When I asked my waiter what exactly the unfamiliar ingredient in my hot chocolate was, he answered with a two-word explanation: “Whale vomit.”
What could have been an oddly-timed jab at the dessert’s creator—or a reference to its consistency—was instead a curt, if slightly inaccurate, description of its defining ingredient: ambergris. Equally one of the most sought-after and controversial ingredients in the world, it's served at the Manhattan restaurant Betony, in very trace amounts in their $9 hot chocolate.
Sweet and dry at the same time, ambergris has a musky quality to it while also being reminiscent of a briny ocean; those who have tasted—or gotten a whiff of—ambergris often resort to non-fragrance terms to describe it. “Shimmery, ambery, jewel-like, warm, luminous, and indescribable,” is how Mandy Aftel puts it in her book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent.
What the waiter at Betony had wrong is a common misconception about ambergris. The hardened, waxy substance is not whale vomit, but could instead be more accurately (and politely) described as a “whale pearl” (or—equally accurate, but not quite as romantic—“whale excrement”).
In the same way an oyster produces a pearl when an irritant, like sand, enters its shell—by enveloping it in smooth layers of nacre (also called mother of pearl)—whales isolate irritants, often the indigestible sharp beaks of the squids they eat, in a waxy coating. The coating keeps the sharp beak from aggravating the whale's stomach as it makes its way through the animal's system and out the other side to become a cetacean pearl.
While it’s putrid when it’s fresh, the buoyant, waxy substance then floats along the surface of the ocean where it’s transformed, over the course of years, by sea and sun and salt into a greyish-white substance known as ambergris, which means “grey amber” in Middle French. Once hardened, ambergris can fetch over $40,000 per kilogram, or over $1,000 per ounce (the largest found weighed half a ton). It can make the casual beachcomber incredibly wealthy—if they know what to look for.
“It’s a part of our Earth and where we come from," food historian Deana Sidney tactfully puts it, though Herman Melville used more straightforward terms in 1851's Moby-Dick:
“Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is...”
While seldom referenced today, ambergris has a rich history. Three thousand years ago, the Chinese called the substance “dragon’s spittle fragrance,” as an explanation for where it might have come from. And until recently, its ability to stabilize scent—that is, to make any smell it touches last for days—was employed in French perfumery. Marie Antoinette wore a scent that contained ambergris and some historians assert that Chanel No. 5’s original formula called for it.
Its medicinal qualities drove demand as much as its scent. According to the 10th-century Muslim trader Ibn Hawqal, the Turks used ambergris to treat male impotence. And eight-hundred years later, Casanova added it to chocolate mousse as an aphrodisiac. It’s also alleged that the English King Charles II died after his favorite breakfast, ambergris and eggs, was poisoned. But ambergris' most famous gastronomic incarnation?
Inspired by the 17th century’s fascination with the healing powers of chocolate, the 19th-century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin added ambergris to his. In Brillat-Savarin's recipe for “Chocolate Ambré,” he implies that ambergris will give energy to whoever consumes it:
All those who… have to work when they might be sleeping, men of wit who feel temporarily deprived of their intellectual powers… let all such men imbibe a half-litre of chocolat ambré, using 60 to 72 grains of amberg per half-kilo, and they will be amazed.
At Betony, they use a diluted oil sourced from an ambergris seller out of Kuwait. Even diluted, the oil’s so strong that they only need to add a small drop to the hot chocolate to bring out the fragrance. “There is really nothing else like it,” Betony’s General Manager Eamon Rockey told me, "it has this maritime quality.”
Which is also the reason Chicago-based cocktail bar Billy Sunday features ambergris in their $35 cocktail, Puka’s Empire (along with three different types of rum served in a frozen pineapple, no less)—to give the drink an oceanic quality. “It smells like a tide pool in your grandmother’s basement," lead bartender Lee Zaremba went so far as to say, "pure ocean with musky books on the shelf—the aromatics can take ahold of an entire room!”
While ambergris is starting to appear in bars, it has yet to find a foothold in contemporary food culture to the same degree it did four-hundred years ago. Ick-factor and expense aside, this may be due to the legality and ethics around sourcing it.
Many ambergris collectors, like Mandy Aftel, who owns a perfumery in California and uses the substance for educational purposes, source it ethically from beaches. Most of this comes from New Zealand (Mandy and Deana both highly recommend the seller Adrienne Beuse), where it’s frequently found washed up on shores, but some ambergris sellers bypass the beaches and head straight for the whale.
To whalers who primarily hunt for meat, the discovery of ambergris is an added incentive, potentially worth thousands of dollars. But the incentive is low: Only about one in every hundred Sperm whales contains ambergris and sourcing it directly from the whale yields a low-quality, cheaper product—the more time the ambergris has had to mature on the ocean, the more it sells for.
But in the United States, even this small incentive is enough to prohibit the possession of ambergris, according to the Endangered Species Act of 1973—though the low number of prosecutions hasn’t done a lot to uphold that ruling. So that ambergris hot chocolate I ordered at Betony? Technically, it’s illegal—though it isn’t likely that they (or I) will face prosecution.
Michael Payne, who works at the National Marine Fisheries Service, told Businessweek in 2012 that it had been over twenty years since he issued a warning for possession of ambergris, and that the FDA recognizes it as “safe.” (Though, as an FDA representative explained to me, this ruling doesn’t necessarily “authorize” its possession.) So under the loophole of tiki drinks, conflicting information, and lack of prosecution, bars continue to sell it, one drop at a time. And this air of illicitness and rarity likely adds to ambergris' appeal.
“Having ambergris for the first time is similar to the experience of having caviar or Champagne,” Eamon said. “It’s so intense and romantic—you’re consuming something from a whale that’s been up and down the ocean, and likely, to a place you’ll never go. It’s all-encompassing.”
Have you ever tried ambergris? Would you ever try ambergris? Tell us in the comments below!