There are two types of oyster eaters — people who like the occasional oyster, and bona fide oyster fanatics. If you’re not sure, I know a failsafe way to tell which camp you belong to. Day-trippers call the liquid inside the oyster “juice,” and they care no more for it than the water found in a can of tuna — spilling it when they shuck the shell and disregarding it when they slurp the meat. But an oyster lover knows its true name: oyster liquor. They treasure it like liquid gold. An oyster eaten without its liquor is — as the Good Book says — like salt that’s lost its savour; good for nothing and trodden under the foot of men.
“Liquor” is the perfect name, not only because it’s a distilled essence that captures the flavour of the sea, but also because it’s intoxicating and aphrodisiacal. Perhaps it is this fact that led me to venture some strange experiments at my last dinner party. I started infusing cocktails with oyster liquor. It may sound ill advised, but the iconic Canadian cocktail is the Bloody Caesar and that is made with clam juice, which has a much stronger taste and fishier smell than oyster liquor.
After some trial and error, I finally nailed the bull’s-eye: a gin martini with lots of vermouth. And instead of a salty olive, I substituted the strained liquor from an East Coast oyster poured directly into the glass, giving the martini a fresher and slightly salty bite. I used Gordon’s Gin because it has a light, herbal flavour that won’t overwhelm the oyster. The combination was understated, harmonious and popular among my guests.
If you like more floral gins, like Hendrick’s or a true Dutch Jenever, then I recommend using West Coast oysters like Beach Angels. These are stronger and more metallic than East Coasters, so they stand up to the cucumber and lavender notes in the alcohol. In this case, leave out the vermouth. It will just muddy the clean taste of the mollusc.
Sadly, I cannot claim to be the first to hazard mixing bivalves and booze. In South Africa, a whole oyster is sometimes thrown into a shot of tequila. In the 1860’s, in San Francisco, gold-rush miners were accused of doing the same thing with whiskey. However, there are two significant problems with such drinks: first, strong-tasting alcohol kills the subtle taste of the brine. Second, oyster meat floating in alcohol looks like a human appendix preserved in a suspension of formaldehyde.
More discretely, whole oysters are sometimes thrown into dark beer, creating a drink known as the “oyster shooter.” The great beer critic Michael Jackson once called this combination “a sensual drink, albeit awkward to consume.” There is an historic association between oysters and dark stouts, a relationship built partially on the fact that they go splendidly together and partially on Guinness Brewery’s tireless marketing since 1930. Both Guinness and oysters were celebrated in the early 20th century as health food, and combining them was seen as a sort of pre-war Red Bull.
The ultimate beer/oyster beverage is oyster stout, a semi-mythical drink where oyster shells, liquor or meat are somehow integrated into the brewing process. Michael Jackson once wrote that it was one of the only types of beers that he had never tried; breweries in England stopped producing it around 1960. Few even understand why it was made in the first place. Jackson theorized that ground-up oyster shells were used as a fining agent, but when I spoke to brew master Bruce Halstead, he called this a fable. “I don’t see the value in oyster shells for fining. I think it was drunk as a health tonic … In fact, many so-called oyster stouts were just meant to be drunk with oysters — they didn’t have any actual oysters in them.”
Bruce Halstead should know. At the County Durham Brewing Company, he makes one of the world’s only true oyster stouts, made with real oyster juice and his Black Kat Stout. Unfortunately, this concoction is only available at one place, Toronto’s Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill. Starfish’s irrepressible owner, Patrick McMurray, asked County Durham to make this proprietary brew with the leftover liquor from his restaurant. “Five litres of liquor is added to each keg — that’s about 1000 oysters.” says McMurray.
Starfish’s oyster stout is utterly delicious. Like all good stouts, it has a creamy texture and layers of chocolate and smoke. But the protein in the liquor lends it body and a faint hint of brine that you won’t find anywhere else. It even makes Guinness seem a little thin. “A lot of people ask for it, but you can only drink one or two,” says Patrick with a chuckle.
When I visited him, Patrick taught me many new things about the art of mixing oysters with liquor. For example, he throws the whole oyster into the cocktail shaker and then strains it out with the ice. “The oyster bruises and releases its flavour into the alcohol. Then you replace the meat on the half shell and take it as a chaser.” Then came his Malpeque Martini and then his Vodka Horseradish Caesar Shot. I did my best to keep up. Soon some other perceptive diners at the bar started ordering oyster cocktails and joining the fun. I knew at once who these people were: bona fide oyster fanatics.