Most shellfish lovers will agree that oysters are better shared, but I’d add that they’re also better paired.
The rumor got out that a very talented bartender in Charleston was working on an oyster shooter cocktail book. Like most people, when I picture an oyster shooter, I singularly revert to a Bloody Mary shot or any variation with a tomato base. The oyster is usually dropped inside the shot and taken in one gulp, which is often a tough one to swallow and in most cases, it gives no real honor to the oyster. However, after meeting Vin, my perspective on the definition and potential of an oyster shooter has been forever changed.
Meet Vince Lendacki, the Bar Manager at Amen Street in Charleston, South Carolina. He may still rock a flip phone, but he’s one of the most imaginative and creative mixologists you’ll ever meet. He’s famous for Amen Street’s “Loquation” – a rum drink infused with loquats, which are little orange plums indigenous to Asia, but with a very historical reference to colonial Charleston. Regional, fresh, and unique ingredients are Vince’s MO.
Vince recounted for me. “I asked myself, what’s cool? What’s local? We’re on the touristy side of town, what says ‘Charleston’? One day I was walking down the street and found a loquat tree. That was it.”
Loquats can be tart or sweet, depending when you pick them, and like a cross between peach and apricot – perfect for cocktail infusion. He even pitched his idea for a loquat beer to Charleston’s Revelry Brewing, got the gig, and came up with 200 pounds of them in just 5 days. Sounds like a mighty foraging effort, but worth it for the end brew, a.k.a., “Broquat IPA.”
Hailing from Southern Jersey, Vince was born into the world of food and drink from day one – and by day one I mean a big Italian family who believed there was always enough food for more visitors on the holidays. He found a passion for the hospitality industry from childhood travels and recalls an “ah-ha” moment as a kid after a stay at a super hip hotel. That excitement carried through to college, where he moved to Charleston to pursue his degree in Hospitality and Tourism. “Since then, it’s been really fun and silly,” said Vince. Fun and silly? Talk about life goals.
Vince and I spoke about growing up with seafood, but aside from his family’s rendition of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve, learning about oysters came when he got behind the bar. “I didn’t learn to shuck an oyster until I had to,” he explained. “What I know now is all from running a raw bar.”
He had worked in restaurants since high school but gained truly impactful restaurant experience working at a Thai restaurant, which gave him the opportunity to eventually get behind a bar. He moved up quickly from wait staff to management, but soon found bartending was more fulfilling, and he took a bar manager job on the opposite side of town. At Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, he was given free rein to be innovative, and pursue more of his creativity.
“Some of my ideas were crazy but they were working,” Vince recalled. He’s learned a lot from keeping an open mind, experimenting, and finding opportunities to incorporate new ingredients.
“When reps come and sell something, I try and taste everything and really take the time. I genuinely do WANT to help them out.” The willingness to try new things has given him a lot of inspiration and led him to where he is today. Besides, inventing shooters with the new products reps pitch to sell is a win-win.
Vince has now made a name for himself when it comes to shooters – always timely, always epic, and always delicious.
Oyster Shooters – How it Started
Vince’s pursuit creating new oyster shooters began about three years ago. When Vince returned home for the holidays, his parents pointed him to a small oyster shooter feature in a magazine. He attempted the different style of oyster shooter, and it became a huge hit at Christmas. Back in Charleston, he began exploring different ways to do more than just the classic Bloody Mary oyster shooters at Amen Street.
“Every Christmas since then has yielded a new shooter for the fam, usually something I really liked during that year that I deemed worthy,” said Vince.
Vince and I talked about a quote that we mutually love about oysters: “For most oyster lovers, the goal isn’t to find the ‘best’ oyster – it is to delight in the variations that nature has provided.” Vince began to explore oyster shooters in the same way, delighting in their endless possibilities.
That year, Vince decided to do a new shooter… “Then I came back the next week to do another, and another, and so on and so forth until it was March and I did 12 in row. Then wanted to see how far I could make it.”
Months passed by and he was doing a new shooter every week. It was going so well that he decided to make it a marathon until the end of the year, providing him a nice round number of 50 shooters. He’s up to 86 shooters if you include ones he’s done for fun (non-menu specials) but he plans to narrow it down to his very best for the book.
While taking with Vince, I admitted that I’m not imaginative enough to picture too many oyster shooter variations, but Vince shared with me that, “an ‘oyster shot’ doesn’t mean that the oyster has to be in the shot glass as part of one big gulp. It can be served on the side, or on top, which gives more creative liberty to see the oyster as a pairing in the experience.”
