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Almonds & Oranges: the Mai Tai’s Unsung Heroes

Or: What’s the best Orange Liqueur and Orgeat for a Mai Tai?

orange liqueurs and orgeat syrups for Trader Vic's Mai Tai

Much has been written about the Mai Tai—a classic libation created in 1944 by Trader Vic Bergeron (about a block away from my current location). Donn Beach said he stole the drink from him, but Vic always stuck to his origin story.

Beachbum Berry gave us the precise specs and told us which rums to use, but the taste and the success of the drink still varies wildly from place to place. Why is that? Is it because we’re unsatisfied with a world in which 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew rum is no longer sold? I don’t think so.

Now that’s not to say that the rum choice doesn’t have a huge impact on the drink, because of course it does. However, for all the discussion of which rums to use (Martin & Rebecca Cate have written extensively on this) I never really hear people talking about the two other essential Mai Tai flavor components: orange Curaçao and orgeat. Now you might say, Josh, there isn’t much of those in there—how much of a difference could they possibly make? Well, dear reader, the answer is “a lot”.

In order to unpack the impact of these two ingredients, I began by taking stock of each example I had in the bar. Here’s what I found:

Orange Liqueurs Orgeat
Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao Latitude 29 Formula Orgeat
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Small Hand Foods Orgeat
Clement Creole Shrubb Giffard orgeat
Grand Marnier
Cointreau

 

Now it should be noted that Vic’s recipe calls for orange Curaçao, but any quality orange liqueur will do. There are sweeter and drier versions (“sec” means “dry” in French, bien sûr) but given that we can eventually adjust the sweetness to our own liking, it’s the orange flavor that really matters in the end. (Incidentally, if you are after a primer on the differences among these liqueurs, check out this great piece from Michael Dietsch.)

As for the orgeat, I would expect Vic to have used something like what was available in his family’s French-inspired grocery in Oakland, and that is precisely what Beachbum Berry sought for his Latitude 29 formula orgeat. Jennifer Colliau’s Small Hand Foods orgeat is more floral, and a good stand-in for a well-made homemade orgeat, so that base is covered. And finally, we have the mass market coffee house type of syrup with the Giffard.

For the rum I decided to keep it simple, as this would have to be the “control” variable in our experiment. Denizen 8 Merchant’s Reserve is a solid rum for a classic Mai Tai, and was conceived with that particular drink in mind (and I had an entire bottle in stock) so that’s what I went with.

Before making each variation of the drink, let’s take a look at the liqueurs and syrups on their own:

Orange Liqueurs

Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao
ABV: 30%
Price/Volume: ~$20/750 ml
Color: Dark golden orange
Nose: Bitter orange peel, anise, hint of lemon zest
Palate: Bitter orange, licorice, faux floral bouquet, saccharin finish

 

Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
ABV: 40%
Price/Volume: ~$30/750 ml
Color: Light tan
Nose: Bright orange peels, St. Joseph’s orange baby aspirin, orange flower water
Palate: Sharp entry, bitter orange peel, massive dose of baby aspirin, saccharin finish with persistent floral note

 

Clement Creole Shrubb
ABV: 40%
Price/Volume: ~$30/750 ml
Color: Straw
Nose: Orange peels and a vegetal note, the combination of which is reminiscent of a Margarita
Palate: Bright and balanced entry, fresh orange zest, vegetal base, lemon pepper top note

 

Grand Marnier
ABV: 40%
Price/Volume: ~$35/750 ml
Color: Light tan
Nose: Bitter orange, anise, tropical spices
Palate: Sharp entry, loads of anise, bitter orange, lemon zest, saccharin finish

 

Cointreau
ABV: 40%
Price/Volume: ~$35/750 ml
Color: Clear
Nose: Fresh orange zest, touch of pepper and a small acetyl note
Palate: Bright entry with orange zest and peppery spice, lemon zest, slightly bitter finish

 

Orgeats

Latitude 29 formula orgeat
Price/Volume: ~$15/375 ml
Color: Clear with some turbidity
Nose: Marzipan, touch of florality
Palate: Marzipan followed by floral notes—a combo of orange flower water and rose water. Sweet and extremely pleasant

 

