A Whale of a Cocktail Ingredient

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You know how sometimes the most obvious joke is that last one you want to tell? I really wanted to avoid writing about ambergris in cocktails and punches—a current micro-trend in bartending—for this very reason. Ambergris is clotted whale cholesterol excreted by sperm whales. Despite the fact that we, as humans, eat just about every organ represented in nature—and so many substances from said organs—it really does sound, well, gross. And a few small quips about "excretions" and "sperm whales" can become a torrent of sophomoric humor in the wrong crowd. So why risk the snickers and sneers?

Ambergris has been used in food, perfumes, and punches, but it garnered early attention as a curative used by medieval physicians. Historian Paul Freedman writes that "Ambergris was considered the sovereign preventative drug against the plague." However, just like juniper brandy (gin), which was also considered a curative for the Black Death, it didn't work. And there were plenty of good uses apart from the intended one that led it to be a highly sought-after ingredient, but none more compelling than its pungent, sea-drenched, musky aroma, which can be described as nothing less than "umami" of the nose.

With the steam from the hot beverage, the aroma of the ambergris wafted, and even those who initially shunned an extra cut eventually added it.

I added a small, pea-like nugget of the substance to a hot Negus I served this New Year's Eve at the Columbia Room. I was initially spurred by pioneering ambergris user and drinks historian David Wondrich's latest tome of pre-cocktailian compounding, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, along with some cajoling from former cocktail blogger Damon Fodge. After adding the small amount directly shaved in the punch, I then offered guests an extra shave of ambergris on top of the Negus. The comparison to truffles is obvious, although pound for pound ambergris is more expensive. With the steam from the hot beverage, the aroma of the ambergris wafted, and even those who initially shunned an extra cut eventually added it after tasting their date's cup or sniffing a neighbor's. It really is a compelling smell and it's no wonder why it has been part of perfumery.

Now before you call the Sea Sheppard on my bar, please consider that no whales are killed in the making of ambergis. As Wondrich writes, "Ambergris is... secreted in large lumps that float around until they wash ashore." In other words, it's beached sans whale. Once ashore, some lucky beachcomber finds the sea nugget—lucky, because ambergris costs a small fortune. This, of course, also makes the supply somewhat uncertain. You can get it by ordering it from New Zealand. Here is the recipe I used for an Excellent Negus from William Terrington's Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks:

Recipe: Excellent Negus

    • 1 bottle Port (tawny or vintage for best results)
    • 2 ½ pints distilled water
    • juice of 1 lemon (I used Meyer lemons, and it was a good call)
    • 1 lemon peel rubbed off on caster sugar
    • grated nutmeg and sugar to taste
    • shave pea-sized chunk of ambergris or create a tincture of ambergris for extended use and easier storage (recipe below)

Mix ingredients. Serve warm.

Recipe: Tincture of Ambergris

Grate 5 grams of Ambergris (please keep in mind that this is approximately $125 worth of ambergris and you can make it weaker if you want). Add to 1 cup overproof spirit (more than 50 percent alcohol by volume). Put the ingredients in a secure jar and seal tightly.

Store the jar out in the open (in a window sill, warm and exposed to light is ideal) for one month. Agitate daily. Decant the clear portion and filter if necessary.

Presented by

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

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