I was all excited when I started reading Derek Brown’s post on the Atlantic‘s Drinking blogs about ambergris as a cocktail ingredient until I read this part:
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.
I mean, sure, the punch that the ambergris tincture goes into will serve a number of people, but wow.
Ambergris is, to put it plainly, sun-dried whale vomit. An article in Scientific American a few years ago put it better:
Ambergris originates in the intestines of male sperm whales after they dine on squid, whose hard, pointy beaks abrade the whales’ innards. Scientists believe that the whales protect themselves by secreting a fatty substance in their intestines to surround the beaks. Eventually the animals cast out a huge lump, up to hundreds of pounds at a time.
And, the magazine adds, it isn’t proven that the whales throw it up; it may come out the other end.
Either way, the whale waste floats in the sea, weathers, and hardens. Scientific American again: “The weathered chunks exude a sweet, earthy aroma likened to tobacco, pine or mulch.” Obviously, ambergris has long been used as a fragrance ingredient. Its scent is very long-lasting, and it’s used as a base and a fixative for other notes—at least as far as I understand it. These days, synthetic versions of ambergris are more often used than the real thing.
David Wondrich, author of a new book on punch, used ambergris in a punch he prepared for New York Times writer Frank Bruni last October. When I had the chance to ask Wondrich about it when I met him at an event, he smiled and said he went all out to impress Bruni, and that such exotic ingredients didn’t appear in many of his punches. “The drink tasted of spiked molasses, with some Worcestershire dribbled in, and entranced me,” wrote Bruni. That punch was called the Meriton Latroon’s Bantam Punch, and it’s apparently the oldest recipe in Wondrich’s punch book. He walked through the recipe on NPR.org:
In a mortar or small bowl, muddle a piece of ambergris the size of a grain of barley with an ounce of Indonesian gula jawa or other dark, funky sugar until it has been incorporated. Add 2 ounces Batavia arrack and muddle again until sugar has dissolved. Break up 5 ounces of gula jawa, put it in a two-quart jug with 6 ounces lime juice and muddle together until sugar has dissolved. Add the ambergris-sugar-arrack mixture and stir. Add the remains of the 750-milliliter bottle of Batavia arrack from which you have removed the 2 ounces to mix with the ambergris, stir again, and fi nish with 3 to 4 cups water, according to taste. Grate nutmeg over the top.
Batavia arrack, an Indonesian spirit once used in all sorts of punches, is another novel ingredient. It’s not as rare as it once was: you can get it for about $35 a bottle online through DrinkUpNY.
As Brown noted, you can buy raw ambergris online at ambergris.co.nz, but it costs $25 per gram and the minimum order seems to be four grams. I’m not sure what shipping would be, but it’s coming from New Zealand. If anyone knows where to get a smaller amount of it — or of any bars that serve cocktails with ambergris as an ingredient — let me know.