Yesterday, I was re-reading Moby Dick, which is something I often do on Tuesdays . . . not at all. I’ve never read Moby Dick. I tried once, but I didn’t last 100 pages. I did, however, stumble across a snippet of Moby Dick yesterday, having to do with ambergris and wine. So, what the heck is ambergris?
Ishmael, Moby Dick’s narrator and protagonist, describes ambergris thusly (it’s not every day you get to use the word thusly):
Call me crazy, but whale poop (however highly fragrant and spicy), doesn’t sound like something I’d want to put in my wine.
Technically, ambergris is not whale poop. It’s more like a whale goop. Some folks say ambergris is actually whale vomit, but scientists know ambergris passes through the intestinal tract of the sperm whale, which makes it, well, not whale vomit. Ambergris is a waxy substance (think cholesterol) that forms around undigestible things (like squid beaks) in a whale’s stomach. It accumulates, the whale gets indigestion, and then expels the waxy blob into the ocean.
Fresh ambergris is black in color, and highly un-desirable, because it smells just like what you’d think whale poop smells like. Ambergris needs to age in the ocean, decomposing and oxidizing before it turns a whitish-amber color, and becomes a very valuable commodity.
According to Scientific American, aged ambergris
exudes a sweet, earthy aroma likened to tobacco, pine or mulch. The quality—and value—of any given chunk depend on how much time it spent floating or otherwise aging, says expert ambergris broker Bernard Perrin, because [ambergris] “ages like fine wine.”
Depending on its age, if you find a five-pound lump of ambergris on the beach this summer, you could be $50,000+ richer.
The ancient Chinese called ambergris dragon’s drool, and it’s still sold in some corners of China as an aphrodisiac and spice. The Greeks were fond of smelling ambergris before drinking wine — they were convinced it intensified the alcoholic effects of wine. Or they’d just sprinkle it directly into the wine. During the Black Death in Europe, people carried around chunks of ambergris in their pockets to ward off disease (worked like a charm, huh?). High-end perfumeries in Europe and Asia use it to help fix perfumes to skin (it’s illegal to use ambergris in the US because of the sperm whale’s endangered status). But, if you wear Chanel No. 5 or Givenchy’s Amarige, you’re wearing ambergris.
So . . . the next time you’re sharing a bottle of old claret with friends, you can impress the room and say something fancy like, “I’m definitely picking up some subtle notes of aged ambergris, aren’t you?”