The Source of Inspiration
Vince’s process for coming up with ideas is like a playful stream of consciousness. With every shooter, Vince has an entire evolution of how he made the connections. He then matches his new creations with an equally delicious pun or timely catchphrase. He mentioned that TV and movies are always a great way of pulling ideas together.
For example, during The Force Awakens Star Wars movie release, he created the Dark and Storm Trooper, which was an oyster topped with lime mignonette, chased with fresh ginger beer, dark rum, and little bit of sugar – essentially a deconstructed Dark and Stormy. “Everyone was so hyped for it,” Vince laughed.
Another past fan favorite: The Dire Wolff. One year, as the anticipation for the next Game of Thrones season was high, Vince made a grapefruit mignonette and substituted the traditional sparkling rosé ingredient with the pleasantly dry Wolffer Cider from New York, and people “geeked out.” Artisanal ciders were on-trend at the time. One guy reading the menu, sat up and smacked his hand on the bar and yelled “GAME OF THRONES!” Charleston’s many bachelorette parties passing through raved about it as well.
Halloween is always a huge hit. Another shooter success story was based off the movie, Hocus Pocus. Vince made sure to remind me that, “it was Sarah Jessica Parker’s best role of all time!” He wanted a shooter that looked so bad but tasted so good. Vince explained his thought process:
“In the movie, they were making the potion to suck the lives out of all the children of Salem, and a dead man’s toe was a main ingredient. At the time, our Chef was working on a special for Burger Week, and I walked into the kitchen to find this tub of brown goop, which turned out to be apple bacon jam. It was going to be used for a delicious burger topped with that jam, arugula, blue cheese and fried peppers. I thought to myself – that’s totally it. I’ve wanted to do a ‘Dead Man’s Toe’ shot for years! So, I put a blob of the jam and a crumble of blue cheese ON the oyster, and paired it with ‘Wake Up Dead’ Russian Imperial Stout. The way to best describe it, though, was an oyster, topped with apple bacon toe jam, stinky blue foot cheese, served over a pitch black shot of Wake Up Dead (yeah, all that haha!).”
When I visualized his creation, I cringed, but agreed that it was genius.
Making Shooters Experiential
Vince went on to explain that some of his shooters incorporate other elements. It’s not just about the alcohol and the flavors, but the “total vibe” of the bar.
For example, Charleston is home to the South Eastern Wildlife Expo every year, where tens of thousands of people who are hunters, fishers, boaters, and more come into the city. Every year, they have a “Birds of Prey” exhibition and it’s always on President’s Day weekend.
Vince began to think… “OK, when I’m thinking Presidents and ingredients, I’m thinking Cherry Trees … What is cherry good with? Maybe something oak-like to represent the trees… Whisky. Then I looked up smooth oak forward whiskies and Eagle Rare whiskey (from Buffalo Trace) came up. So, I made a cherry mignonette for the oyster and paired with a shot of Eagle Rare. But THEN I thought… How cool would it be to find the sound of a Bird of Prey in the background with a piercing cry … I found something online called a ‘cinematic eagle screech.’ So, I brought my iPod speaker into the bar and the second they put the shot glass to their lips I played the screeching eagle cry, full blast. All weekend long people freaked out and didn’t know where it came from!” Now THAT’s a vibe.
Oysters as a “Revival Supplement”
One of my favorite shooters Vince described was the Senzu Bean.
Vince asked me if I remembered the cartoon Dragon Ball Z and of course I did. Between that and Sailor Moon, I was a big fan of exported Anime on Cartoon Network.
Vince explained, “in my older years, I got reacquainted with watching it and then I got nerdily into it. People would ask, ‘are you going out?’ and I would be like, nah. I’m cracking a beer and watching Dragon Ball Z instead. The characters would eat a Senzu bean right before they were about to die to revive themselves.” Vince began thinking, “An oyster is bean-like … it’s small. With Senzu beans in the show, I would always hear the loud crunch when they ate it. I thought, maybe it’s like a wasabi pea? Someone online broke all this down – the crunch and consistency of a celery stalk, with fish taste to it.”
I began laughing – yes, of course, the internet would break down the flavor and texture of a fictional bean.
Vince continued, “I was doing crunchy shooters prior to that, and I knew crunchy stuff worked. So, I said, OK, this could be a mignonette of some kind… finely chopped celery, with added scallions, and then maybe a little bit of grated ginger, and a little rice wine vinegar – just to wet it. For something on the oyster, I thought, let’s put a dash of some of the BBQ pork spring roll soy sauce from the then-craft beer bar next door (Ponzu or Hoisin totally works too). That, plus the mignonette with a crushed wasabi pea… and THEN, chase it with sparkling sake.”
