Charles Joly's Manatee Musk Punsch is redolent of "marine animal excrement."
Charles Joly's Manatee Musk Punsch is redolent of "marine animal excrement." Credit: Andrea Bauer

The Chef: Charles Joly (The Drawing Room)

The Challenger: Craig Schoettler (The Aviary)

The Ingredient: Ambergris

“Ambergris is awesome,” Charles Joly says. “The initial tasting notes of this stuff fresh are marine animal excrement—oddly enough, I’m not real familiar with what that flavor profile or aroma is.”

The solid, waxy substance is produced in the digestive systems of sperm whales; scientists theorize that the indigestible beaks of squid that the whales eat irritate their stomach linings and cause the formation of ambergris. As Joly notes, “it can actually come out either end of them”—ambergris is excreted with the whale’s fecal matter or, if the mass is too big to pass through the intestines, regurgitated.

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

When fresh, ambergris has the fecal scent that Joly refers to—but after months or years of floating in the ocean, exposed to the sun, it hardens and develops a smell that’s usually described as sweet and earthy. It’s traditionally used in perfume, and at various points in history has been believed to ward off the plague and cure almost any ailment imaginable.

Because it’s rare, highly regulated, and thus extremely expensive (it’s almost as valuable as gold), Joly was only able to get ambergris extract, which wasn’t food-grade. Opting not to endanger his health or anyone else’s, he decided to use its aroma to enhance the taste of the cocktail he made rather than actually putting it in the drink. Joly suspended the extract in mineral oil and beeswax, then placed it over a flame. “Then I just kind of sat with the aromas for a while and thought about what spirits and what flavors would go well in a cocktail,” he said.

“I get more warmer tones off of it than alcohol tones. More of that cigar box/leather thing. . . . It’s like that Ron Burgundy mahogany/leather-bound book thing going on in here right now.”

“Ambergris is awesome,” says Charles Joly.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Joly’s first thought was to use an Earl Grey tea for its tannic, dark flavors and the floral notes of the bergamot, adding a honey syrup to complement the aroma of the ambergris. He chose two spirits: Pierre Ferran 1840, a 90-proof cognac, and Kronan Swedish Punsch, a liqueur recently reintroduced to the U.S. by an importer that specializes in arcane liquors. It contains Batavia arrack—an Indonesian spirit distilled from sugarcane and fermented red rice—rum, sugar, and spices. He also added a bit of nutmeg and a twist of lemon peel to “add some brightness to a drink that’s warm and very masculine otherwise.”

Joly called the cocktail Manatee Musk Punsch, both because ambergris was thought to attract mermaids, and because sailors supposedly used to mistake manatees for mermaids. “Have you ever seen a manatee?” Joly asked. “They’re beautiful, majestic creatures of the open waters, but I don’t know if I’d want to share a Motel 6 with one, you know what I mean?”

The aroma of the ambergris and the taste of the cocktail balanced each other out, Joly said. “So much of what we’re tasting is what we’re smelling already . . . there’s kind of a heavy musk base in the aromas coming off the oils here, and we’ve got some floral tones and some complementary warmer tones that all work together. I think it’s a nice match.”

Who’s Next:

Giuseppe Tentori of GT Fish & Oyster and Boka, working with tea tree bee pollen. “It might be on the theme of regurgitated ingredients,” Joly said, noting that it’s pollen mixed with a bee’s digestive enzymes. He’s been mixing it into hot tea at home, but hasn’t figured out what else to do with it yet. “He’s a chef. He can figure it out,” Joly said.

Manatee Musk Punsch

1½ oz Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac

1 oz Kronan Swedish Punsch

3 oz brewed Regal Earl Grey tea

½ oz honey syrup

Ambergris aroma*

Garnish: nutmeg and lemon oil with twist

Combine Pierre Ferrand, Kronan Punsch, tea, and honey syrup in a heated glass and stir to combine. Pour into warmed glass, dust with fresh nutmeg and lemon oil.

Dream of land and the company of a fair mermaid.

*Ambergris aroma: combine ambergris oil with food-grade mineral oil and melted beeswax. Warm over candle to aromatize the area where punch will be consumed.