Small Hand Foods Orgeat
Price/Volume: ~$12/8.5 oz
Color: Milky white with a touch of brown
Nose: Very floral with loads of orange flower water, bit of marzipan
Palate: Bright and sweet floral entry with orange flower water dominating, the almond flavor is definitely secondary, with the marzipan note coming in last (from apricot kernels)

 

Giffard orgeat
Price/Volume: ~$20/1 Liter
Color: Milky white
Nose: Marzipan and cherry, undesirable sharpness
Palate: Immediate thoughts of various car cleaning products, artificially flavored hard cherry candies, almond extract, bitter aftertaste

 

Methodology

With five orange liqueurs and three orgeats to try, that meant we had fifteen Mai Tais to make. Each drink was made individually, using the same batch of lime juice prepared just prior to making the first drink. For the Mai Tai recipe, we used Beachbum Berry’s ratios:

Ingredients
1 ounce each fresh lime juice
2 oz rum (Denizen Merchant’s Reserve 8-Year)
1/2 ounce orange liqueur
1/2 ounce orgeat
1/4 ounce simple syrup (1:1)

Method
Add 2 cups of crushed ice, then shake well for ten seconds.

Trader Vic's Mai Tai

Evaluation

All the drinks were judged on their taste and scored on a ten point scale. Short tasting notes were also recorded. Finally, all the data was tabulated and sorted from worst to first by score. Without further ado, here are the results:

 

Orange Liqueur Orgeat Score Notes
Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao Giffard 3 Terrible combination where the rum and bitterness combine with the chemical and saccharin notes to achieve a truly dreadful balance
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Giffard 4 This one is a hot mess of chemical marzipan and bitter orange flavors
Clement Creole Shrubb Giffard 5 The chemical marzipan can’t be hidden, nor can the bitter finish
Grand Marnier Giffard 5.5 The rum and bitterness lead in for the citrus, all of which is then covered by a terrible bitterness
Cointreau Giffard 6 Certainly the best orange liqueur to combine with the Giffard, but still hampered by the chemical taste and bitter finish
Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao Latitude 29 6 Tastes smoky and a tad sweet, rum really shines through, but the bitterness of the orange shines equally
Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao Small Hand Foods 7 Floral notes play really well with the citrus, and this one actually undoes a lot of the Curaçao’s bitterness
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Small Hand Foods 7 Nice but not very much almond flavor, and the florality doesn’t jive with the baby aspirin note of the Curaçao. Bitter finish
Grand Marnier Small Hand Foods 7 A bit sweet, but certainly pleasant. Still lacking that marzipan note, however
Clement Creole Shrubb Small Hand Foods 8 Solid drink, but more floral than almond. Bitter finish.
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Latitude 29 8 Pretty delicious combination. Very bright and citrusy, plays well with the rum until the saccharin bitterness kick in at the end
Cointreau Small Hand Foods 8.25 Florality carries the day again, followed by citrus and finally bitterness. Very good despite the lack of marzipan.
Grand Marnier Latitude 29 8.5 Sweetness is amplified to the point where the simple is unnecessary, but aside from that, the balance is nice. A tad too bitter on the finish.
Cointreau Latitude 29 9 Really solid combo here. Virtually no bitterness, and plenty of bright citrus in harmony with the sweetness
Clement Creole Shrubb Latitude 29 9.5 Deliciously complex combination. The slight vegetal note plays really well with the orgeat and the citrus shines right through while the rum provides a really solid foundation upon which everything else is built.

 

Data Analysis

In looking at the table, one thing is abundantly clear, and that is the utter worthlessness of Giffard orgeat. The stuff tastes ghastly, and it ruins an otherwise good combination of rum, lime, orange liqueur, and sugar.

The other two negative flavor characteristics that come into play are unbalanced bitterness and saccharin-like flavors, both of which can be amplified or attenuated by the other ingredients.

Florality also plays a big role, especially in the case of the Small Hand Foods orgeat. The product itself is quite delightful, but the apricot kernels may not provide enough of the marzipan flavor to really announce itself in the drink and overcome the floral notes, which requires the right orange liqueur to make it work (Cointreau, for example).

There are two other flavors mentioned in the notes above that may be somewhat polarizing and/or perplexing: marzipan and St. Joseph’s baby aspirin.

