Here’s a seaworthy experiment: Next time you order fresh shucked oysters, skip the traditional pairings of Champagne, Muscadet, and other crisp whites, and look to scotch. Both experiences are about terroir, the environmental factors that give a crop its unique character.
It’s much like the old adage, “If it grows together, it goes together.” Scotch whisky (spelled without the “e”) distilleries often are a stone’s throw from where oysters grow. Whisky derives its terroir from the place where it is distilled and matured, just as an oyster’s comes from its marine surroundings.
When pairing the two, “you find different layers within the whisky and the oysters,” said Simon Brooking, scotch brand ambassador at Beam Suntory. “It’s a natural pairing for our Islay distilleries, as they are whiskies of the sea itself.”
Oysters grow well around Islay, an island off Scotland, especially in the northern tidal estuary of Loch Gruinart, just north of distilleries like Bowmore, Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig. A whisky’s smoke brings out the sweetness in the oyster, while oyster brine adds a gentle salinity to the whisky.
Oysters long have been paired with scotch on Islay. “Scotch has this ability to work well with certain kinds of food where wine is tricky,” said John Glaser, founder and whisky maker at Compass Box. The peaty flavor in scotch comes from the malting process, when dried barley absorbs smoke aromas from burning bog sod used in drying. “The alcohol content does help cut through, but there is something about the smoky characteristics that complements the sea characteristic of oysters,” he said.
Glaser said he enjoys going to places specializing in oysters, like Watchman’s in Atlanta, where he likes to take a peaty scotch, like his Compass Box Peat Monster, in a dropper bottle and carefully put a little on the oysters to accent them.
“An oyster shell is the original shot glass,” Beam Suntory’s Brooking said. “Looking at the vessel itself, it’s the best cup to drink whisky from.” He sees oyster brine as a key part of the oyster taste experience. The saltiness prepares the mouth for the rounded, luxuriousness of the oyster.
“The most fun way is to eat the oyster, saving a bit of brine, then fill the cup with scotch, making a little cocktail of oyster liquor and whisky liquor,” Glaser added. “It’s a great way to swallow your oyster.”
Brooking likes to pair oysters with Bowmore 12-year, a scotch that offers citrus notes, smoke and honey flavors, and a bit of brininess. A dram pairs well with medium-flavored oysters like Kusshi and Hama Hama from the Northwest. Soft brine gives way to melon flavors. They are a natural fit for an Islay whisky, with the quick salinity on the front and a refreshing cucumber finish marrying with the peat.
Talisker whisky, from the windswept Isle of Skye, is peppery, smoky, and has salt air characteristics that pair well with Olympia oysters from the Pacific Northwest. The light smoke and sea spray fruitiness plays off the meaty, mushroom flavors of the oysters.
A little bolder, Laphroaig Quarter Cask has a creamy quality from wood oils imbued by using small barrels. Its earthiness contrasts beautifully with plump and super briny Island Creek oysters from Massachusetts. Laphroaig Triple Wood is smooth and richly flavored, with baking spices and a pop of citrus. Try it with bluepoints from Long Island Sound. The earthy oyster, with a firm texture and medium salinity, matches with the smoky-sweet meatiness of the scotch.
Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for BenRiach Distillery, likes to match oysters with the subtle smokiness of the Curiositas 10 year peated. It’s initially sweet, malty and smoky. Miles Macquarrie of Watchman’s and Kimball House paired it with Disco Hamas from Discovery Bay in Washington. One slurp, and the initial briny punch gives way to a creamy flavor of the sea, matching wonderfully with the salinity and smoky essence of the Speyside whisky.
For a taste of the South, pair Atlanta-made ASW Burns Night single malt with Point aux Pin oysters farmed in Alabama. The firm, meaty oysters can match the richness of the marriage of light peat and sweet, meaty flavor in the whisky.
The next time you order a dozen oysters, give peat a chance.
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