the modern concession of using a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. But when I boiled the whole thing with the quantity of sugar specified, it was so thick that by the time it cooled it had to be spooned from a jar. It reminded me of pomade, or the solidified part of a can of cream of coconut. And after a couple of days, the entire thing crystallized and had to be chipped out of the jar.

Flavor-wise, however, it was delicious. The apricot kernels had imparted a profound bitter almond flavor, much like almond extract. And the richness that came from using actual almonds was apparent. The fat and protein in the mouth make for a depth of flavor and texture that simply is not possible when just using sugar syrup and almond extract.

Obviously there were problems. I can’t see having to spoon a mixture into a cocktail shaker a practicality at a bar. But this, combined with what I learned from the Art of Drink recipe, gave me a great foundation for attempting to make an orgeat I feel will work in a modern bar but be made in an old-world sensibility, with real, whole ingredients.

Commercial Orgeat

As I mentioned before, I love the orgeat recipe on the Art of Drink by Darcy O’Neil. It is light and milky and lush. I could practically drink it by itself. But why is this recipe so vastly different from all the orgeat on the shelves?

Commercial orgeat is slightly cloudy, and may or may not louche when added to water. Louching is the process whereby certain oils in an emulsion are destabilized, and come out of solution into suspension. The best-known example of this is adding water to absinthe, although it will occur with any pastis (and any spirit with a certain amount of essential oil in it, like Cointreau or Blue Gin). The oils in the product are soluble in sufficient ethanol, but when the proof is brought down with the addition of water, the oils pull out into suspension, thus giving the liquid a cloudy appearance.

What is in commercial orgeat? How does it differ from Mr O’Neil’s recipe? Here I’ve listed brands of orgeat that are common in bars, plus their ingredients:

Torani: Pure cane sugar, water, natural flavors, fractionated coconut oil, ester gum, citric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate

Monin: pure cane sugar, water, natural almond flavor

Trader Vic’s: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, cloud (water, acacia gum, medium chain triglycerides, glycerol, ester of wood rosin, brominated vegetable oil, citric acid, sodium benzoate), propylene glycol, sodium benzoate (a preservative), natural and artificial flavors

Fee Bros.: corn sweeteners, sugar, water, natural and artificial flavor, citric acid, less than 1/10 of 1% benzoate of soda as a preservative, propylene glycol, xanthan gum, gum acacia & glyceryl abietate

1883: sugar, water, glucose-fructose syrup, natural aroma including natural almond extract

Sonoma Syrup Co. (called Vanilla Almond syrup): cane sugar, water, vanilla extract, natural almond extract, orange flower water, citric acid
(I wouldn’t really call Sonoma Syrup Co.’s syrup orgeat, but they are a well-respected locally-based “natural” syrup maker, so I wanted to put them in anyways. It’s super vanilla-y, thus taking it out of the realm of typical orgeat.)

So, the Torani and Trader Vic’s brands have clouding agents in them: fractionated coconut oil in the Torani and the “cloud” concoction in the Trader Vic’s. None of them have actual almonds in them. Assuming almonds donate fat to an emulsion, this would provide for a louche effect. If you eliminate the almonds but still want the visual, you’re going to have to get some oil in there. Thus the coconut and vegetable oils added. But when mixed with water, the louche is actually pretty subtle, nothing at all like absinthe or other pastis.

Call me a purist, or a snob, but I think that I’d rather use actual almonds and the effect that they create rather than try to approximate the effect with ingredients that have no other purpose in the syrup.

I feel the need to add that I have had bartenders in bars I greatly respect on both coasts swear up and down that 1883 is amazing, and ostensibly different and superior to other brands. So I ordered a bottle. And I’m sorry to say I was sorely disappointed. It tasted just like thickened sugar syrup with almond extract added, which is exactly what it is. And after tasting every commercial product I could get my hands on, including one from a deli in New York that came highly recommended, I’ve got say that they all pretty much taste the same. Certainly, the brands with artificial ingredients taste more processed than the others. But they all taste kind of forced, in that overwhelming almond extract kind of way. In pastry, almond extract is used to bolster the flavor of an almond confection, like in amaretti or almond cake. But here it’s as if we are trying to be convinced that the flavor of almond extract alone is the actual flavor of almonds. And it’s not.

Now, forced to choose, I’d rather consume something like Monin or 1883, simply because they have fewer ingredients and no artificial preservatives. But really, I’d actually rather consume something from real food.

Purist, or snob…

research commences

The most widespread recipe online for orgeat is here, on The Art of Drink by Darcy O’Neil. I am incredibly indebted to him for starting me on this journey. Plus it is one of the most informative, interesting booze blogs out there. Cheers, Darcy!

Orgeat made in this manner is fresh, lush, light and milky. Sugar is dissolved into a rich almond milk without boiling, so the viscosity is low, and the resulting suspension is fairly unstable, so it tends to separate, both in the bottle and in prepared cocktails, which can result in a mottled, curdled appearance. This doesn’t affect the flavor or much of the mouthfeel of drinks, just the look. Plus, the mixture is volatile and can spoil readily. But it tastes so milky and lush! Just mixed with seltzer, with maybe a squeeze of lime, it is f’n delicious!

So why is this orgeat so vastly different from anything on the shelves?

Now, mind you, I like the flavor of commercial orgeat. It tastes like almond extract, like amaretto and marzipan and Italian almond cookies. Yum. But AofD’s orgeat tastes nothing like almond extract, and it’s made almost entirely of almonds. Where is the discrepancy? And what were bartenders using a hundred years ago? Does what we use do justice to the integrity of their cocktails?

Obviously, more research is in order.

orgeat… how it all began

People who know me know that I’m obsessed with orgeat.For those who don’t know me: I’m obsessed with orgeat.

Orgeat syrup is a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar and rose water or orange-flower water. It was, however, originally made with a barley-almond blend. It has a pronounced almond taste and is used to flavor many cocktails, perhaps the most famous of which is the Mai Tai.

It began as an argument between my boss and me.Any time a customer ordered a Mai Tai we made them essentially a rum and juice cocktail.It had raspberry syrup (we didn’t carry commercial grenadine) and pineapple juice.We didn’t carry orgeat or crème de noyeau or even Amaretto.And anytime I had to make one of these concoctions I would bitch about it.In a loud and complainy manner.Because what differs a Mai Tai from any other tropical rum-and-fruit beverage is the almond flavor.It’s what makes the drink as far as I’m concerned.And finally my boss tired of it and said, “Fine. You want a Mai Tai? We’re doing the original Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. But commercial orgeat is crap. Why don’t you make some?”

So I did.

I’ve been making orgeat for about two years now.It became the cornerstone of my new business, Small Hand Foods, making pre-prohibition era cocktail ingredients. It’s a long story, but rather than write the novel that would be the history of it all now, I’ll relay pieces here over the next while, interspersed with other things thrown in as they happen.

I hope you enjoy it!