the mai tai: variation on a theme 01 | a peek inside emily han’s “wild drinks + cocktails”

This week, I am super stoked to highlight a book from one of my favorite cocktail creators, Emily Han. Emily just released her book, Wild Drinks and Cocktails, which is filled with a bevy of recipes to add to cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, alike. The pages are brimming with beautiful photos and recipes for handcrafted syrups, shrubs, bitters, infusions, squashes, and switchels. I’d like to think that this book was written personally for me. If she lived here in Colorado, I just know we’d be fast friends, scouring the Front Range for cocktail components!

Emily’s book is my favorite addition to my kitchen counter all year. It won’t be collecting dust anytime soon. She gave me special permission to share one of my favorite recipes from her book, and since I’ve been on a Tiki cocktail kick recently, I felt that making her hazelnut orgeat, a nut-based syrup used in many a Tiki drink, would be fitting. Let’s meet Emily, learn how to make her hazelnut orgeat, craft a classic Mai Tai, and put a creative spin on this classic.

And I won’t judge you, if you decide to make one before noon on a Wednesday!

variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails"

I first came across Emily through the Kitchn, where we both regularly contribute. I was immediately intrigued by her garden-inspired creations, well-written recipes, and her vast knowledge of wildcrafting and foraging. She is one of the forerunners of the revival of the craft cocktail movement, focusing on locally sourced ingredients, handcrafted components, and time-honored traditions.

Emily’s ease and confidence lured me further into the world of handcrafted cocktails. In fact, I made my first shrub using one of Emily’s recipes. After few pages into her book, I’m sure you’ll be ready stretch your garden bounty into the realm of cocktails, head out into the wild to source native plants, or amp up your knowledge of herbs.

variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails"

classic mai tai cocktail

  • 2 ounces aged rum {I used Dancing Pines’ Cask}
  • 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce orange curaçao
  • 1/4 ounce rich simple syrup {see notes below}
  • 1/4 ounce orgeat {recipe to follow}
  • 1 cup crushed ice {I opted for cubed ice}
  • 1 sprig of mint for garnish {I subbed sage from the garden}
  1. In a mixing tin, add the aged rum, lime juice, orange curaçao, rich simple syrup, and orgeat.
  2. Fill tin with ice and shake well.
  3. Fill a cocktail glass with crushed ice or fresh ice cubes and pour cocktail mixture into the glass.
  4. Top with a fresh sprig of mint or sage for a more fall-inspired flavor and sip away.
  • To make the rich simple syrup, combine 2 cups sugar with 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil, lower heat, and simmer for 3 minutes until mixture is dissolved. Let cool before using.

variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails"

I think I can safely say that most of us have had a Mai Tai of some sort before. I say “some sort” because so many Mai Tais stray so far away from the original, simple recipe. I think I had my first one at an unnamed chain restaurant in Lakeland, Florida. It was sugary sweet, most likely sweetened with bottled sour mix, doused with a hefty pour of spiced rum, topped off with canned pineapple juice, and garnished with a sad piece of pineapple and a soggy Maraschino cherry.

That was the last one I tried until a visit to Hawaii a few years ago, where I had the most glorious version, complete with house-made orgeat and freshly juiced limes. The claim to the original recipe belongs to one of two gentleman, Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber. It’s an unsettled debate. Regardless, the recipe is quite simple, calling only for Martinique and Jamaican rum, orgeat, lime juice, and orange curaçao.

The addition of pineapple juice to a Mai Tai is a more modern twist, and there are both good and bad versions out there. If you have access to a fresh pineapple, chop it up and juice it. It’s so much more delicious than the packaged, pasteurized stuff. And if you are still buying bottled lemon or lime juice, stop it! I know I’m preaching, but there’s nothing like freshly juiced citrus. It’s so easy. Just do it.

Now for the part of the classic cocktail that makes the drink a visceral, decadent experience, hazelnut orgeat.

variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails"

With Emily’s permission, I am sharing her recipe for her hazelnut orgeat, which she features in Wild Drinks and Cocktails. Orgeat {pronounced, “or-ZHA”} is primarily used in Mai Tai cocktails and other Tiki drinks. Orgeat is traditionally an almond-based syrup that has been incorporated into cocktails since the mid-nineteenth century. The texture is silky, the aroma is nutty, and the flavor is slightly sweet. When added to cocktails, orgeat brings a cohesiveness, tying together many of a drink’s other components.

