Citric Acid

Citric Acid

As I mentioned before, I treat my ingredients like a cook rather than a food producer. Yet when you get into food production, as I have been doing while expanding my Small Hand Foods syrup line, there are a few scientific things you must pay attention to.

Ph values are the level of acidity in a product. If you are going to seal anything in a jar or bottle, one of the ways to make it safe is to insure that the ph is 4.5 or lower. Botulism (botulinum toxin) thrives in a low-acid, oxygen-free environment. Once you expose a food product to oxygen, say, by taking a jar of jam off your shelf and opening it, keeping it refrigerated after opening prevents other bacteria from getting in there. All of this science must be applied when creating a new food product that you intend to bottle.

But food production folk are a funny lot. They know how to keep food safe, but they aren’t chefs. They want everything super scientific. I needed to lower the ph of my gum syrup to make it safe to bottle. And every single person I encountered told me to use citric acid. They said that citric acid is essentially concentrated lemon juice. So I bought some and tried it.

I don’t care what people say; citric acid is nothing at all like lemon juice. If you have access to it, mix a little in some water and taste it. Does it taste like lemon juice? Not even remotely. It tastes acrid and bitter with a dry, metallic aftertaste. Like nibbling on an unripe lime, with its peel, dipped in metal shavings and wrapped in brown paper. Quite frankly, I don’t want that in my syrup.

Actual lemon juice, contrary to what the food scientists say, contains citric acid, yes, but also malic, tartaric and oxalic acids, plus sugar, fiber and a trace of protein. And vitamins and minerals. Using lemon juice as an ingredient adds so much more than just a ph reducer. And adding enough to a bottle of gum syrup to make it safe adds less than a teaspoon per bottle: a couple drops per drink. In exchange I get the safety of the acidity without the metallic, bitter taste. It’s a fair exchange to me.

I’ve begun to look more closely at product labels and am stunned by the number of edibles that use citric acid. Out of all the varieties of hummus now sold at Trader Joe’s, only one uses actual lemon juice rather than citric acid. There are also so many products that seem to me to unnecessarily use an acidifier. Flavored syrups like Rose’s or Torani add citric acid because there is no actual juice in them, therefore nothing to bring the ph down to safe levels. But fruit juice is already acidic; I can’t see any purpose in adding citric acid to a drink or syrup already containing fruit juice. Yet there they are.

I do not claim that there is anything unhealthy or dangerous with citric acid. It is typically derived from lemon pith, although through a fairly refined process. My bias here is about flavor, and that I prefer to drink the way I eat, with a concentration on whole, real foods. In addition, to me lemon juice just tastes better. So that’s what I choose to put into my syrups. Food scientists be damned.


I’ve been spending much of my time lately transitioning two of the syrups I make through my Small Hand Foods label, Gum Syrup and Pineapple Gum Syrup, to larger production. On a good day it takes me ten hours to make eight cases of syrup by hand, and while the notion of someone squeezing pineapples by hand may be grand and romantic, it actually makes me bitter and angry. Juicing pineapples for six hours straight isn’t cooking; it’s factory work.

However, it’s really hard to find companies who can treat ingredients the way cooks do. And regularly available ingredients are concentrated, pasteurized and often not so tasty. So I’ve started working in a pretty unorthodox manner. Rather than accepting ingredients as they are readily available, I have started working with companies that can treat ingredients as I do when I make the syrups myself.

As an example, I could not find organic, not-from-concentrate pineapple juice. As far as food production is concerned, it practically doesn’t exist. But I refused to believe it’s impossible. If I can juice organic pineapples myself, there had to be a way to get someone to do it for me.

I found a local juicer, Voila, that has organic certification. They also happen to have a very large version of the same kind of juicer I use, which is very important to maintain the qualities of the syrup I am looking for. Because they do not already juice pineapples, I needed to buy the fruit myself. After a test run, where I could see that the juice was, in fact, identical to what I produced myself, I knew I was on the right track.

(By the way, sourcing enough fruit for such a large quantity was crazy. I had to show up at Earl’s Organic with a cashiers check for twice what I make in a month of bartending, as they wouldn’t extend me credit or take a card for such a large amount.)

Ultimately, instead of simply handing my recipe over to a co-packer and standing back as they source ingredients and cook them up, I bought the produce, coordinated the delivery, organized and executed labor to chop the pineapple, organized the juicing and delivered it all myself. Before we even started cooking. But we got it done, and I left with 500 cases of syrup.

