Also known as “Floating Gold” and Whale vomit, Ambergris is one of the rarest & most precious gifts of Nature. Coveted since ancient times for it’s value in perfumery, incense making and traditional medicine. Considered an aphrodisiac since time immemorial, it fetches Astronomical prices for those lucky enough to find it washed up on beaches around the world.
Ambergris is a waxy material similar in chemical structure to cholesterol that collects in the stomach of the Sperm Whale, (Physeter macrocephalus). Produced in its bile duct, it coats irritants and indigestible objects and prepares them for safe evacuation. Theories vary as to which end of the whale they find egress.
Till recently these indigestables were limited to Squid beaks and other natural inclusions of an oceanic diet. Now, however, one finds a variety of foreign objects collected in whale digestive tracts and wrapped up in Ambergris.
Ocean Gold in the age of plastic
A recent purchase of 2 lumps disclosed layers of plastic bags tightly wrapped in Ambergris pointing a finger at the deteriorating state of our oceans. A reminder for us to forgo the use of plastic whenever possible.
A unique perfume ingredient
In perfume, Ambergris is used as a fragrance material and a fixative, lending marine, animalic and Musk notes to perfumes while slowing down the evaporation of more fleeting fragrances. Like other animal sourced perfume ingredients, it adds a dimension that is difficult for synthetic and botanical aromatics to deliver on their own.
Oddly, the magic and transformative power of Ambergris in perfume lies not in the strength of its aroma or olfactory contribution. Liminal, as if anchored in the intangible interstices of scent and senses, it rounds out and pulls together a bouquet from underneath while adding depth, tenacity and a unique dimension to compositions by means of a mechanism that is not well understood.
As an incense material
Ambergris is traditionally burned as incense though the odor is not to everyone’s taste. Conversely, it can be blended into a compound incense directly or in the form of a tincture which will disperse through the material prior to the alcohol evaporating.
In Gourmand food
Historically, Ambergris has been used to flavour egg dishes, wild game, ice cream, tea, coffee and liquers. In Morocco, a small piece of is adhered to the inside of the tea pot lid where it imbues the infusion for a lengthy period with it’s unique fragrance. In Turkey, it is boiled in the traditional Turkish coffee as an aphrodisiac, to bolster the libido and male constitution.
Used for centuries in Unani and Ayurveda systems of medicine, Ambergris has a traditional role as an Aphrodisiac and is used in formulas that treat sexual debility, premature ejaculation and in tonic formulas for the heart, liver, brain and kidneys.
Different types of Ambergris
Though Ambergris is found in many shades, sizes and shapes, it can be generally divided into 3 types, grey, gold and brown/black.
The lighter coloured material often has a dry marine odour, with hints of Tobacco and ocean breeze. It has a light, clean and crisp fragrance.
The gold can have a soft, dry, Amber scent with Oak and Tobacco couched in Petrichor, (the scent of earth when it rains). It has a brisk marine note and a pleasant, soft animalic musk. It often has a gold colour with black striations.
The Brown material borders on black, and is a bit softer/stickier than the other types. It has a strong, dark, earthy scent and a musk-like animalic note layered over wet-cured tobacco and the scent of the ocean.
Aromatically, the 3 types range in intensity of scent with Grey being the lightest and Brown/Black having the most intense, or strongest fragrance, The Gold material sits between them in intensity of aroma.
Tinctures for perfume
They are all suited to tincturing in alcohol and extracting in oil, though I find the Gold and the Brown material really shine as oils.
An alcoholic tincture brings out different notes than an oil infusion and highlights the Tobacco and marine notes present in the material.
An oil infusion creates a product with more of the animalic and musk notes. Smelling it makes my heart skip every time.
In perfume, Ambergris is used at very low proportions, often dissolved at 1% in high proof alcohol. Only a small amount of this tincture is needed to lend a perfume blend a unique edge.
To prepare a tincture of Ambergris
Usually made in concentration of 1% to 5%, a 1% tincture of Ambergris is prepared in the ratio of 1 gram of Ambergris crushed or powdered in 99 parts 94%-96% ethanol. It can be initially warmed in the water-bath to speed up dissolution of the material in the alcohol. When powdered, heating to 40 degrees Centigrade for 15 minutes is usually enough. Kept in a sealed glass jar in a warm place, the scent of this liquid will evolve for 6 or more months. A 3% tincture is made with 3 grams Ambergris and 97 parts alcohol, a 10% tincture with 10 parts ambergris and 90 parts alcohol etc. 6 months is the standard maceration time for Ambergris tincture. Once the liquid is ready, it can be filtered through paper, bottled and kept in a cool dark place until needed. The tincture can be gently evaporated in a shallow cloth-covered dish at room temperature to create an absolute/resinoid. This product is a clean and concentrated form of the material and blends easily with essential oils and alcohol. When used, there is no need to filter the product.
To prepare an oil of Ambergris
An oil of Ambergris is prepared in much the same way as an alcohol tincture. Fractionated Coconut or Jojoba oil are used since they are stable and have an indefinite shelf life. Gently warming in a water-bath facilitates breakdown of the material in the oil and a 6 month maceration yields good results.
When the infusion is ready to be decanted it is allowed to sediment then vacuum filtered through paper and bottled for use. Though it can be gravity filtered through a paper coffee filter, it is time consuming.
Preparing an Ambergris “Attar”
What is sometimes called an “Attar” is produced by macerating Ambergris in an essential oil such as Sandalwood, Rose, Oud, Frankincense or another stable aromatic liquid. Amyris, Copaiba, Gurjun, and other essential oils that age well can be experimented with. These can be used as standalone concentrated perfumes or as ingredients and fixatives in perfume blends. The process is identical to preparing an oil infusion and up to 10% Ambergris is a good general guideline depending on the essential oil and type of Ambergris used. The term Attar is used loosely here, and traditionally refers to the product created by distilling one aromatic plant material into the essential oil of another. Here we take aromatic license to include infusions of animalic aromatics in essential oil since the animalics cannot be distilled. Theoretically it is possible to distil an essential oil such as Sandalwood into an oil infusion/extract of Ambergris but it too would be stretching the term.
Finding so much plastic in Ambergris has prompted me to rethink my shop packaging choices. We are now transitioning from plastic Bubble bags to recycled corrugated cardboard packaging and hope to shift to recycled paper mailers later this year.