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.