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The next time you shuck open a dozen oysters or order an icy platterful, consider skipping the usual glass of sparkling wine or Muscadet. Instead, follow your heart and drink what you’re really craving this time of year: bourbon.
Kenton’s, the first New Orleans opening from Sean Josephs and Mani Dawes of NYC’s bourbon-centric Maysville, is equally as impressive, whiskey-wise, as its New York brother. But Kenton's also has an additional bonus attraction: a shiny, brass oyster bar. While your instincts may tell you to consult the wine or cocktail list for an oyster pairing, try turning your attention to the 200-bottle strong whiskey tome instead. It may seem outlandish, but Josephs promises the pairing works. “It combines something sweet with something salty and briny,” he says. Here, a few guidelines for drinking whiskey with oysters.
Younger is better. “There’s so much emphasis on drinking these hard to find bourbons with age on them,” Josephs says. “But they lend themselves the least to being consumed with food—they can overwhelm the subtleties in your dish.” That goes double for mild, nuanced oysters. Josephs recommends opting for bourbons that fall within the three- to six-year age range.
Don’t get too boozy. “With raw oysters, you want to keep the proof lower,” Josephs says. Try something that comes in at 80 or 90 proof. You’ll still get that warming whiskey quality but you’ll avoid the taste bud-decimating burn of some barrel proof bottles. Something like a Four Roses Yellow Label or Bulleit would fit both of Josephs’s age and proof requirements.
Unless they’re cooked, then go big. In addition to its selection of chilled, raw oysters, Kenton’s also features two cooked oyster preparations: fried with pickles with a spicy aioli and fire-roasted with smoked onion, country ham and salsify. “When bolder flavors come into play, a bolder bourbon is more appropriate,” Josephs says. He recommends Elijah Craig 12 Year or Henry McKenna 10 Year.
Try rye. While Josephs is a huge fan of traditional bourbons with oysters, he also makes room for rye whiskey. “Anise and oysters is a pretty classic flavor combination,” he says. “And that’s one of the main characteristics of rye.” He recommends two old-school classics: Sazerac and Old Overholt.
Cool it. There’s one aspect to pairing whiskey with oysters that doesn’t deviate from typical oyster pairing technique: the drink needs to be crisp and cool. “It doesn’t matter so much when the oysters are cooked, but if you’re pairing them raw, the whiskey should be below room temperature,” Josephs says. He always likes to add ice, regardless of whether he’s eating oysters or not, because of the way it lets the whiskey evolve. “Say you have a 90-proof bourbon and you throw an ice cube in there,” he says. "You take a sip right away, at which point the ice has had little effect on it. But as the ice melts you get less of the alcohol and more of the aroma. You get to taste the change.”