It’s great; I don’t mean to complain…

It’s just that there is simply no infrastructure in place for this kind of food production. Food processors aren’t used to clients who want to taste their ingredients, let alone source them themselves. It’s not that they mind; they just aren’t used to it. I find it extremely disheartening. I’m essentially wedging my way in. I refuse to believe that food can’t be made in this way. I really hope demand increases for ingredients treated with care. Not only will available food products increase in quality, but it will make my job a hell of a lot easier.


Since I started Small Hand Foods, I often get people asking me about my syrup-making process, so I thought I’d share some of it here.

When people find out what I do, one of the first things they say to me is, “Wow; you do all of that out of your house?” Um… what? No. You can’t legally sell stuff you’ve made in your home kitchen. Actually, in some states you can certify your home kitchen, but California ain’t one of them.

“Don’t you need permits for that sort of thing?” Yes. You need a Processed Food Registration, food safety certification, Organic Processed Product Registration (if you use organic ingredients), seller’s permit, Fictitious Business Name Statement, and business licenses in both the city you make the product in and the one you live in, assuming you do things like keep records in your house. There may be other permits you need for where you live; state and county offices will be able to tell you what you need.

If you are interested in starting a small food business, one of the big initial hurdles is finding a space to cook out of. Commercial kitchens are available for rental, but they can be expensive. They also may not have all of the equipment you need. Many people get their starts through the generosity of people already in the industry, myself included. I owe so much to the former owners of Fellini in Berkeley, Camino in Oakland, and of course, to Charles Phan and the entire Phan family of Slanted Door and Heaven’s Dog. Often deals can be worked out when restaurants are closed; i.e. mornings in a dinner-only establishment, or on a Sunday or Monday when a particular restaurant is closed. I start cooking in the afternoon and usually finish midnight or later, because that is when the space I use is available.

I usually start each cooking session by picking up my produce from Berkeley Bowl. It’s just slightly higher in cost than wholesale, they have the quality I need, plus they’re really nice. I pack it into my cargo van (size 14). Here are 20 cases of organic pineapples.

I buy my bottles from California Glass. They mostly serve the wine industry, but have a number of other bottles and jars for people like myself. They’re wholesale only and have a $500 minimum, which was daunting at first, but I got over that quickly. Now I buy from them about every six weeks or so.

I cook in really big pots. I have to stand on a crate to see inside.

Bottling by hand is really time consuming. Especially when the gum syrup is bubbly, and I have to fill the bottles, wait for it to settle, and top off each one.

I slip on the capsules then use the heat gun I have left over from refinishing furniture to shrink them on.

I used to use stock black capsules, but my bottles have these tiny glass bumps on the necks, and the capsules often broke and shrank away from the bumps.




I switched to custom capsules from C&E Capsules, and now they not only match my labels, the glass bumps no longer break through!

When I finish a batch, I’ve usually been working 12 or 14 hours. Plus the bottles are pretty hot, and I’m too tired and cranky at this point to wait for them to cool, so I put them away to label later.

Labeling by hand is also ridiculously time consuming. This is one of several times in this process where the economies of scale turn around and laugh in my face. How I wish I had a machine to do this! I use a ruler for the first bottle, then just visually line up each bottle with the first and apply the labels by hand.

I generally cook a larger quantity than I’ll need at any given time, and I’ll cook usually one or two products a week. I ask my customers to place their orders by Friday, then I know what I’ll be cooking next and what ingredients I’ll need to order. I cook on Mondays and Tuesdays, label and deliver on Wednesdays, then finish with my shift at Heaven’s Dog Wednesday nights. I invariably get panicked calls on Tuesdays for syrups, and if I have the product in stock, I’m happy to oblige, but sometimes I get cleaned out. I do my best, though.

So that’s my process. Like most small businesses, my company lives or dies with me alone. The rhythm of production doesn’t afford me the luxury of illness, and I’ve been dreaming of a vacation for two years. But, like most small business owners, I love it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Some resources:
Small Business Administration: Frequent classes, most of them free.
Small Business Development Center: One-on-one counseling sessions: free!

In San Francisco:
La Cocina
Renaissance Center


I make and sell a grenadine through my company Small Hand Foods. It differs vastly from what is currently on the market, and some people have been asking why.

First and foremost is the issue of taste. There are generally two kinds of grenadine on the market: ones that contain juice, like Stirrings and Sonoma Syrup Company, and ones that don’t, like Rose’s and Monin. Unfortunately, although the ones with juice in them are far tastier than their artificial addititive counterparts, when mixing them into cocktail, they simply don’t taste like pomegranate. There is the sweetness, of course, and the citric acid tartness, but none of the tannic juiciness I associate with ripe pomegranate.