It’s also stellar when combined with sparkling water for a refreshing homemade soda. Per Emily’s suggestion, I have added it to my hot tea with absolutely no complaints. This recipe is extra special to me, since I helped recipe test it for Emily last winter. Many Mai Tais were enjoyed, and I’m thoroughly enjoying some again this week! The process may seem daunting, what with peeling each individual nut, but I try to view the task as a lesson in mindfulness, a moment to get lost and meditate.

hazelnut orgeat

  • 2 cups {8 ounces} blanched hazelnuts {aka filberts}
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • dash orange flower water {optional}
  1. Place the hazelnuts and water in a blender or food processor. Pulse until the hazelnuts are finely chopped but not puréed.
  2. Pour the hazelnuts and water into a bowl, cover it, and let stand for 8 hours or overnight.
  3. Line a fine-mesh strainer with a fine-mesh bag or flour sack cloth and strain the liquid into a saucepan. I used a chinois, and it filtered the particles perfectly.
  4. Squeeze the bag or cloth to extract as much liquid as possible. In my case, I gently pressed the sides of the chinois with a large plastic spoon.
  5. In a saucepan, add the sugar along with the nut mixture and warm the mixture over low heat {but do not boil}, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
  6. Remove from heat and let cool.
  7. Stir in the orange flower water and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
  8. Shake well before using.
  • To blanch the hazelnuts, bring 5 cups of water to a boil in a deep saucepan. Add 1/4 cup of baking soda and the hazelnuts to the pot. The water will foam up and turn a purplish black; be ready with a large spoon and a bowl to skim off any foam that threatens to boil over. Boil the hazelnuts for 3 minutes. Test a hazelnut by rinsing it under cold water; the skin should slip off easily. If the skin clings, boil the hazelnuts a little longer. Drain the hazelnuts and plunge them into a bowl of cold water. Using your hands, rub the skins off the hazelnuts. When you’ve finished peeling all the hazelnuts, give them another rinse and drain. {Method adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Cake Bible, [William Morrow, 1988].}

variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails"

The gardening season here at the house has sadly curled up for its long, winter nap and won’t be back until March. Monday night’s six inches of snow and below-freezing temperatures further solidified the bitter end. I do have some hardy warriors out there, albeit straggly ones, that might yield us another small haul. The kale is sweetening, as it grows into the winter season, and the parsley, if the bunnies don’t get it first, is still producing small, yet pungent, leaves.

Since so many of my recipes call for seasonal, from-the-garden ingredients, and my garden is entering its dormant state, I’m starting a new series for the upcoming months that focuses on the classics. I’ll be sharing a traditional, classic cocktail recipe, along with a creative interpretation, a “variation on a theme”, if you will. In music, a variation is a formal technique, where the original piece is slightly altered and creatively expanded upon. So, here’s the first riff on the Tiki classic, the Mai Tai, with a fall-inspired twist.

fall pomegranate + grilled pineapple mai tai

  • 1 1/2 ounces aged rum {I used Dancing Pines’ Cask}
  • 1 1/2 ounces grilled pineapple juice {see recipe below}
  • 1/2 ounce lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce hazelnut orgeat
  • 1/4 ounce orange curaçao
  • 1/2 teaspoon St. Elizabeth allspice dram
  • 1/4 ounce dark rum
  • 1/2 ounce pomegranate juice
  • pomegranate seeds for garnish
  • sage leaves for garnish
  • sliced pineapple for garnish
  1. In a mixing tin, combine the aged rum, grilled pineapple juice, lime juice, hazelnut orgeat, orange curaçao, and allspice dram.
  2. Fill the tin with ice and shake vigorously until frothy.
  3. Add fresh ice to a cocktail glass and pour the cocktail mixture on top.
  4. Drizzle the dark rum and pomegranate juice, to taste, over the cocktail and add the pomegranate seeds, sage leaves, and pineapple slice for garnish.
  5. You know what to do next.
  • To make the grilled pineapple juice, take half a pineapple, remove the burly skin, and chop into smaller, easy-to-juice pieces. Dust with a little dried ginger powder and a touch of brown sugar and grill at a very high heat. You don’t want to cook or dehydrate the pineapple; you simply want a good char. This step is optional but imparts a toasty, savory note to the cocktail. Now you’re ready to juice the grilled pineapple. Follow the manufacturing directions of your particular model.
  • If you don’t have access to a fresh pineapple, R. W. Knudsen makes a delicious version.
  • Can’t find St. Elizabeth allspice dram? Make your own, like I did. You already have rum on hand, so grab some allspice berries and cinnamon, and you’re set.

variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails" variation on a theme: mai tai | a peek inside emily han's "wild drinks + cocktails"

I’m already into my next recipe from Emily’s book {apple cider water kefir and fig-vanilla rum!}, and I have about a dozen bookmarked for later. Emily is featuring a “blog book tour” throughout the month of November, and I’ve already enjoyed reading what other bloggers have been making from her book. The list of links will expand over the next couple of weeks, so visit her site for an update. Here are a few of my faves so far:

Cheers to a beautiful week ahead, hopefully filled with creative interpretations from all of the inspiration around us. That sentence kind of sounded like a fluffy greeting card, but I really mean it! Maybe it’s just my green tea talking.