My mind was blown. Vince’s thought process was so fun, so creative, and really showed the depth of his crafty approach to new ideas.
A Man v. Food Favorite
The last creation of his that I’ll share is the “East Bay Ashtray” (Amen Street is located on the corner of East Bay Street).
Vince explained, “it’s like a Mexican Ashtray: hot sauce, pepper, and lime, atop an unopened can of Mexican beer, and when you crack it, it all falls in. Loaded Ashtrays have a little splatter of mescal or tequila.
“I wanted to do an easy shooter for the other bartenders to make on the weekend I was away for a bachelor party. We used the Amen Street brand hot sauce, which is top notch, a squeeze of lime, a crack of pepper on the oyster, and a shot of beer. We go through a lot of Miller High Life on our corner of East Bay Street, so it made all the sense. It worked because it was relatively zero prep. I wanted to keep the streak alive, but didn’t want to potentially bog down my bartenders when it was really busy, especially on a Friday.
“One day, Man v. Food star, Adam Richman, was in town and dining with us. He was outside, and my Mom (being my Mom), demanded that I had to bring an oyster shooter to him. I sent him out a Senzu Bean and an orange rosemary Nolet’s gin shooter called ‘No, Let Me Have One,’ but in my head I was thinking, I totally should have made him an Ashtray. So finally, I went back out there with an Ashtray, after all the higher end craft shooters, he was more blown away by that one! I think it was the low and the high concept – start with great and then show you’re not trying to be too crazy.”
I completely agreed with Vince – there’s something about the high class and the low brow coming together that surprises people, like caviar on pizza or truffles on fries. For some reason, the balance entertains!
Preparing for the Book
Finally, we touched on the big plans for the book. Vince is working on breaking things up into different chapters and their base recipes, like mignonettes. He’ll be tweaking that and making combinations.
We talked about how fascinating the stories have been surrounding each shot. Vince admitted that not every shooter had an amazing story, but several had “a rich tapestry of a whole afternoon, hanging out with my beer rep.”
We also discussed visuals involved. Vince is currently debating on photography or possibly artwork.
“We have a lot of artists in the family, so that might be a great option.”
Vince is working on solidifying his shooters and having most of the work done by the end of the year.
“No one is a fan of 2020,” Vince admitted as we talked about release dates. I agreed, but insisted that we would need something positive coming out of this!
Taking a Gin Basil Smash to New Levels
Vince and I wrapped up our conversation with lives during COVID, and I mentioned that my neighbors and I in Boston each have little balconies, and we’ve just started projecting films onto the building next to us for a collective movie night. I mentioned that it would be great to have a signature cocktail for one of the movie nights. Vince began to ask me about the types of alcohol I liked and what I was making. I mentioned Plymouth Gin being a favorite, and that I was doing a lot of basil smash cocktails lately.
“How about this. Make lemon smash shooters with Plymouth. You could do a lemon mignonette to pair with the oysters. Plymouth… That makes me think of Plymouth Rock. The Rock. Dwayne Johnson… Yes! What about a movie with The Rock in it?”
Here I was, witnessing Vince’s mind at work. I texted all of my neighbors about our next viewing. We’re putting “The Long Shot” on the books.
Thank you, Vince, for sharing your story and your passion. I wish you all the best with the book and I look forward to more oyster shooter attempts at home with your guidance. You can follow Vince at @shotsandvin on Instagram and @amenstreet for more exciting developments. Make sure to pop into Amen Street in Charleston on your next visit!
Vin’s Lime Mignonette
What do Key Lime Pies, the Mother Teresa, and Three Amigos have in common? They’re a series of Vin’s shots that all incorporate Vince’s delicious lime mignonette! Check out his iterations below: The Key Lime PI-rate, the Mother Teresa, and The Three Amigos.
How to Make it:
3 oz. fresh squeezed lime
Zest of 1/2 of a lime
2 oz. rice wine vinegar (or even champagne can be substituted)
2 tbsp finely chopped shallots
Mix and chill. Best served atop an oyster same-day. Pair it with a citrusy beer, a daquiri, or a shot of tequila, depending on the day.
What a thing it is to behold such an amazing mind at work. From first hand experience Vince is a shot of fresh air to the oyster would by turning someone so mundane into something so beautiful. This was wonderfully written and can’t wait to hear more!