I had always understood that grenadine was a syrup made from pomegranate and sugar, grenade meaning pomegranate in French, and granada in Spanish. But unlike other cocktail ingredients I can find almost no recipes for it in my collection of old cookbooks. In fact, the only recipe I found is in Home Made Beverages: The Manufacture of Non-Alcoholic and Alcoholic Drinks in the Household by Albert A. Hopkins, first published in 1900. And it is a rather unfortunate one:

Extract grenadine, 2 oz.; liquid foam, 1 oz.; red fruit coloring, 1 dr.; syrup, 1 gal. Mix then add fruit acid, 2 oz.

(Syrup here would refer to simple syrup, made in this book by adding 2 pounds of sugar to each pint of water and heated until dissolved.)

So I guess we shouldn’t fault the modern artificial versions too much; they obviously are following a long heritage as well. But for me, I want a simpler product that tastes like its ingredients. I like to drink the way that I like to eat, close to the earth with minimal processing. I want to know my ingredients, how they were grown and produced, and if possible, the people that grew and produced them. So I knew that my grenadine was going to taste like pomegranate, and hopefully, make cocktails that tasted like there was pomegranate in them.

In a lot of classic cocktails, grenadine is called for in dashes, leading me to believe that it was used often for color. And if you look at a modern version of a common grenadine cocktail like a tequila sunrise, you will see that yes, indeed, there is a very noticeable color addition.

My problem is that if grenadine is made with just pomegranate and sugar, it wouldn’t be a bright red, it would be a darker, more wine-like color.

Perhaps we have gotten so used to artificial colors that something natural looks too muddy. When we serve a Shirley Temple at Heaven’s Dog we use Fever Tree Ginger Ale (as the Shirley Temple was originally made with ginger ale, not 7up or Sprite) and sink some Small Hand Foods Grenadine into the glass. Kids, and the occasional adult who order them, often look askance at the beverage until they take a sip. It’s really good, and tastes like ginger and pomegranate, like the actual ingredients. Unusual, yes, but only compared to the high-fructose corn syrup and FD&C Red #40 concoction we’ve become accustomed to.

There is a great discussion in the Spirits & Cocktails forum on eGullet about making your own grenadine. There are many, many recipes that contributors have posted, and every one of them is vastly superior to anything you can find on your typical liquor store shelf. However, one of the most interesting parts of the discussion is that some people add additional flavors to their grenadine, from vanilla to orange flower water to star anise. One post compared grenadine to pomegranate syrup like orgeat to almond syrup, as in, one is a pure flavor syrup and the other is a flavored syrup with pomegranate or almond as the base. Etymologically this is erroneous, of course, as grenade means pomegranate, and orge actually means barley, the culinary root of this syrup, which has evolved into its current form.

I tried adding flavors to mine. I love orange flower water, and thought vanilla, since it is often used in artificial grenadines, would make the syrup taste a bit more familiar. I even tried adding hibiscus, thinking it would donate a brighter red color and a bit of that lovely sorrel-like zing. But they all tasted weird to me. The vanilla made the syrup taste more like artificial grenadine, which was really unfortunate. The orange flower water tasted out of place and lended a body-product floral unpleasantness, the way too much lavender or violet can. And the hibiscus just muddied the bright acidity of the natural pomegranate.

So I came back to a pure pomegranate syrup. It’s dark and murky, like a reduced red wine sauce, and adds a lot of color to a cocktail. But it tastes juicy and rich, less sweet than commercial products, and still has a tannic bite that reminds you it comes from real fruit. And yes, it will add more flavor to your cocktail than the other stuff. But I think that’s the way it should be.

Pisco Punch

Recently I had the pleasure of providing punch for a party hosted by the folks at Nirvino. It was a user appreciation party held at Le Colonial in San Francisco. I demonstrated making a punch in front of everyone, Martha Stewart-style, complete with swapouts and pre-measured ingredients. I also had two punches served at the onset for socializing. One of these was Pisco Punch.

Pisco Punch was a drink concocted toward the end of the 19th century by a barman named Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange in downtown San Francisco (where the Transamerica building now stands). Pisco, a clear grape brandy either unaged or aged in glass or stainless steel (which prevents color being added) is debated as being originally from Peru or Chile. Both countries have a history of making this spirit, although the methods of production differ slightly. Several types of grape are used, most often Muscat varietals. Pisco became popular in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, was widely imported, and was known for being quite alcoholic without tasting strong. Pisco punch was often compared to lemonade, but with “a kick like a mule.” Unfortunately the Bank Exchange closed its doors at the start of Prohibition, and cagey Mr. Nicol took his recipe to his grave.