Jayme Henderson

I am a sommelier-turned-farmer, who recently moved to Colorado's Western Slope to become a full-time grower of grapes and maker of wine. My husband, Steve, and I own and live on a vineyard, where we craft high-elevation white wine and rosé under our label, The Storm Cellar. I enjoy freelance writing and photography, and I am currently the cocktail columnist for Colorado's Spoke+Blossom magazine. I love playing with our two cats, gardening, mixing drinks, finding (and sipping!) great sparkling wine, cooking, playing the piano, and hiking.



  1. Reply


    November 18, 2015

    Hi there!
    Love this post, full of tidbits and fun facts, the cocktail looks delish as always, and as always i can’t promise that i’ll make it. BUT love learning anything, even if it is hands-off cocktail making – i’m more of a hands-on cocktail drinker 🙂
    Hope you have a happy thanksgiving next week – no work, i hope.

    • Reply

      Jayme Henderson

      November 18, 2015

      Hi, Paula! I’m sorry we didn’t run into each other last night. I was downtown and then hit a wall, plus I’m not drinking at the moment. Ironic, considering this post, right?! Thanks for stopping by {here!}!!

      I’m not working on Thanksgiving, thankfully, but I’m working almost the entire month of December! 😬

      ….sending you a text now! XO!! We will have to have a cocktail-making meet-up. I’d love it!

  2. Reply


    November 18, 2015

    These photos are amazing Jayme! Nice work!

    • Reply

      Jayme Henderson

      November 18, 2015

      Thanks, Steve!! Love you! I will make you one of these, when you get home. XO!! 💋💋💋

  3. Reply

    Sherrie Castellano (@withfoodandlove)

    November 18, 2015

    This is by far my favorite photography of yours to date. I am ***obsessed*** with these photographs, and the color scheme, and story-telling. I’ve never heard of this book, but I WANT IT! Lots of awesome stuff in here my friend, xx!!

    • Reply

      Jayme Henderson

      November 18, 2015


      Thank you SO MUCH! Your words made my day, seriously. I have been trying to figure out my new camera, and I have finally updated all of my software in order to use it, so I’m happy things are looking good! I did some seriously “macro” shots here and used the snow-highlighted light from my window on some of the new tile I got from the tile store. Hee hee! I have a good connection there, who lets me “rent” different surfaces from him. I love him. Not as much as Steve, though! Steve loves him, too…

      You would freak out on this book; I just know it. Emily is a rock star, when it comes to shrubs and cocktails and the like. Her recipes are solid, too. Pick it up, yo! Big Xs and Os to you. PS – come back to Denver. I’ll keep saying it.

  4. Reply

    danielle is rooting the sun

    November 18, 2015

    jayme, thank you for not judging before noon on a wednesday because that may or may not be my fate at times. the hazelnut orgeat is of extreme interest to me – how wonderful an addition (and to tea!?). beautiful photography, that pineapple is a beautiful and stunning creature. xo

    • Reply

      Jayme Henderson

      November 18, 2015

      I am obsessed with bromeliads, the family home to the pineapple. They are so sturdy and produce some of the most beautiful flowers. At one point, my grandfather had nearly 100 pineapples in his backyard garden. I was just a child. If only he and I could garden together today!

      And the tea addition was a great suggestion! I love adding a little of the hazelnut orgeat to black tea, especially. The nutty flavor profile really pairs well with the earthy notes in the tea. Cheers to stealing sips before noon {giggling because I’ve done it, too!}!! XO to you, Danielle!

  5. Reply


    November 25, 2015

    Visceral and decadent?! Holy cow, that sounds amazing! Love your voice and descriptions!

    • Reply

      Jayme Henderson

      November 28, 2015

      Ha!! Glad you liked the descriptions! I should send you the rough draft of our wine list descriptions the best time we write them. You’d get a good laugh! I have to tone them down at times. Visceral and unctuous are two of my favorite descriptors that I reserve only for the most decadent wines and sips. It’s like writing poetry!

      I hope you thoroughly enjoyed your Thanksgiving this year, Jenny!! Hugs your way!!