Build-A-Bar: Thinking Outside the Box with Fish Sauce

One of the things I find important in thinking about and creating cocktails is not feeling constrained. While classic cocktails, time-tested ratios, and common ingredients can certainly provide a good foundation on which to build, they certainly shouldn't be seen as tight strictures. Some of the most interesting cocktails I've been served or served to others utilized very unorthodox ingredients.

I started thinking down that path back in January, when I collaborated on a cocktail project with Chris Frankel. It had started out as a lark, but ended up being fun, informative, and delicious. Chris and I have since talked about doing a running series of cocktails based around unusual, seemingly unworkable ingredients. We're still going to get around to that, one of these days.

In the meantime, I started working on one such idea. Trying to think of the most ridiculous cocktail components possible, I lit on the idea of fish sauce. Chris actually ran through a few drinks, but we could never get out of the way of the salty, fishy funk. To be honest, they were all pretty terrible.

Then, while talking with Alex and Aki from Ideas In Food, the subject came up again. The two suggested a simple restructuring of ratio, using the fish sauce as you might bitters, rather than as a large-volume component of the drink. I took the step to its logical conclusion, fashioning my own brand of Nước Mắm Bitters.

Basically a combination of Peychaud's and fish sauce, aged to combine and mellow the flavor, these bitters keep the savory punch of fermented fish, while toning down the salt and bringing in some fruity and spicy nuance. They're still an unusual ingredient, but one I've had a lot of fun playing around with.

I still haven't found the perfect drink in which to utilize this new, wildly inventive ingredient, but I've come across a few winning possibilities. The best of these combines the bitters with rye, gin, Cocchi Americano, and yuzu juice. The rye picks up the depth of the fish sauce, while the Cocchi and yuzu lighten it admirably. The combination is mouth watering, with a subtly peachy flavor and insane depth. A little more tweaking, and I'll be ready to reveal the full recipe, here. I know you can't wait.

Whether you want to try your hand at something as off the wall as fish sauce, or would prefer to stick to more ordinary out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, it's a great way to learn about how flavors pair with one another, and to expand the way you think about cocktails. Who knows, your combination of aquavit, dry vermouth, and avocado just might be a classic one day.

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