WE ARE IN EUROPE, and the world is lit only by fire. For many, the local drinking water is suspect, having been mucked up by the inevitable waste of adjacent human activities such as tanning hides and farming and general bathroom-going, so people drink ale or wine instead — or, sometimes, a drink called orgeat (pronounced or-ZHAT) that’s an emulsification of barley oil and water, since everything right now is made of barley.
The name even derives from the French word for barley, orge, or even further back, from the Latin hordeum (and right now, in the 1300s, Latin is fairly useful if you want to, say, understand what they’re saying in church).
Orgeat is a savory drink, probably very fortifying during these times of frequent famine and occasional bubonic plague, and it’s sometimes used as a milk replacement. It doesn’t taste particularly zesty, but then again, everyone is eating pottage (also made of barley) so thick it can hold up a spoon. So the average tongue still can appreciate the subtle, earthy appeal of a glass of orgeat, considered a cold and wet food in the humoral system and thus useful for counteracting overheated or overly sanguine temperaments. It is also soothing to the bowels if one is having digestive issues caused, possibly, by vegetables cleaned in the local drinking water.
1795, let’s say
By this point, orgeat has taken its place among the litany of pre- and postprandial decadent libations that make the Regency era such a great time to throw a dinner party. It is now a sweet, thick, sippable cordial flavored with almonds, the kind of thing stiff-collared aristocrats sip with raised pinkies at the high society social dances where they hunt for their future spouses.
These toffs are still calling this drink orgeat for some reason, even though, now, it contains no barley at all. (It’s worth noting that some people of this time still are speaking Latin, but not as many, and those who do are probably too self-appointedly enlightened to think about beverage names.)
During this era, orgeat is often made partially from bitter almonds, which contain cyanide. Thus the drink, in combination with some other medicines, might soon provide the ultimate coup de grâce that finally kills that great maniac Napoleon, who is known to be a huge fan of it.
Cocktail granddaddy “Professor” Jerry Thomas publishes his bartending guide, “How to Mix Drinks, or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” which contains a recipe for a Japanese Cocktail, a drink he supposedly concocted for the U.N.’s first contingent from Japan, who frequented his bar.
This cocktail uses orgeat as a sweetener, and it is in this moment, in my opinion, that orgeat goes from a stand-alone drink to a mixer. (It is doubtful that Thomas speaks Latin, but one would hope, after all that, he learned a little bit of Japanese.)
1934 or so
The “war to end all wars” is over; the stock market has crashed; and a man called Donn Beach is showing the people of California how fabulous the version of the South Pacific they see on movie posters is by inventing Tiki bars. Most of these folks don’t know what orgeat is, despite consuming it in the Tiki bars’ fruity, exotic drinks such as mai tais. They also can’t pronounce the name, saying things like “or-gee-at” if they mention it at all, which they mostly don’t, unless they’re professional bartenders.
This is because orgeat has been reduced — literally — to a syrup made of almonds or almond milk, sugar, and rose or orange flower that lends a caky note to otherwise-fruity libations, rounding out the flavors as a mixer the way a slice of cake turns a handful of raspberries into a dessert.
It now lives under the bar with the other bitters, mixers and simple syrups that form the palette that midcentury mixologists use to create the cocktails that will later inspire the groovy hi-fi sound stylings of Yma Sumac. How the word “orgeat” went from referring to an intentionally bland drink once sipped as a probable digestive aid by European peasants to a cocktail sweetener so decadent it tastes like liquid marzipan is a linguistic mystery. But it might have something to do with how few people now speak Latin for any reason at all.
There are many forms of orgeat, from cheap industrial imitations cut with corn syrup to bespoke craft products manufactured from socially responsible, cruelty-free almonds never once grazed by the harsh slap of pesticide.
Because roughly half of California seems given over to almond farming now, it is cost-effective and easy to make your own orgeat, either from almond milk or ground almonds soaked in water — sweet almonds, at this point. Bitter almonds rarely are found in any amount in modern orgeat (see above incident re: Napoleon).
Also worth nothing: Certain health-conscious individuals are once again drinking barley water for dietary reasons. They do not refer to it as orgeat, however, because that word now means something else entirely. No one wants to get confused, after all this time.