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Savory Cocktail Ingredients Open Up Fresh Galaxies of Flavor

At Selva, a cocktail bar in Oaxaca de Juárez, bartender Elias Perez serves Virgen de Guadalupe, a Bloody Mary riff named for one of Mexico’s most beloved visions. Its tomato, celery, and citrus are familiar enough. One ingredient, however, has strayed from its ancient home and, in its odyssey, been remolded: this Virgen is dosed with garum.

Scholars tussle over the semantics of garum, but they broadly agree (with asterisks, footnotes, and fulsome howevers and notwithstandings) that the term describes ancient Mediterranean sauces made of fish liquified by enzymes in their viscera. After fermenting for months in tanks called cetariae, rich, heady fluids emerged in a range of earth tones from amber to umber and nearly pitch. Romans overwhelmingly preferred garum over salt to enhance meals. Legionnaires drank it with water. As Imperial Rome faltered, however, garum floundered, then all but disappeared.

Experimental chefs and bartenders embrace these sauces with a common refrain: They make things taste more like themselves.

In the last decade, fermentation aficionados have rediscovered garum. Some abide by old methods: fish, guts, water, and salt. Others cultivate koji or use commercial enzymes to liquify cheese, lamb, egg whites, insects, poultry, and other protein-rich foods. These sauces are teeming with amino acids. One in particular, glutamate, is celebrated for conveying umami, that delicious, satisfying taste sensation found in drinks such as Micheladas, kimoto sake, green tea, and Caesars. Experimental chefs and bartenders embrace these sauces with a common refrain: They make things taste more like themselves.

At the Lisbon restaurant Can the Can, chef Pedro Almeida champions Portugal’s preserved fish industry, including garum. Its history in Portugal is ancient; nearby Tróia is the archaeological site of the largest fish sauce manufactory known from the Roman era. Almeida makes small batches of seafood garums in his kitchen, but in 2021, he joined a cross-disciplinary team at Tróia’s coastal ruins. There, in a tank unused for some 1,500 years, the group transformed 400 kilos of sardines with local salt into luxurious, honey-hued liquid, a grand garum as once might have shipped across the empire from its westernmost province.

Bar manager Danny Luis works Almeida’s garums into drinks, including a house-made vermouth, and the Tróia cocktail, his nod to local history, with gin, basil, and tomato water. Garum’s salt alone can enhance a drink’s flavors, but its amino acids hit different taste receptors and can impart cheesy, nutty, and rich aromas—even elements of leather and cured tobacco—that salt cannot. “I love it on toasts when I’m drinking beers with friends,” says Luis. Both he and Almeida agree that garum should be used in drops. “Four or maybe five,” Almeida says. “Just enough to intensify flavors. If it tastes like fish, it’s too much.”

Unlike Almeida’s mostly orthodox garums, garum de cotija in Perez’s cocktail at Selva teeters on the cusp of heresy. Made with yellow corn and cotija cheese at a nearby fermentation workshop called Labo Fermento, it is a wonderfully complex example of what an increasing number of makers, influenced by Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky’s 2020 book, Koji Alchemy, call an “amino sauce.” The term describes sauces and condiments that start with high-protein ingredients and rely on enzymes to rend those proteins into amino acids. René Redzepi and David Zilber’s manual The Noma Guide to Fermentation had previously detailed how such umami-rich amino sauces (which they called “garums”) could be made with koji. Because koji supplies enzymes needed to break proteins into amino acids, it bumped fish—and their guts—from the roster of definitive ingredients to merely optional. The revelation that any protein-heavy food, from brewer’s yeast to chicken wings, could be transformed into these sorts of ersatz garums opened paths to new flavors for brave souls the world over.

Amino sauce making with koji is something like dry-aging, but faster. And wetter. In Japanese, koji-kin refers to spores of Aspergillus oryzae, an ancient culinary mold essential in the creation of sake, amazake, miso, mirin, and other traditional food and drinks. It is a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine. Koji in English encompasses strains of that mold as well as grains such as rice or barley that have been inoculated with it. Sauce makers blend these grains with high-protein foods, salt, and water. As koji grows, it produces a battery of enzymes including amylase and protease that unlock intense flavors by breaking large molecules with little or no taste into flavorful small ones.

[The Dead Rabbit’s Chris] Stanley buttresses [the Pearl Diver’s] spiced mix of honey and butter with the garum. It is, he says, “the best thing I have ever put in my face.”

“The difference in flavor between something that’s been enzymatically treated versus something that hasn’t is incredible,” says Chris Stanley. “You develop additional flavors, but you also change its core flavor. It’s an exercise in subtleties.” Stanley is head of prep and production at The Dead Rabbit in New York City, where he makes modifiers, including amino sauces of his own invention, for the bar’s drinks. “I made exactly one of the garums out of the Noma book. It was the bee pollen one and now I make it all the goddamned time for exactly one reason: I love Pearl Divers.” The drink was Don the Beachcomber’s iced inversion of hot buttered rum. Stanley buttresses its spiced mix of honey and butter with the garum. It is, he says, “the best thing I have ever put in my face.”

All of these sauces deliver umami punch-ups that Stanley describes as “middle ground between a texture and a flavor, where it’s a more satisfying version of whatever’s treated with the garum.” Those who hesitate to make their own can buy sauces from Labo Fermento, Can the Can, and other small producers. As a stand-in for Roman-style garum, cognoscenti sometimes turn to Red Boat, a popular brand of Vietnamese fish sauce.

Jeffery Morgenthaler has another solution. For his new bar, Pacific Standard in Portland, Oregon, Morgenthaler wanted to make a Bloody Mary that guests might enjoy throughout the day. He turned to a pantry staple to make a simple and potent amino sauce. After lengthening the drink with water left it tasting washed out, he restored zestiness with citric acid, then amplified tomato and Worcestershire meatiness with refined glutamate in its most readily accessible form: monosodium glutamate. Simple MSG powder in minuscule amounts—batched with lemon juice, water, black pepper, and other spices, then mixed last minute with tomato juice and vodka—gave the drink an umami glow-up. “The bartenders love it. For them, it’s only a three-ingredient cocktail,” Morgenthaler says.

“And,” he notes, “it’s fucking fantastic.”

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