I apologize to the younger folks among you who might not know what orange baby aspirin tastes like (on the plus side, you never got Reye’s syndrome) but it’s too perfect a match for me to go with any another flavor analog. The closest thing I can equate it to would be a sort of chalky, artificially sweetened orange Creamsicle. To me, that is the dominant note in Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, and to the extent it works, it only works with certain orgeats.

Marzipan is a flavor that people seem to have even stronger opinions about. Some orgeats like Giffard are very marzipan-forward (certainly from a flavor house extract) while others are more floral like Small Hand Foods. For me, a good dose of marzipan/almond flavor is essential for the Mai Tai to become a drink that is more than the sum of its parts, and the Bum’s orgeat manages to provide enough of that flavor without coming off like a chemical soup.

Finally, a note on bitterness. I am not anti-bitter (I have a pretty huge collection of bitter liqueurs, after all) and I understand that orange liqueurs are flavored with bitter orange peels. That said, the thing that makes a Mai Tai work is not the bitterness, but the orange flavor. A little bitterness can be interesting if it hits the palate in concert with other flavor elements that provide interest and balance, but in this case most of the bitterness was noted on the finish, which led to a poor experience.

Conclusion

There are certainly other quality orange liqueurs and orgeats available, and I would love to test them all in a similar taste-off. That said, they are not cheap, and this research is 100% self-funded. Nevertheless, this experiment did achieve the goal of determining the best combination of orgeat and orange liqueur from my existing stocks, according to my particular palate.

In closing, I hope that even those who disagree with my findings have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of the Mai Tai’s unsung flavor heroes. I encourage you to find the best combination that suits your individual palate. Okole maluna!

10 Comments leave one →
  1. saraleib permalink
    April 28, 2017 10:11 am

    Fantastic. Thanks for doing the research, Josh!

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      April 28, 2017 10:42 am

      Thanks for reading! Cheers

  2. April 28, 2017 11:03 am

    Super interesting, after blogging about the history of the much maligned Mai Tai (http://divingandchillin.com/its-mai-tai-time/) I was looking forward to embarking on the same journey you just traveled. Looks like you’ve done most of the leg work for me. Thanks, now I get to try your top contenders.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      April 28, 2017 1:45 pm

      Thanks, Tom! Plenty more combinations to try. Keep us updated…

  3. Thomas Fitzgerald permalink
    April 29, 2017 5:28 am

    Great article! Like you mentioned,I obssessed over my rum selection for Mai Tais but rarely thought about the orgeat and curaçao combo. I would reflexively use Pierre Ferrand and various orgeats. (Right now the dreaded Giffard’s). With that combo I noticed something off but your palate is much better than mine obviously. Thanks for the help!

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      April 29, 2017 7:11 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Thomas! Cheers

  4. Christopher permalink
    April 29, 2017 2:12 pm

    I did my own experiment using Merchant’s Reserve and Small Hands orgeat. I compared a “control” Mai Tai using Clement Creole Shrub against one using Solerno Blood Orange liqueur.

    My assessment is that Solerno is too assertive and distinctive for this drink. It begins with a candy, “SweeTart” flavor and then remains too dominant and distracting. (Incidentally, I like Solerno in a Margarita, at least as a variation.) I am also likely biased for my control recipe, which is how I have made them at home for a while (and which I find comparable to Trader Vic’s “1944 Mai Tai”). Having said that, the control here is just far more balanced and interesting than the Solerno experiment.

    Thanks for this article! I will have to get a bottle of the Latitude 29. I would have liked to see you test Torani orgeat instead of Giffard here — only because I think it is what most people will find and use before they discover the good stuff. Is it better or worse than the Giffard? I wonder.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      April 29, 2017 2:16 pm

      Great notes, Christopher! Thanks for sharing. I haven’t tried Torani in years, but I would guess it’s on par with the Giffard based on my dim recollection.

  5. May 28, 2017 10:25 am

    Giffard’s orgeat has never tasted good to me. A lot of their liqueurs taste more “apricot than apricot (or sub in the flavor) meaning that they’re using flavorants meant for the soda and candy world, although their Banane du Bresil for some reason tastes legit.

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