Pairing Cocktails and Naked Oysters

by Bekah Angoff
Original recipes below.

Pairings can be a real challenge with oysters. The delicate nature of every slurp is at risk of being masked by sharp wafts of alcohol or other strong aromas within the drink.

In a previous blog entry, I took on the challenge of showing how one quintessential pairing could be different based on which varietal oyster was in hand. After the post came out and more flavor based discussions around the office, we came up with the tasting wheel as a way to take some of the guesswork out of describing those nuanced flavors, which had an effect in the pairing process.  Once the wheel became commonplace for us, I wanted to really take it for a spin into the world of craft cocktails.

The research I preliminarily accumulated on cocktail and oyster pairings showed a few not-so-favorable suggestions: 1. strong, juniper infused gin is the way to go; 2. the martini is king (you know, because we can’t get enough gin!); 3. complex drinks are paired with garnished oysters; and 4. adding citrus to anything makes it work with seafood. I was horribly disappointed in the lack of creative information out there.

Pairings can be a real challenge with oysters. The delicate nature of every slurp is at risk of being masked by sharp wafts of alcohol or other strong aromas within the drink. The heat, or volatility of alcohol, can perk up unwanted aromatic components or mask delicate textures. Think about taking a shot of tequila, and then recovering from the experience. Yes – recovering. The extreme heat of the alcohol will temporarily incapacitate your taste buds.

I called in a local professional to aid me in the process, Cambridge bartender, Patrick Gaggiano. In our first meeting, I gave him a copy of the tasting wheel, and then asked him to create a few simple cocktails with the finish section of the wheel in mind and with relatively low alcohol content to not bring up any volatility issues. I did not tell him which oysters I was bringing to our next meeting, and I did not want him to tell me what cocktails he would be making, so no biases or assumptions could be made before the tasting. I decided to go with oysters in the same categories at the prior wine pairing session. For the East Coast, I chose three oysters: one sweet, one briny, and one with mineral notes. For the West Coast, I chose one creamy and one briny with mineral notes. These broad categories were chosen so they could be applied to other oysters with similar flavor profiles.

I arrived at Patrick’s bar one week later, and shucked the five different oysters while he stirred and shook his own selection. He described each one and pointed out where they might fall on the tasting wheel. I then suggested which oysters were appropriate. Once all the cocktails were completed, we sat down and started the show. After many slurps and sips, here is what we came up with:
 

An effervescent citrus cocktail and a creamy West Coast oyster are exceptionally matched.

A Paloma paired with a Kusshi from British Columbia was a satisfying complementary pairing. The tequila in this drink is light, and does not shock the palate; while the grapefruit’s sour juice slices through the creamy meat. The extra pinch of salt in the cocktail was a pleasant addition, as the Kusshi is not briny, and a little salt helps the cucumber and grassy notes to shine through, while mellowing the metal finish.
 

A smoky and sweet cocktail warms and intensifies a mineral East Coast oyster.

A Pemaquid, from Damariscotta Maine, is a deep, meaty, and umami laden oyster with a slight slate and butter finish. Patrick paired this with a smoky and fruity drink made from mezcal (smoky), Luxardo (sweet), and Punt e Mes (a bitter vermouth). The drink and oyster stood up to one another with such force when separate, but once combined, snuggled against each other in my mouth like a child in a warm blanket. The mouthfeel was steak-like, with smoke, mushroom and woody notes, combined with a silky texture. Hands down, this was the best combination we came up with.
 

A slightly bitter and sweet cocktail balances a mineral West Coast oyster

The next cocktail was a pleasant blood orange aperitif, made with bitters, fresh blood orange juice, and Cocchi Americano (a citrusy and bitter Italian vermouth), which we paired with a Capital oyster from Harstine Island, WA. The sharp salt from the oyster brought out the flowery notes in the blood orange, and the bitter elements of the drink gave more depth to the oyster than was there before.
 

Lightly perfumed cocktails tame briny East Coast oysters.

A salt bomb, like a Quonnie Rock, from Rhode Island, doesn’t usually show its complexity until the finish. Patrick was worried about the Chrysanthemum #2, as it was possibly too aromatic for the task at hand. On the contrary, the herbal and intricate green Chartreuse and the sweet Benedictine (an orange-y brandy) in the drink helped to bring out some of the sweet lettuce and citrus nature of the oyster, while the salt in the oyster sharpened the complex drink.
 

And then, there was the one that threw us for a loop. There were two cocktails left, and one oyster to pair with them. There was failure all around. We were stumped. What do you pair with a sweet east coast oyster, like a Standish Shore, that won’t completely destroy it? Based on some of the interactions above, we decided that we needed to use something sweet to enhance the signature sweetness of the oyster.
 

Sweet and astringent cocktails love a sweet East Coast oyster.

As sweet heightens sweet, a modified Negroni made the Standish Shore taste like candy, fresh from the ocean. We used Amaro Montenegro, which is sweet and slightly bitter, with notes of sherry, another oyster-loving spirit. The astringency of the cocktail stops the sweetness from impeding the buttery finish of the oyster, while the crisp and delicate French gin makes sure the brine stays sharp

What we can conclude from this session: cocktails aren’t too complex to be effectively and appropriately paired with different oysters. Not all oysters will go with all cocktails, so make sure to know which oyster flavor profile you are indulging in. To find harmony, eat your oysters without sauce or garnish, enjoy their unique qualities, note them on the wheel. Experiment with different spirits and cocktail combinations and let us know what you discover!


Original Cocktail Recipes

Paloma
Paired with Kusshi, Cortes Island, BC

1.75 tequila blanco
.5oz lime juice
.75oz grapefruit juice
.25oz simple syrup
2 pinch salt

Shake, pour over ice, and top with soda water in a Collins glass

The One We Really Liked
Paired with Pemaquid, Damariscotta, ME

1.5oz El Buho Mezcal
.5oz Luxardo Maraschino
.5oz Punt e Mes
.5oz Aperol

Stir with ice and strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass - garnish with orange zest

Broadway and Elm
Paired with Capital, Harstine Island, WA

1.75oz Cocchi Americano
.75oz blood orange juice
.25oz St George Terroir
2 dash Peychauds bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a coupe

Chrysanthemum #2
Paired with Quonnie Rock, Quonochontaug Pond, RI

2oz Dolin dry vermouth
.75oz Benedictine
.25oz green Chartreuse

Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe rinsed with St. George Absinthe Vert

Montenegro Negroni
Paired with Standish Shore, Duxbury, MA

1oz Citadelle Gin
1oz Corzano Rosso Sweet Vermouth
1oz Amarao Montenegro

Stir with ice, strain into a rocks glass - garnish with orange zest