Northern Allure-How to make a high quality tincture of Castoreum

Castoreum, tincture of Castor, dried granules on the right, ground and preserved in alcohol on the left.
English: A European Beaver.
English: A European Beaver. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Since I field questions about the products I sell in the shop, including Beaver Castor with increasing frequency, here are a few thoughts on the subject, and how to best make your own high-quality perfume tincture with it.

Beavers are a familiar animal especially here in Canada. They not only symbolize productivity and industriousness, as in being “Busy as a Beaver”, they are a national symbol of Canada. They appear on our 5 cent coin, originally made from, and called a “Nickel”, forever associating the Beaver with our mining industry and our Nickel mines.

This pairing makes sense when one considers that Beaver dams are perhaps nature’s main line of defence in filtering, de-toxifying, de-acidifying and rehabilitating our waterways, wetlands and watershed. Cleaning up after us.

Beaver dam, northern California, USA
Beaver dam, northern California, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, Beavers are not trapped for their scent glands, but for their waterproof pelts,  and not every trapper will remove them.

Beavers are an important part of native North American legend and European folklore, where “Castor fiber”  the cousin of our North American Castor Canadense, finds its home.

Castor has been used medicinally in native and European traditions of the past. Most notably by the famous Alchemist/doctor Paracelsus as an antipyretic, to reduce fevers,

In Ontario, the trapping of beavers is regulated in an effort to conserve and protect both wildlife and the ecology of our wetlands.  Cruel leg-hold traps that can leave an animal suffering till the trapper does his rounds are illegal.

Beaver pelts have been part of our northern economy for centuries, and were a trading item for indigenous people since time immemorial and well before written history. They still provide a livelihood for professional and aboriginal trappers.

Though it is difficult to portray this busy bucktooth rodent as sexy in any way, Castoreum is one of the most exotic, sensual and sexy fragrance components there is. In the genre of Ambergris, Deer Musk and Civet , Castoreum brings an alluring animalic sensuousness to perfumery that is not reflective of anything obvious in the Beaver.

In traditional perfumery, Beaver Castor is highly valued as a fine and distinguished fragrance ingredient lending warmth, sensuality and endurance to perfume blends for many centuries. The list of popular, familiar and prestigious perfumes that contain Beaver Castoreum is extensive. A simple Google search will reveal many well-known names.

Aged Canadian Beaver Castors with cross section
Aged Canadian Beaver Castors with cross section

The Castor sacs produce a substance that both male and female Beavers use to mark territory and is thought to contain pheromones that act as sexual attractants. Along with 2 adjacent oil-producing glands that provide a waterproofing material for their fur, the Castors are tucked well away, flanking their pelvic area.

Beaver castor has a deep, rich, persistent, leathery, woody, spicy scent. It can often have smokey undertones and hints of the forest trees and mosses. It is used as fixative, a base to middle note in “Masculine” perfumes, and in leather accords which it can produce almost single-handedly.

In North America it is permitted for use in food, where Castor derivatives have been used as flavouring. It’s presence is most noticeable in chewing tobaccos and snuff.

Castoreum has an aromatic affinity with the essential oils of many Northern trees and plants which make up its environment. Birch, Pine, Spruce, Cedar and Fir, Sasafras, Sarsparilla, mosses, ferns and even Wild Ginger  pair in an easy way with the fragrance of Beaver castor. Add to this list Patchouli, Tobacco, Vetiver, Coffee absolute, Jasmine Sambac and other heavier floral scents and we are likely just scratching the surface of promising  Castoreum compatibilities in perfumery.

While the Castor sacs are fresh, they contain a yellowish mobile fluid. This is the product that used to be termed “Castoreum”, though the term has been expanded to include all liquid products made from this substance. Because this liquid scent is fluid, any damage to the thin outer membrane of the fresh sac can lead to a loss of fragrant material. This most often happens during the delicate process of removing the well-hidden sacs and must be done with precision and an experienced hand. Any nicks, tears and cuts, lead to inferior quality sacs which contain less castoreum and fetch a lower price.

  The dried Castor sacs are divided into 3 grades of quality based on their size and condition.

 Grade #1 Beaver Castoreum-Castor sacs-Canada
Grade #1 Beaver Castoreum-Castor sacs-Canada.  After about 6 months and not thoroughly dried.
  • Grade 1 are the largest and plumpest sacs, with no nicks, cuts or loss of contents.
  • Grade 2 are smaller specimens and are flatter with some nicks, cuts and holes.
  • Grade 3 are the smallest sacs made up mostly of undulating layers of tissue that produce the castor and little actual scent material. Most often they have serious cuts through the sac where the liquid scent escaped over time.
    While fresh, the contents or Castoreum is a yellowish goo of a pungent, acrid odor. The process of drying changes the colour and transforms the scent.
Castor sacs Grade1 aged 1year+
Castor sacs Grade1 aged about a year and a half.

In general, Beaver Castors need to dry for one year before they are ready to be used for perfumery. After a year they will continue to age and their scent will soften further with time, both when dry and as a tincture.
If after a year of drying, the plump #1 Castors are not completely dried, they may, at that point, be sliced and exposed to the air to dry further.  Only when completely dry and free of moisture should they be processed for a tincture or absolute.

Instructions for making a tincture of Castoreum.

