Whisky from Skye and West Mersea oysters – a marriage made in heaven

21 Feb

What’s a fine single malt from Scotland’s west coast doing in an Essex oyster shed? Attempting to prove to connoisseurs, in a suitably wild seaside setting, that it  makes a fine partner to the natives and rock oysters of West Mersea, from whose beds many of London’s top chefs source their bivalves.

The Wanderers, long-time oyster fiends, didn’t need much tempting down to The Company Shed, the seafood caff run by seventh-generation oyster man Richard Haward, especially when the invitation came from Talisker.   This house is a star turn of the Whisky Coast, the route through Scotland’s Highland and Island distilleries which conveniently parallels that region’s delightful seafood trail.

We fell in love with seafood on Skye at the now legendary Three Chimneys long before we ever tasted the Talisker, which has been distilled in handsome pot stills in picturesque white buildings on a wild cove for some 170 years.   And when we finally got to tour the distillery and write it up a couple of years ago, it was on a day we had to rush for a plane on the mainland and couldn’t stop to taste.

As the man from Talisker was setting up a range of bottles to put that right this week, we were diving head-first into the oysters.    The fat rocks, with a pure, clean taste of the ocean, were divine, but this is the season for the much rarer natives, whose creamy flesh and delicate flavour were not to be sullied with the shallot vinegar or Tabasco set out on the tasting table.  Haward doesn’t rate these commonplace condiments either(though the locals won’t touch oysters without Tabasco in New Orleans) – he barely approves of a squeeze of lemon!

After we had had our fill, and also sampled superb scallops tossed briefly in butter infused with lemon zest by celebrity chef Valentine Warner,  we took to the Talisker.  The range of four bottles could not have been more diverse, the basic 10-year-old exhibiting that peaty, smoky flavour associated with malts from the islands, particularly Islay.    Like all Talisker, it was a beautiful, bright gold, but the peat and smoke seemed almost absent in the 18-year-old, which is twice the price;  more elegant, perhaps, but less distinctive in character.   For me at least, the 57 North, named both for the latitude of its origins and its alcohol by volume strength, and priced mid-way between the first two, was the best of both worlds – less aggressive than the younger whisky with more personality than its older sister.  Much smoother, too, than you’d expect for a spirit of this strength.

Warner fed us crab gratin and roe deer in a rich jus with baby carrots and beetroot to soak up the alcohol.   Then came the huge, sweet treat of Montebianco – a sweetened chestnut puree – infused with Talisker, covered in crackling caramel and served with plenty of whipped cream on the side.   Delicious, but it’s the memories of those raw oysters and barely-cooked scallops, both tasting of lemon-scented ocean, which will resonate with us for years, and it’s interesting to know whisky expert Dr. Nicholas Morgan finds oyster notes in the nose of the Talisker too.

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