What we do know are the ingredients of this drink: Pisco, lemon juice and pineapple gum syrup. Gum syrup (also known by its French spelling, gomme) was widely used back when bartending was a learned trade like any other, and bartenders passed on their knowledge in apprenticeships. They regularly made syrups, bitters, infusions and other ingredients for cocktails. Unfortunately, when Prohibition occurred, the men either had to find other work or leave the country, and a lot of culinary knowledge pertaining to drink-making was lost. So gum syrup largely stopped being used in favor of the far easier to make simple syrup. Gum arabic, resin from the gum acacia tree, is expensive and difficult to incorporate into a sugar syrup, and mixing water and sugar is, well, simple. But gum arabic lends a silky, viscous texture to cocktails that simple syrup does not.

Many modern bars, if they make a Pisco Punch at all, use a pineapple syrup made without gum arabic. And this, I think, is the problem with most incarnations. For a drink with only three components, one of which is the light and delicate Pisco, each one plays a very specific role. Without gum arabic, the drink is thin and rather flat. But with the added viscosity, it is round and flavorful, not rich per se, but full-bodied and satisfying.

Pisco Punch is not a true punch. (More on that later.) But it is well suited for being served as a punch, that is, in a large bowl for a crowd. Keep in mind, however, that dilution is a key component in this and any other drink, so you may want to add some water if the punch will be consumed rapidly. Otherwise let sit over large pieces of ice for a little while before serving, so the drink comes to an adequate balance.

Of course, it certainly can be served as a single cocktail, as pictured above. The proportions are absurdly easy, so scaling to any volume is simple. An added bonus is that when shaken vigorously with big chunks of ice, the gum arabic froths up to a nice foamy head and gives the drink a lovely white cap.

Pisco Punch
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz Pineapple Gum Syrup (this recipe is for Small Hand Foods syrup; if you make your own, add to taste)
2 oz Pisco (I use Marian Farms California-style Pisco. Neither Peruvian nor Chilean, this biodynamic farm in the San Joaquin Valley distills fantastic brandy in a copper pot still from Muscat and Thompson grapes.)

Shake vigorously with large chunks of ice and double-strain into a coupe. Garnish with a strip of lemon zest if desired.

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.

Ward 8

This week I had the good fortune of being at work when two bartenders from Death and Company, Brian Miller and Joaquin Simo, came into town. Joined by Camper English, a favorite local spirits writer and a blogger-inspiration of mine, they warmed the bar for most of the night. Camper wrote about this Drink Jinx of an evening here.

Of course, we promptly started geeking out on all things bar- and cocktail-related:

“Who makes your shaking tins? No, not those ones, the other ones?” “Listen to the sound they make when you shake.”
“You still have some old Noilly Prat left? Lucky you.”
“Those are some sexy ice spears. Where do you get your molds?”
And there was one reference to a cocktail so delicious one might want to put a part of his anatomy into it.

I was referred to, at least once, as the “Queen of Syrup,” a moniker that brings me immense delight.

Once people learn that I make cocktail ingredients, they are usually interested in having a drink made with some. So Joaquin ordered a Ward 8, purportedly one of his favorite whiskey cocktails.

The Ward 8 or variably Ward Eight, is a cocktail originating in 1898 in Boston, Massachusetts at the bar of the Gilded Age restaurant Locke-Ober. In 1898 Democratic political czar Martin M. Lomasney hoped to capture a seat in the state’s legislature, the General Court of Massachusetts. Lomasney was nicknamed the “Boston Mahatma” and had held considerable power in the city for nearly 50 years. The story goes that the drink was created to honor his election, and the city’s Ward 8 which historically delivered him a winning margin. Competing, but unfounded myths abound in print and on the Internet. One story purports that it originated in New York in an area known for political corruption, another that the cocktail is a traditional drink of the Scottish Guards.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this drink; perhaps this is because I, like many, tend to drink my whiskey straight or in aromatic cocktails like manhattans and old-fashioneds. I often taste a “dirty” quality when mixing citrus into whiskey. I’m not sure where this comes from. I have noticed it is more prevalent with rye than bourbon. But made with a sweeter, richer, less spicy bourbon, the Ward 8 can be a lovely, integrated cocktail that nonetheless showcases the spirit quite well.

One note: These proportions are based on Small Hand Foods grenadine. If you make your own, or use commercial stuff, you may have to adjust the recipe to taste. I highly recommend making your own, as I have yet to find widely available grenadine that is made primarily of pomegranate juice. A good discussion on homemade product can be found via the lovely folks at egullet here.

Ward 8
2 oz whiskey
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz fresh orange juice
1/2 oz grenadine

Shake vigorously in mixing tins, then double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist or orange twist, if desired.

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!