Whale watch: Ambergris surfaces at Billy Sunday | Bleader

Whale watch: Ambergris surfaces at Billy Sunday


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I've been on ambergris alert ever since I started researching its fascinating history last year for Key Ingredient, so I was excited to see that it was being featured in a cocktail at Billy Sunday after Mike Sula included it in a bar-guide feature last month.

In case you're not familiar with ambergris, it's a solid, waxy substance produced in the digestive systems of sperm whales that's been used in perfume for centuries. It's often called whale vomit, but scientists believe that it usually comes out of the other end of the whale (though no one's sure). After floating in the ocean for months or years, chunks of ambergris take on a sweet aroma and eventually wash up onshore to be fought over by beachcombers.

This isn't the first time it's been served in a cocktail in Chicago: Craig Schoettler made a tincture with ambergris that he used at the Aviary (he's since moved over to Drumbar). He challenged Charles Joly with it for Key Ingredient, and Joly, unable to obtain food-grade ambergris, decided to heat ambergris extract so that the aroma would enhance the cocktail he made (Manatee Musk Punsch, the name a reference to legend that sailors would mistake manatees for mermaids).

The cocktail at Billy Sunday is called, simply, "Cocktail." When I asked about the name the bartender explained that originally cocktails were just spirits, sugar, water, and bitters, and that's essentially what this is. Plus ambergris, of course. The ingredients listed on the menu are malted rye, Spanish brandy, ambergris-laced palm sugar, water, and North Bay bitters. Like Schoettler, Billy Sunday head honcho Alex Bachman makes a tincture with the ambergris, which is what's combined with the palm sugar.

The cocktail is excellent, boozy but well-balanced; the flavor—or maybe it's more of a scent—of ambergris subtle, slightly floral. Not only does it not dominate the drink, it's hard to even pick out—but I suspect that's for the best. The drink seems somehow more than the sum of its parts, and it's possible that the ambergris is at least partly responsible for that.

I'd order it again, but my favorite between the two cocktails I tried last night was the lightly spiced, not-too-sweet old-fashioned, served with a giant sphere of an ice cube nearly the size of the glass. The bartender called it "killer" when he recommended it to me, and he wasn't wrong. If I'd had one more, it would have been an even more apt description.

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.

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