What Is Ambergris, And What The Hell Is It Doing In My Cocktail Glass?

Billy Sunday, a deservedly popular cocktail bar in Chicago, opened earlier this year to much hype. In fact, so much hype that it made the Details list of top bars in the country before it even opened. Thankfully, it lives up to the hype with some really fascinating and delicious cocktails utilizing house made bitters, syrups, vintage Fernet collection, tonics and other unusual ingredients — including something I had never heard of before: ambergris.

Ambergris comes from sperm whales. From what? It's an intestinal secretion that comes out of, um, either end. From where? Ambergris is a waxy substance that is thought to protect the whale's intestinal tract from sharp shells, beaks or bones that it may have swallowed. Once excreted, it floats along for years, mellowing in the salt water until it finally washes up on shore, forming in rock-like clumps. Those who stumble upon it and are aware of what it is are in luck — ambergris is rare and fetches a hefty price tag. (Last year, an eight year-old boy found a fairly large rock of ambergris, which was valued at more than $60,000.)

The main use for ambergris has always been in the perfume industry, because of its ability to adhere scent to skin. But historically, it has also been used as a flavoring in foods and cocktails. The legality of ambergris is sort of a gray area — sperm whales are a protected endangered species, but ambergris is simply a waste product of the sperm whale that is found on the shore, with no harm done to the animal. Slangin' ambergris is rarely (if ever) prosecuted.

Barman Lee Zaremba at Billy Sunday showed me a small jar containing a couple of pebbles of ambergris. The smell was strong — not like feces or vomit, but an intense aroma of concentrated ocean. (An ocean demi-glace, if you will.) The cocktail it's used in consists of malted rye whiskey, Spanish brandy, ambergris-laced palm sugar and orange bitters, stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass.

Similar to an Old Fashioned, it is boozy, well balanced and delicious. If I hadn't inspected the pure ambergris prior to trying it, I'm not sure I would detect its presence. However, there was definitely a briny essence to the drink. And, though I hate to use the term "mouthfeel," yes, there is something in the drink that makes it just a touch viscous over the tongue. I'm going to peg that on the ambergris, as well.

Billy Sunday

3143 West Logan Blvd.

Chicago, IL 60647


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