Although it's been building momentum as of late, the combination of oysters and single malt should hardly be viewed as mere trend; they've been soulmates from the start. The maritime notes of a luscious bivalve reverberate in the finish of a fine scotch — particularly those distilled and aged upon the craggy, seaside shoals of Islay, on the western border of the U.K.
Half a world away, San Francisco is blessed with access to some of the finest oysters, well, anywhere. Since the city is also known to fancy a dram of whisky from time to time, it should surprise no one that local restaurants and bars are embracing this intuitive pairing. And if you don't feel like going out, it's easy enough to enjoy the experience right in your home kitchen.
[jump] The first step in the process is landing on the appropriate whisky. “The way salt air effects the aging process in Islay malt, links the flavors found in the whisky, to the oysters,” explains H. Ehrmann, owner of Elixir, the historic saloon in the Mission. “It's all about the commonality of the salinity in the salt air and water. Because the salinity works with the flavors developed in malt whisky aged beside the sea, it also compliments the oyster.”
Bowmore bottles a variety of single malts that fit the bill, all accessibly priced. The 12 Year Old is always a safe bet, with its subtle smoke and lingering threads of brine. It costs just under $50 at most city liquor stores. Their 15 Year Old, finished for three years in sherry casks is even more complex, introducing a touch of sweetness into the fold.
Now you'll need the shellfish. Hog Island Oyster Co. down at the Ferry Building is a perennial favorite. If you'd like some sent directly to your door, from the Pacific Northwest, Taylor Shellfish Farms is a reliable source. Two particularly workable varieties — Shigoku and Kumamoto — can be shipped overnight for about $20/dozen. But the premiere oyster for the pairing is a precious Bay Area native known as the Olympia. Rare, and not much bigger than a nickel in diameter, if you see them, buy them. They were practically bred to partner up with a sherry cask finished Islay malt.
Next up is perfecting the technique. This involves four steps; sip a touch of brine directly from the shell in order to prime the palate. Wash this down immediately with a drop of the whisky — not much more than it takes to wet your lips. Now you're ready for the oyster itself. Don't slurp it! Use a small fork to pluck it from its shell, leaving the surrounding liquid in place. Then the grand finale — pour a swallow of whisky into the shell to coalesce with the brine, and shoot it down in one glorious motion. In the finish, you'll discover true alchemy. It is not uncommon for folks skeptical of both scotch and oysters to discover pleasure in this particular moment.
One drawback of DIY is that it requires shucking, a daunting task to the novice. So if you want to leave the pairing to the professionals, Hog and Rocks is happy to accommodate. Also consider The Dorian in the Marina, which just rolled out a Bowmore Oyster Luge last weekend. Half dozen shucked oysters are served alongside a 2 ounce pour of Bowmore 12 Year Old.
“The subtle notes of lemon and honey, and the balanced peatiness of Bowmore scotch brings out the flavor of the oysters in a whole different way than your typical champagne or white wine pairing,” says Anderson Pugash of The Dorian. “Plus, it's just a lot of fun drinking whisky out of an oyster!”