    • Take-1 part dried and minced Beaver Castors. It can be processed in a blender with a measured amount of alcohol which will be deducted from the total amount of alcohol in the tincture, or simply finely diced with a knife.
    • 10 parts 95% alcohol.    (Some prefer a more dilute tincture and opt for a 1:20 ratio of mark to menstruum, and this is an option. 1:20 will yield a less concentrated and lighter coloured product. If for your own perfume use, this is fine as long as you know the ratio and exactly how much of the original material is in the perfume. Keeping clear notes allows us to duplicate a formula precisely.)
    • Combine the 2 in a wide mouthed airtight jar. Leave headroom in the jar, at least 1/3 of the space above the liquid should stay empty for circulation. (Evaporation and condensation). 1/2 is closer to ideal.
    • Store in a relatively warm place.
    • Shake at least once daily.
    • After 4 to 6 moon cycles, When the menstruum is no longer darkening and the material no longer lightens in colour-
    • Filter your tincture through a fine filtering medium. This could be as simple as pouring it through an unbleached paper coffee filter and the funnel-shaped holder these filters are invariably built for.
    • When all the material, including solids have departed the maceration vessel and the last drips have exited the fiter-
    • Fold over the sides of the paper filter to cover the wet material and press down upon them with the back of a clean spoon or utensil till no more liquid drips down. Take care to press gently but firmly and avoid tearing the wet paper which could allow solids into your already filtered tincture.
    • Leave your jar to sit undisturbed for a few days so fine particles can settle to the bottom.
    •  You can either-Syphon or Pour off the clear liquid and store it in an airtight bottle.
    • Keep in a cool dark place. This will keep for many years and even age and develop in subtleties of scent as time goes by. As it does..
    •   On your vessel of finished tincture, or in your workbook/formulary, (or both), mark down the date your tincture was made and any other particulars pertinent to the tincture, Moon phase,  planetary associations and considerations, how long it sat macerating, ratio of alcohol to castor, where the castors were from, etc.. Don’t leave anything to memory. Take clear notes!!
Castoreum. Tincture of Castor sacs
Castoreum. Tincture of Castor sacs

I personally often skip the filtering process and when the tincture is ready simply let the solids sink to the bottom. When I need some tincture, I gently draw it off the top of the menstruum without disturbing the sediment. This method gives me a clear tincture and allows the material to continue maturing with the menstruum. This may make no difference at all to the finished product, but I enjoy the thought of it continuing to age, develop, and impart itself to the liquid over the years. If I have no pressing need to separate the mark from the menstruum, I usually won’t. Perhaps I suffer from a bit of laziness, or maybe it reflects a subliminal hope that I too will continue to age, mature and develop gracefully with time…

Castor sacs Grade1 aged 1year+, coarsley diced for tincture
Castor sacs Grade #1 aged 1 year+, coarsley diced for further drying and a tincture

Dried Beaver Castor lends itself well to oil based perfumes, and will infuse Jojoba oil with its scent for use in a non-alcoholic perfume. Instructions are identical to those above, just replace the alcohol with an enduring oil such as Jojoba which has a very long shelf life and little odor of its own.

There is a growing number of suppliers online that cater to a growing community of natural perfumers, aromatherapists, apothecaries and small independent perfume houses. Most households have a few favourite essential oils in their medicine cabinets.The market for essential oils and natural fragrance materials is booming. With this growth in the industry, one unfortunately also finds an increase in adulterants and sub-standard products.  Fixed oils are the usual adulterants to essential oils and can be exposed by their reluctance to evaporate from blotting paper, leaving behind an oily residue.  Over time, I have also sniffed some appalling absolutes of both Castor and Civet that obviously contain little if any of these precious materials.

That being said, there is also material of excellent quality to be found, and some very conscientious, usually small scale producers of perfume ingredients. One needs to learn, and develop a sense of discernment which will only come with time and experience.  As a general rule, if the price seems too good to be true, it usually is.

More often than not, paying more for a good quality product is immeasurably better than getting the cheapest essential oil we can find and ending up tainting the quality of our own product with an inferior or adulterated essential oil, absolute or tincture. Bearing this in mind, it is equally true that some larger companies that loudly tout their essential oils as “special”, or “Therapeutic Quality”‘, while charging exorbitant above-market prices for them are often equally guilty of robbery and fraud.

Working with artisan distillers and smaller companies allows us to build a sense of trust and a relationship with the supplier/distiller that can only add to our experience, enhance our ability to discern between excellent and poor quality while making the world a slightly better place. We all need to support the little guys if we want to see a change in our world and break away from impersonal and faceless corporations whom we rightly blame for many of the ills and injustices in our world. We must also keep in mind they are there by our own choice, fulfilling our needs and unless we make different choices, seek to fulfill different needs, little in the world will change.

So, when you find a supplier, merchant, artisan or craftsperson you trust, make sure to show your appreciation, and support them any way you can. The world will not change for the better without them.

And remember,

Always take clear notes!!!

Your future self will thank you.


1 Comment

  1. Hi Dan,
    This article – as with all of your blogs – is filled with incredible insight and resounding wisdom!
    I find myself either continuously and enthusiastically learning from you or concurring with your findings through my own experiments and research. On behalf of all of us who digest your blog and appreciate your sharings, thank you for your generous contributions to the fields (and subfields) of natural perfumery and homeopathy. You truly are an inspiration to those who share your passion for aromatics!

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