Tasting oysters by themselves is already an amazing thing, but pairing them with a proper drink can do wonders! While I’ve sipped and savored my fair share of wine, champagne, sake, and beer with oysters, the world of cocktails has eluded me. To get a better grip on this decadent duo, I trekked down to The Leadbelly to learn more.
The Leadbelly is what I’d categorize as a “second date” hot spot. This cozy Lower East Side oyster and cocktail den is conveniently situated across the street from its big brother, The Fat Radish. If you’re looking to impress, start at The Fat Radish for dinner and cap the evening off with some cocktails and oysters at The Leadbelly.
My date for the night was my booze specialist friend, Aliza Kellerman. She talks about gin with the same gusto as I reserve for bivalves, and getting exposure to this whole new world was awesome. Anyway, I arrived to The Leadbelly and received a warm welcome from Carmine Scheubel and Alex McNeely. Carmine, the GM, gave me a thorough rundown of the oyster menu. They had 13 varieties available (5 West, 8 East), which was a significant expansion since the last time when I visited (a little over a year ago, I’ll admit). There were even a couple new varieties that I had not tried before! More on that later…
When it comes to oyster and wine pairings, oyster and beer pairings, and even oyster and sake pairings, there exists sets of guidelines that will produce fairly reliable matches. Pairing oysters and cocktails is much trickier to generalize because the category encompasses many different liquors and ingredients. Furthermore, the pressure is really on the bartender or mixologist to execute them well. Unless if you’re asking for a straight up shot, the art of making a cocktail leaves a lot of room for error. Thankfully, we were in very good hands mixologist Alex McNeely.
Although they specialize in oysters and liquor, you won’t find oyster and cocktail pairings written out on the menu. Why is that? The experience here is a decidedly personalized and interactive one. “We try to keep it as a conversation — we like to listen to what the customer wants,” said Alex. So the next time you visit, ask for a recommendation. For us, Alex had four specific pairings in mind.
Montauk Pearl (NY) + Richard Scarry
The Richard Scarry is named after a popular American children’s author and it features Barr Hill Gin, Velvet Falernum, Allspice Dram, Malort, House Apple-Tarragon Syrup. On its own, the Richard Scarry is an enchanting cocktail. I particularly loved the aesthetic of the copper cup. The spices in the drink plays quite well with the briny wash of the petite Montauk Pearls. It was like having the kick of a good mignonette without having to douse the oyster in red wine vinegar.
Other oysters to pair: Mermaid Selects (NY), Fishers Island (NY), Beausoleil (NB), Cape May Salts (NJ).
Alex was kind enough to share his recipe for the Richard Scarry, which I’ve included at the end of this post.
Kumamoto (CA) + A Lush Life
The second pairing was a bit more challenging. A Lush Life — as in a rich life, not a life as a drunk — featured Jalapeno-infused Gin (Alex only used the seeds and membrane of the pepper to minimize vegetal flavors), Mezcal, Thai Basil infused Dolin Blanc Vermouth, Salted Lime Cordial and Soda. On its own, the cocktail was smoky, tangy, and deliciously provocative. West Coast oysters can be a notorious for their overt minerality and vegetal notes. Under some circumstances when the salinity is naturally weak, a fishy flavor also becomes more evident. Tonight, these Kumamotos from Humboldt Bay lacked the briny backbone that is essential to make their quintessential cucumber and melon notes pop. In this case, A Lush Life was a little too lively for the Kumo’s. It simply overpowered the little guys.
Other oysters to pair: Kumiai (MX), Hog Island Sweetwater (CA), Little Skookum (WA).
Fin de la Baie (NB) & Cardinal Sour
The Fin de la Baie or “End of the Bay” oyster is raised in Bouctouche, New Brunswick by Little Shemogue Oyster Company. While the name is brand new to me, the flavor profile is similar to that of a Beausoleil. Medium brine, earthy body, and a mineral-sweet finish. To complement this profile, Alex put together a super rich and frothy Cardinal Sour, which features Bourbon, Chai-infused Amontillado Sherry, Cranberry Shrub, and Egg White. He called it a “long oyster shooter.” I interpreted it like an oyster dessert. In any case, the sweetness from this oyster played well with the acidity from the cranberry and the creamy texture of the drink made the petite slurp feel more substantial.
Other oysters to pair: Wellfleet (MA), Moonstone (RI), Duxbury (MA), Raspberry Point (PEI).
Matunuck (RI) + Copper Cup No. 4
Finally, Alex brought out one last round of drinks. This was an off-the-menu experimental mix. Copper Cup #4 featured Carrot Juice, Lemon, Cumin, Freshly-pressed Ginger, Aperol, Phenol Cherry, and Absolut Elyx. This cocktail had the same effect on the oysters as the Richard Scarry — it acted like an elegant mignonette substitute. The Matunuck (which we all had a debate about how to pronounce) is a salty little oyster grown out of Potters Pond, RI by Perry Raso. The cumin worked well to dimensionalize the simplicity of the Matunucks.
Other oysters to pair: Katama Bay (MA), Glidden Point (ME), Mystic (CT), Chincoteague (VA).
Last but not least, I asked to sample a couple Patriot Points from Washington. These large (4-5 inch) Pacific oysters were brand new to me. They were very meaty, but had a pleasant mild brininess, silky vegetal notes, and fresh, grassy finish. Although I’m not sure where they’re grown yet (if you know, please leave a comment), they taste cleaner and lighter than other West Coast oysters. So despite their big size, which would suggest a bigger flavor, Patriot Points strike a good balance.
This little experiment proved to be quite successful, as I was able to gain more knowledge about liquor, cocktails, and how good cocktail pairings worked in general. All four cocktails used different combinations of liquors (Gin, Bourbon, Mezcal, Vodka, etc) and a spectrum of other ingredients — some familiar, mostly new. My biggest takeaway here is that a cocktail with acidity and spice does a great job of mimicking what mignonette does as an accoutrement for oysters.
How to Pair Oysters & Cocktails at The Leadbelly
- Ask your mixologist or server for a recommendation and provide your oyster and booze preferences.
- Order at least two of each type of oyster (or better yet, a dozen of a kind). Try one without the cocktail (or cocktail sauce, for that matter) and then try the others followed by a sip of your drink.
- Don’t be afraid to mix and match the oysters with the booze! It’s all about experimenting.
What’s next? I’d like to explore more cocktail pairings with West Coast oysters… I’m not 100% convinced yet if that works or not. Perhaps a sake-based cocktail would do well here.
Many thanks to the team at The Leadbelly for hosting this tasting and I hope to return again soon!
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Recipe provided by Alex McNeely
- 1 1/2 oz Barr Hill Gin
- 3/8 oz Velvet Falernum
- 3/8 oz Allspice Dram
- 3/8 oz Grapefruit Juice
- 3/8 oz Lime Juice
- 1/8 oz Letherbee’s Malört (Bësk)
- 1/2 oz Housemade Apple-Tarragon Syrup*
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
- Combine all ingredients (except the bitters) in cocktail shaker, light shake to temperature, serve over crushed ice in a cool copper mug
- Garnish with a crisp apple fan soaked in bitters and honey, grated lime zest
For construction sake, the lime juice/grapefruit juice and Allspice Dram/Velvet Falernum can be pre-mixed.
In this case, recipe would call for 3/4 oz of each mixture.
- On stove, heat up 1 gallon of apple cider to boil
- Bring down to a light simmer, stirring occasionally
- Reduce to 1/3 original volume
- Stir in 1 cup of roughly chopped fresh tarragon and remove from heat
- Let sit for two hours, fine strain the Tarragon.