You’ve nailed the perfect Bloody Mary recipe: It’s spicy, savory and just the right consistency. Maybe you even went wild and swapped the vodka for gin to make a Red Snapper, or with tequila to make a Bloody Maria. You can do all of that and make a Bloody that is 99 percent perfect, but that’s as far as you’re going to get. You’ll never hit true perfection unless you add fish sauce.
Fish sauce is pure umami, but admittedly the smell can throw people off. An open bottle ushers in a wave of fermented fish aroma. But get past that or learn to love it, because the flavor is more subtle when properly blended into a Bloody Mary. Fish sauce’s strength is that it boosts the flavors around it. It doesn’t make things taste too fishy or funky, it just makes things better. Added to a Bloody Mary, it’s like driving your taste buds away from the land of lackluster, soupy tomato juice and straight into Tastytown.
At its most basic, and best, version, fish sauce is made with just two ingredients: anchovies and salt. Anchovies naturally contain glutamates, the compound that gives the taste of umami. Each 100 grams of anchovies has 630 milligrams of naturally occurring glutamate, according to the Umami Information Center. That’s about double the glutamate in cured ham, and more than just about every other food besides dried shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, Parmigiano Reggiano and pure MSG powder.
There’s no excuse for not adding fish sauce to your Bloody Mary. Traditional fish sauce made in the same way that people have been making it for thousands of years can be found just about everywhere. Red Boat, which started in Vietnam in 2011, is one of those brands. They keep things simple, starting with finger sized black anchovy hauled in from the Gulf of Thailand. The fish are treated with sea salt on the boat, then brought to a barrel house where they’re put into 12-ton wooden barrels. The anchovies ferment and break down over a period of about 12 months before the juice is pressed out and filtered. After all that, it’s ready for your Bloody Mary.
Nothing about that production method is new, which is fine because there’s no need to change a good thing. Fish sauce made in this way has a long history of being an all-purpose ingredient that can turn something “meh” into something “holy sh*t that’s good.” It’s been a staple in Thailand, Vietnam (where 200 million liters are consumed annually) and other regions in Southeast Asia since ancient times. The Romans also had a version that was used throughout the Roman Empire. And the first iteration of ketchup was a Chinese take on Vietnamese fish sauce, although three centuries of condiment appropriation turned it into an unrecognizable tomato-based concoction. Despite this history and people’s tendency to put literally everything into a Bloody Mary, fish sauce still isn’t as widely used in drinks as it should be.
Western cultures are catching on to its power as a flavor enhancer, though. James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd is a fish sauce evangelist, as are many of the growing number of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in cities around the country. You will be too as soon as you try it in a Bloody Mary.
“People are discovering it,” Betsy Fox, the chief marketing officer of Red Boat, tells Supercall. “The more traditional uses overshadow the drinks a little bit, but it’s amazing to me to see how people have been able to take fish sauce out of just Asian food.”
Everyone is looking for the secret to the best Bloodys, whether it’s the best pre-made mix or the best hot sauce. And while the words “fermented anchovy juice” don’t exactly inspire Western drinkers right off the bat, it truly is the secret you’ve been looking for. Just an ounce of fish sauce in your standard Bloody Mary makes it magical, and it shouldn’t be made any other way.