For Andrew O’Reilly, it was love at first dram.
While studying wine in France (he’s now the wine director at New York City’s Oceana restaurant), O’Reilly decided to take his education in an unconventional direction by writing his dissertation not on Burgundies or bubbly, but on Scotch whisky maker Laphroaig. Seated at a bar in Bowmore—a tiny town on the windswept Scottish island of Islay, not far from the Laphroaig distillery—he faced a question that would lead to a gastronomic epiphany: “I’m sitting at the bar with a big plate of oysters, and the bartender says, ‘Would you like a whisky to go with it?’”
Through all his studies of flavor profiles and food pairings, the notion of placing oysters alongside Scotch whisky had never occurred to O’Reilly. “[The bartender] poured a couple of things,” O’Reilly says, “And I was just like, ‘This is fantastic. Why isn’t this a regular part of my life?’”
Oysters, it turns out, pair fantastically with whiskey, particularly Scotch whiskys from Scotland’s coastal regions, which provide a certain mix of spice, salinity, and (often) smoke that can simultaneously complement an oyster’s brininess while also cutting right through its rich creaminess. It’s a nearly surreal sort of symbiosis in which one side of the duo both echoes and contrasts with flavors from the other, opening up an entirely new way to enjoy oysters beyond the traditional Champagne or white wine companion.
And yet, as O’Reilly observes, “no one really thinks about it.”
“I think the biggest issues with the American consumer is that with oysters we are so trained that it has to be Champagne, or it has to be Chablis, or something bright and crisp, like Sancerre,” says Adam Petronzio, wine director at Porter House Bar and Grill in New York City. “There are all sorts of ways we need to un-train ourselves to think about pairings.”
Petronzio—who first learned of the whisky-oyster duo a decade ago while sampling West Coast oysters with friends in Oregon—is still firmly on board with Champagne-oyster pairings. But he’s also respectful of the notion that “If it grows together, it goes together,” he says. Champagne, after all, grows fairly far inland in northeastern France, far from the oyster beds of the North Atlantic. In Scotland, barley fields line that country’s abundant coastlines, and distilleries often produce and age Scotch whisky mere feet from some of the best oyster-producing waters in the country.
It’s no accident then that just a short walk up the hill from the waterfront Talisker Distillery on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, a tiny, mostly outdoor seafood shack known appropriately as The Oyster Shed draws huge lunchtime crowds with massive platters of freshly shucked, local oysters. Or that Ardbeg, on Islay, occasionally hosts oyster-whisky pairings on the jetty just outside its seaside distillery. Or that a bar in Bowmore offers up drams of lightly smoky Scotch alongside oysters plucked from the waters around Islay.
Yet the notion of putting oysters and Scotch together on the same table remains foreign to most consumers outside Scotland.
“People think you can’t pair spirits with oysters, and there’s absolutely no foundation for that whatsoever,” says Diageo global whisky master Ewan Gunn. “Some of the great seafood restaurants in Scotland, that’s a pairing they often introduce people to, partly because people are always very surprised. But it’s not just something for fancy restaurants. If you think about where most of the smoky whiskeys that are made in Scotland are produced, they’re generally produced on the islands or in the coastal distilleries, often very near where oysters are found. It’s a combination that’s enjoyed locally in those places and has been for many, many years.”
Gunn fell in love with the pairing outside a seaside restaurant on the Isle of Skye many years ago, where he was first encouraged not only to enjoy a sip of whisky alongside some oysters but to pour a dollop of Scotch into the half shell with the oyster itself, consuming both together. “This is a really vivid memory for me, because at the time, these were flavors that I knew separately,” he says. “But when you brought them together it was just an explosion of taste, each bringing out flavors in the other.”
Pairing spirits with food can prove a tricky business, particularly when many spirits can be quite assertive. Complementing the flavor profiles found in oysters poses an even greater challenge, hence the tendency to fall back on proven standbys like Champagne. “Oysters can be very subtle, and they have many subtle flavors, but the taste of an oyster is very present,” Petronzio says. “It’s not something that’s very light and ethereal.” But it’s that presence that makes whisky a natural fit, particularly those whiskeys with some spice and—depending on the taste of the consumer—some smoke that can stand up to the oysters’ forcefulness, complementing their salinity while cutting through that silky creaminess.
“I would definitely be looking for a distillery that has some of that coastal element to it,” Gunn says. “A lot of coastal distilleries, when you’re nosing a taste, you do get a very subtle briny, salty-air kind of note, particularly when you’re smelling it. I’d be looking for that, because that that does complement the aroma and the flavor really nicely.”
Gunn, generally speaking, prefers something like a Talisker with its medium smoke and peppery spice that can push through the brininess of even the most aggressive oyster. Petronzio turns to smokier Islay Scotches to pair with U.S. East Coast oysters and their saltier flavor profile but will often look inland to Speyside or the Highlands—Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or and Dalwhinnie are favorites—to complement the subtler fruity and vegetal notes associated with West Coast oysters.
For O’Reilly, it’s tough to beat a smoky 10-year-old Ardbeg whisky with a good, briny East Coast oyster like a Pemaquid from Maine, though he’ll look as far away as Ireland for an unpeated Teeling Small Batch as well if the oyster (or consumer) requires something unpeated. The key, of course, is balance, he says—knowing what whisky you enjoy and finding a good fresh oyster that strikes the right notes (or vice versa).
You can also simply ask a professional, like himself, for help in finding the right pairing. Following a whisky-oyster tasting O’Reilly set up to assist in research for this story, he even ruminated on the possibility of adding a whisky-oyster pairing to the menu at Oceana to help more people find an entry point into what he sees as a highly underrated food-drink pairing. “No one else is doing it,” he says. “And it works. Obviously.”
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